The Resilience of Racism, by Sarah Zemelman

In 1980, I was an adjunct professor at Hastings College of the Law and taught a class called “Representing the Underrepresented,” which was a hands-on class aimed at helping law students know what it takes to help change the world for the better through strategic litigation.

One of my students was Mark Zemelman. I told the students that they would eventually become colleagues and that has proved to be true.  Mark is now General Counsel at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and invited the Equal Justice Society to come work with the legal staff at Kaiser on issues of implicit bias.

His daughter, Sarah Zemelman, came to see me and we had a long talk about race and how she experiences this issue as a young woman being raised in the relatively wealthy Lamorinda suburbs.  I encouraged her to write about her feelings and experiences.  She did. ~ Eva Paterson


“The Resilience of Racism”
Sarah Zemelman, High School Class of 2020
Introduction by Eva Paterson, High School Class of 1967

I am a white, affluent, female teenager who attends a private high school in the Bay Area of California and lives in a secure and secluded neighborhood. Surprisingly, I have to deal with discrimination.

When I was younger, I believed the world was mine. I knew I was intelligent and believed I was capable of anything; and I trusted that the adults in my life and my peers would help me achieve my goals.

My mom helped me prepare to deal with social pressures.  She used to point out images from magazines and billboards to me.

“See that model on the screen?” she would say to me. “There are many girls who believe that they need to look just like her to be successful. But not only is that untrue, it is impossible for most people. The advertising companies deliberately choose people who look a specific way: Most models are at least six feet tall and are so thin that many of them have eating disorders to maintain their figures. Then the models are put under specific lighting, their hair and faces are professionally styled and painted with makeup. Advertisers then photoshop the lights and colors to make her even more perfect.”

When my parents and I would watch a movie, usually a musical from the 1950’s, my mom would point out to me the double standards that existed for female characters. In Singing in the Rain, the message was clear that a woman could be pretty, but not smart, or vice versa; and it was OK for a man to harass a woman if he was a star.

Even before I realized how relevant these stereotypes would be in my own life, I was able to spot them even when I wasn’t looking for them. For example, at the age of six, I turned off Anchors Away because I was disgusted by the way the male protagonists referred to women.

As a preteen and teen, I have a relatively mature and serious presence.  I dress conservatively.  Yet, in these years, I began to realize that I was the subject of stereotyping and discrimination. In some of my STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes, I and the other girls get called on by teachers much less often than boys. When I am walking down the street, I constantly am thinking about my surroundings: Who is around me, what message am I sending them, am I safe?

I am constantly planning ahead for different scenarios: If I get catcalled, what should I say. What, expression should I have on my face? If a man starts following me, where is the nearest place I can run to for safety?

A white boy my age would never have to worry about these issues. He would spend his time thinking about the material while he is in the classroom, unconsciously benefiting from the attention he receives from the teacher. As he walks, he’s going to think about where he is going and what he will do there. On top of this, he will have the extra confidence that comes from believing you are equal, of knowing you will never be treated as less-than.

I began to wonder–if I am constantly cautious wherever I go, looking over my shoulder and spending extra energy evaluating my surroundings, what must life be like for a person of color?

By truly understanding my experiences with sexism and how they affected and continue to affect me, I have begun to develop the ability to understand and empathize with the experiences of others regarding prejudice, especially racial prejudice.

In this article, I will describe some of the experiences that helped me understand the prejudices that women constantly encounter and how this has led me to a broader understanding of prejudices of all forms. Bear in mind that, as a white person, I will never be able to fully empathize with the experiences of minorities; but, through conversation and constant listening, I can try.

Science

At a prior school, halfway through the first quarter of the year, I realized that girls were not participating as much as boys in my science class. Through careful observation, I found that the teacher was calling on boys significantly more often than he was calling on girls. As I observed the dynamics of the class more closely, I concluded that the seating arrangement was much of the problem. The students had divided themselves on opposite sides of the classroom based on gender. The teacher tended to face the boy’s half of the classroom most of the time.

