Congratulations to the Essay Contest winners and their families.
A special thanks to Bill Johnson for re-formatting all essays to a uniform appearance.
FIRST PLACE, $750
ZOE ROBERSON, ANACORTES HIGH SCHOOL
My first discussion about race started directly after I learned about slavery. I didn’t understand why African people were taken from their country to be slaves, and I didn’t understand how slaves were genuinely treated. The only thing the discussion admittedly taught me was that black people were treated differently, which leaked into the white privilege I was already unknowingly acquiring. It is absolutely necessary for white people to talk about race. They need to understand that they live every day with a white perspective, and end every day with a white experience. People of color have to deal with issues in the American society that white people might not have even known about if they had not discussed the topic or learned about it beforehand. Being racist or racially biased, even unintentionally, cannot be reformed without talking about race. Being “color-blind” to race doesn’t work either, considering that it creates a situation where race is being ignored entirely. We are in a country full of different races and cultures, and that should be celebrated and accepted, not avoided.
One of the first steps needed to subjugate racism is to address it. When the topic “race” is brought up, a majority of white people are usually found furtive and defensive, but ignorance is not always key. Emphasizing the importance for white people to attempt to understand the stigma around people of color opens a new door for them to have the capability to sympathize with them. The ability to have the privilege to understand the relevance and significance of racism, culture bias, prejudice, and stereotypes is the next step to quelling it. The earliest step starts at learning. Unfortunately, white children rarely learn about racism through experience, rather they learn about it through stories, textbooks, and teachers which are so utterly biased. Children of color have an utterly different experience, they learn through experiences. It’s a privilege to be taught that racism exists, as opposed to learning by experience.
Arming children with knowledge and discussions about race instead of what biased information they could learn at home would impact American society by disrupting systems of racial bias. Many studies show that children become aware of the differences and similarities between themselves and their peers early on in elementary school and preschool. Creating a space where they can explore and learn about race, and unlearn the racial hierarchy that is inadvertently taught to children, can play an important role in cultivating positive racial identities. This allows the broadened understanding of the systemic nature of racism, and an enhanced ability to identify the inescapable complicity of white people within that system.
Constructing a more unbiased education public policy issue could be a new addition to the public-funded education system; teachers would have an obligation to teach kindergarten through fifth grade about race and other race-related issues. Starting with their own racial identity, and working their way towards injustice and racial inequalities.
Overall, racism can be a rather touchy subject though it shouldn’t be. American society needs to become more accustomed to talking about racism, and everything that surrounds it. Discussions need to be normalized early on in childhood, the white fragility that creates guilt and other uncomfortable reactions about the separation of experiences that each race faces should not be known to newer generations. How will America grow if the problems are not conversed?
SECOND PLACE, $500
SOPHIA GRESCHISKIN, MOUNT VERNON High SCHOOL
White people avoiding discussions about race is a prominent issue in today’s society. Whether it be through home, school, or work, this inability to discuss race leads to ignorance and complacency in white privilege and institutionalized racism, directly harming people of color. In this essay, I will be analyzing this issue and its causes, deconstructing its impact, and reflecting upon how we can change it.
Before we begin, we must understand the significance of institutionalized racism. The Aspen Institute Roundtable, dedicated to addressing institutionalized racism, defines it as “…the ways in which history, public policies, cultural stereotypes and norms, and institutional practices interact to maintain racial hierarchies and inequitable racial group outcomes.” Examples of institutionalized racism can be seen through bank-lending policies (like redlining), housing contracts, misrepresentation or no representation in media, law enforcement policies, political power, and education. Each example of institutionalized racism contributes directly to racial inequities in wage, class, youth incarceration, food security, healthcare access, and environmental justice. (Solid Ground foundation)
Our society treats discussions about race as taboo, contributing directly to these inequities! Firstly, let’s see how white fragility affects conversations about race. ‘White Fragility’ author Robin DiAngelo states in her book that “white fragility is the inability to tolerate racial stress”. This means that the mere idea that as a white person, you walk through life with default privilege is enough for many people to become defensive and uncomfortable. Just think of the hundreds of internet Karens who turn to violence, aggression, or ‘calling the manager’ when dealing with any sort of tension. Not able to cope with the stress that accompanies acknowledging privilege, white people either ignore the subject altogether, or harness their defensiveness as a weapon. Another tactic of avoidance is the phrase ‘I don’t see color’. This term, used to assert the fact that the speaker isn’t prejudiced, completely avoids real conversation around race. Anyone who can see is able to discern between races. The goal is not to be ‘color-blind’ but to abolish our pre-conceived notions about different racial groups. The phrase may have good intentions, but ultimately ignores current racial inequity in systems like school and work.