I decided to move to the “boy’s half” of the classroom. I received more attention from the teacher and understood the lessons better, but was rarely called on.

So the issue was not just the seating arrangements. It was gender. Instead of being viewed as an individual who loves (and is quite good at) science, the teacher apparently felt that I was just a member of a group that is not as proficient in science.

Similarly, minority students in the school told me that white students made assumptions about their individual characteristics based on stereotypes about their race, rather than valuing them for their uniqueness and individual qualities.

2016 Presidential Election

The presidential election of 2016 has a continuing impact on my friends and me. Before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, the conversations I had with students and friends about race were few and far between. Since the election, many conversations have focused on the aggravation of racial issues in the country–and at my school.

Fatimah is one of my closest school friends. For most of her high school career, she was the only hijab-wearing female Muslim in the school. Before the election, she told me that, since she wore a hijab, she could not walk into Starbucks without being stared at. Immediately following the election, her fear of harm to herself and her family spiked dramatically.

Earlier this year she chose to stop wearing her hijab, not out of fear or a change of religious identity, but because she felt it no longer defined her. “I’m still Muslim. I just don’t need to wear a scarf to prove it,” she told me. Her decision was well thought through and her family supported her every step of the way.

Fatima has taught me much about her experience as a religious minority and person of color in the United States, with and without a hijab. Hostility did not begin with Trump’s inauguration. When she was in eighth grade, a student began ranting to her about how immigrants were ruining the economy and committing crimes, and should be sent back to where they came from.  Following the election, she has had people say that they respect her yet agree with Trump on immigration. This is aggravating to her: “You can’t say that you respect me and support me as a human being while you support someone who wants to close my place of worship, put me on a registry, and deport myself and my family,” she said.

After the election, the Dean of Equity and Inclusion reached out to Fatimah, asking her to speak about her experiences at our school. She admitted that she was not thrilled: “I shouldn’t have to argue for the right to be treated as human.” She did not want to deal with backlash, which she knew to expect from some students.

After the election, the Black Student Union called for a meeting to which everyone, including teachers, was invited to a discussion with the dean about how the school should handle the reactions of the student population to the current political situation. Countless students talked about their concerns regarding gender, race, and sexuality.

One of the most moving statements was made by an African-American student and personal hero of mine. She was the leader of the Gay-Straight Alliance club at our school, someone that everyone, freshmen and seniors alike, respected and looked to for guidance and inspiration. She said that after the election, people expected her to draw energy from the result of the election and fight for civil rights, as she had always done in the past. “You know what?” she said. “I’m tired. All my life I have fought to be Black, I have fought to be a woman. And I’m tired.” It was that statement that made me, as a white person, realize that the fight for equality belonged to all of us.

It is difficult to see racial prejudices if you are not on the receiving end. Being white, I have never, and will never, be subject to racism. I cannot stress enough, therefore, how important conversation is. Racism, though experienced every day by countless people, is easily overlooked by those who do not know how it feels.

Cat-Calls at School

When I was in eighth grade at a school retreat, I came across a group of teenage boys who were all a few years older than I was. I was walking through their group, and as I passed, I heard a voice snicker behind me, “Hey, girl.” A few other voices joined the call, transitioning from “greetings” to comments about my appearance. I ducked my head and walked as quickly as possible to my friends across the field.

For the next three days, I turned the incident over in my mind. I wondered if I had acted appropriately. Should I have stood up to them rather than lowering my eyes and running away? Should I have let an adult know?

I did not realize the impact of comments until I came home at the end of the week. My mom was waiting for me in front of the school gate. I ran over to her and began telling her about all that had happened: the friends I had made, the tree I had jumped out of, the failed prank we tried to pull on another cabin. In the excitement of the week, I almost forgot about the cat-calling. It was not until I stopped to catch my breath that I remembered. I looked at my mom and said, “Oh, yeah. At one point, I was trying to cut through a group of high school boys, and one of them said ‘hey, girl,’ and–”

I could not finish. I started crying. I did not realize how upset I had been until I spoke about it out loud.

I had known for some time in the back of my mind that I would probably have to deal with catcalling in the near future, but I did not expect it to happen during a middle school field trip. Though I knew the name calling had nothing to do with me personally and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, it still hurt.

Thinking back, what upsets me the most is that I was expecting to be cat-called in the next few years. No one, especially not a child, should ever feel that they need to prepare to be sexually harassed. Yet I knew at the time that what happened to me was something to be expected. Today, I still prepare for future encounters. The gender equity club at my school holds role-plays to teach girls how to react to situations involving sexual harassment and assault. Unfortunately those role-plays and preparation classes should be available to every girl because harassment is a reality.

These expectations are not limited to girls. I have heard from my friends of color about how, at a very young age, their parents sat them down and gave them “the talk” – a conversation about how they will always be underestimated and under suspicion because of the color of their skin.

At lunch one day, a friend asked the kids at the table, “What was the first rule that you remember learning from your parents?” I answered, “Don’t put a fork in the toaster.” An African-American girl said, “Don’t call the police.”

I know from being a woman that it is difficult to walk the streets of San Francisco without worrying. I had my bitch-face practiced to perfection by the time I was in sixth grade. But I do not know what it is like to be followed home by a police car or to feel fear when I hear sirens behind me. Fundamentally, I know that the police are there to protect me. The first number my parents taught me was 9-1-1.

“You’re a dirty whore, you know that?”

Earlier this year, I was working on my computer during theatre practice, waiting for my que. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see two students bickering, a girl and a boy, but did not think much of it until I heard the boy say, “You’re a dirty whore, you know that?” The girl stomped out of the room. I looked up to protest when I realized I was in a room with a half a dozen male students, all of them a few years older than I was, all of them laughing as if calling a girl a “dirty whore” was a joke. I quickly closed my computer and hurried out of the room, ashamed that I had acted as a bystander; concerned for the girl who was obviously hurt by the comment; and hurt that demeaning language was accepted among the boys.

Coincidently, two family friends were over for dinner, and Mom suggested that we talk over the situation with them. One of our friends, Aria, told me a story about his own experience at work. A white colleague would routinely make sexist comments, some of them involving violence. Aria became so distressed that he went to talk with the person in charge of the workplace, also finding a friend to back him up. The contract of the misogynist was not renewed, and he is no longer a part of the company. When I asked whether I should tell a teacher about the kid in drama class, Aria advised: “Go for it, because you will have to fight against this for the rest of your life.” I did so.

Gender and Race in Media

When I was in the seventh grade, my dad introduced to me the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. I spent several hours on Geena Davis’s website, learning about how women are underrepresented in media, specifically movies and television. A piece of information that particularly caught my attention was that one woman with a speaking role in a film will, on average, be outnumbered by three men with speaking roles. My first reaction was “Wait, that can’t be right. Women have plenty of parts in movies.” But as I continued to watch movies, paying particularly close attention to women’s roles, I realized that the ratio held true to almost every film I saw.

Additionally, the Institute did a study of G-rated films from 2006 to 2009. In these films, only 19.5% of all working characters were female and not one business leader or person in the fields of law, politics, or medical science was a woman. From 2006 to 2009, I was ages 4-7, and watching children’s films. How had this imbalance of employed female characters affected my view and the views of my peers about the world and the roles of women and men?

This year, my school invited Mr. Frederick Gooding, Jr. to discuss race in media. He spoke about how minority (specifically Black) characters were greatly underrepresented in media and, when they did appear, tended to play the same characters. A few examples of the Black roles he called attention to were the “angel:” someone who ties a neat bow around the story and usually plays as a mentor to the main character, the “comedic relief:” someone who brings humor but not depth of personality to a story, the “background character:” someone who has little to no lines, the “violent character,” and the person who is valued for physical traits and abilities rather than intelligence.