The impact of neglecting conversations about race is widespread and harmful. If white people do not have these discussions, the effects of institutionalized racism will continue to plague minorities and people of color. Talking about race and admitting privilege may be uncomfortable or scary, but not as uncomfortable as the widespread effects of racism affecting people of color and minorities every day.
In middle school, our required social studies course was American History. In seventh grade, discussing Native American history, we learned about conversion schools through a video presentation. But shortly afterward, we also listened to our non-native teacher explain why he thought it was okay to call Native peoples ‘Indian’. The next year, in eighth grade, I vaguely recall the two-day lesson on slavery before continuing to examine American history through a cis, white, male perspective. This trend of students being fed falsities, getting taught subjects that ignore current issues, and examining issues of racism through white narrative, links directly to the harmful impacts of institutionalized racism and white privilege. My classmates and I didn’t have resources, incentive, or even a realization of the education we lacked. This is why school systems need to take this upon themselves. Of course, we shouldn’t discredit the steps already taken, such as Black history month or the increase of narratives from POC and minorities. However, loose improvements like these provide too many opportunities for insufficient implementation in schools, just like my middle school experience.
The public policy I propose is implementing statewide, concrete, and required courses in school about racism and it’s occurrence in our present society. Instead of only learning through a past tense lense, or sweeping the topic under the rug altogether, we could get students educated on a sorely missed topic. Beginning conversations about race in a safe and impartial environment, as school strives to be, will lead to education and awareness, consequently avoiding each tactic of white avoidance described.
In conclusion, when we ignore conversations about race daily through white fragility and ‘color-blind’ policies, it implements the harmful inequality caused by institutional racism. But by adopting this public policy, we would be taking one large step towards education about current issues, where the effects of institutionalized racism could be realized and questioned, and the avoidance surrounding conversations about race eliminated.
THIRD PLACE, $250
KAYLIN QUATSOE, BURLINGTON-EDISON HIGH SCHOOL
Race is one of those topics where, when it comes up at dinner, your grandpa says, “let’s not talk politics at the table.” But, race shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s minorities stuck in a cycle forced upon them by generations and generations of oppression. Because of the rampant racism in our country, people are scared to walk down the street for fear of getting shot for no reason. Because the people on top, almost exclusively white people, have all the power, and this is on purpose. If these people have all the power, then in their mind, the system isn’t broken. The people on top built the system to give themselves the maximum benefit, so why would they want it to change it? They stay in their own little bubble, and they don’t even realize that people are needlessly struggling. The minorities are only given access to resources that are underfunded and neglected in favor of the rich white neighborhoods. Then when white people succeed the most, they teach their children it’s because of their skin color and being the ‘superior race,’ not because of the opportunities their broken system has provided them over minorities. They got to the top because their ancestors were selfish, not because they are biologically superior.
The cycle of oppression is dehumanizing. It was designed to have white children be implicitly afraid of the black person sitting next to them on the bus. Avoid the “ghetto neighborhoods,” watch out for “those types of people.” The truth is, no one is born a racist. Racism is taught. They aren’t being taught that people of color are just as human as them. In most schools in America curriculums are skipping over the horrific things white people have done to the black community because they are ‘too graphic.’ If it’s too graphic for a student to read in a historical context, then why did black people have to experience it? Was the reason being the color of their skin; are people dying simply because their ancestors lived closer to the equator, giving them more melanin to protect them from the sun? The textbooks tell us that black people were slaves, then we were segregated, then we had the Civil Rights movement and now we’re all one big happy family. They lied. How much have we really progressed as a society? Racism is just as big a problem now as it was 60 years ago.
There is no perfect solution to undo over 400 years of injustice towards people of color, but a reform in the system is one place to start. There are 540 people in our country making at least one billion dollars, way more than one person could ever possibly need. If we taxed those people, we could use that money to create programs that support people under the poverty line, which is primarily people of color. More subsidized housing and higher funding in schools would be provided using this money. Homeless shelters need to be supplied with nutritious food and clothing, with a wide array of sizes so everyone can have clothes. Almost half of the homeless population are black, even though they make up only 13% of the US population.
With these basic needs met, people won’t need to start selling drugs or join gangs just to pay their electric bill or put food in their fridge. All people deserve the basic necessities needed to survive, and if they cannot pay for it, the government should have a system in place to provide these supplies. As well as resources to help them reach a level of financial independence where they no longer need these supplies. If the government will not provide these supplies, they are standing in the way of a person’s right to life and pursuit of happiness. These long-term services may be more expensive upfront, but will eventually be more cost-effective than emergency services that are currently in place. While this is not an immediate or perfect solution, with these changes to society, we can improve the lives of minorities for many generations to come.
Bob Doll, Chair of the Essay Committee