As I listened to him, I realized that underrepresentation in media regarding both race and gender was similar. Both minorities and women, when they do appear, tend to make up more background characters than leading ones. We are both valued more for physical appearance and capabilities rather than intelligence, and we are often, if portrayed positively, shown as perfect advisors, as parental figures with no depth of personality.

Limited Interaction Between Races

Stereotypes and prejudices that people hold today are enhanced by a lack of meaningful interaction. I found this to be true throughout most of the critical years in my childhood. I grew up in the Bay Area suburbs, where not one person of color lived on my block. In elementary school, there was not a single African-American in my year group until 5th grade. In junior high, there was only one Black student in the entire middle school.

When the representation of an entire race lies in one eleven-year old, that student is given the impossible and unfair role of representing every person of their race. Even in my high school, which is significantly more diverse, Black students note that all the eyes in the classroom turn to them when the Civil Rights Movement is brought up in history class.

Absent interaction, we rely on media, messaging from parents, and history class to build a picture of what someone of a different race might be like. Notwithstanding my parent’s consistent efforts to counter there images, I still must work very hard to undo the unconscious bias that comes from a childhood where I did not know a single Black, Muslim, or Middle-Eastern person my age.

There is hope, however, because, based on my own experience, it is possible to become aware of unconscious bias and (at least partially) overcome it. This comes from ongoing conversations with parents and friends and, most importantly, from making a conscious effort to get to know people from different backgrounds.

One group of people, the privileged or the underprivileged, cannot be responsible for bringing equality to everyone. Just as it is important for men to be aware of women’s issues so that they can help spread awareness and empowerment to women, it is imperative that white people are educated about race and about privilege.

White people, generally, have been recipients of the best society has to offer for generations. No one likes to believe that they got a job or were given more resources because of racism that worked in their favor, but it is a reality that we must face up to. It takes self-exploration, courage, and empathy.

Based on my experiences, I have a preliminary (i.e., always subject to improvement) list detailing what white people can do to become more aware of unconscious bias:

  • Make race a conversation topic.
  • Make a mental note every time you catch yourself or someone else succumbing to a stereotype or unconscious bias.
  • Let people know when they stereotype or make assumptions.
  • Make an effort to get to know a diverse group of people. Ask yourself if you have ever had people from a racial, ethnic or religious group over for dinner. Is there a person from another group who you would go to for emotional support?  Do you have true friends from other groups?
  • Don’t take comfort for granted. It may seem trivial, but make an effort to keep your privilege in check by counting the number of white and non-white characters in your favorite movie or the number of white and non-white people in your school, place of worship, workplace, etc. Be as aware of your whiteness and privilege as a person of color must be about their skin tone every day.
  • If you have ten minutes on hand, take Harvard’s IAT (Implicit Associations Test) as a tool to pinpoint your unconscious bias.
  • Listen.

Science has proven that bias is physically rooted in the human psyche, the product of an ancient tribal society with a highly developed ability to identify difference and to fear the “other.” Notwithstanding the fact that we understand the physical basis of bias, however, our society has not built into basic education the tools to identify and correct bias. And, because the foundation of bias is in the unconscious mind and replicated by social norms, this task is difficult. Notwithstanding that I was raised by parents who tried to help me avoid the biases that are implanted in women by social messaging, I initially accepted without question the fact that I had to expect catcalls and that it was natural and appropriate that I should have to constantly protect myself from sexual assault.

The resilience of sexism and, even more so, racism, is surprisingly strong. The racism formed over thousands of years of evolution does not get unwound easily, particularly when it is institutionalized in society in the form of barriers that make social interaction among races more difficult.

At the same time, we, particularly in the United States, are more and more a melting pot, quickly moving towards a society that is made of many shades of color. Consequently, it is imperative that my generation becomes the one to finally learn how to overcome inherent bias. But it will take continuous study, self-examination, work and investment. Given the potential benefits of overcoming our nation’s 300+ years of racial tensions and difficulties, it is difficult to imagine an investment of time and resources that can be so rewarding.