A reader asked a question in response to my last post. He wanted to know what institutionalized racism was because he had never experienced it. I know the gentleman. He is Hispanic with very light skin and blue eyes. Similar to my husband and I except for the blue eyes. Our eyes are brown.
I could have responded with examples such as the fact that the zip code where you live determines the quality of the schools you attend and the opportunities that come from that, or incarceration rates, or employment statistics or uneven representation in corporate boards and public office. But I wanted to find something personal that perhaps we could both relate to. Part of the problem with institutionalized racism is that we are blind to it. That’s what makes it institutionalized. It’s part of the system, of the established practice, so ingrained in our customs that we don’t see it even when it’s right before us.
Here’s my life example and it relates to where I’ve lived. Like many first-generation immigrants from Cuba, my family started out in the city of Hialeah. With time, we saw an exodus of whites leave Hialeah because the Cubans had invaded and white Americans needed to escape. In time, my cousins and I also moved out of Hialeah into better, richer, and whiter neighborhoods. We all aspired and worked hard to be able to afford to move up in the world. Nothing wrong with that. Except that my white bubble busted when my husband and I moved out of Miami.
We see ourselves as whites but outside of Miami, the realtors saw us for what we are, Hispanics and people of color. We encountered that the realtors that showed us around would invariably take us into neighborhoods where other people of color lived. We were shocked. Why? We wanted to live where other “white” people lived. By insisting that we were not looking to live in “those” neighborhoods, we were as complicit as the realtors in perpetuating racist housing practices. Here’s what’s worse, after two or three trips to neighborhoods we knew we did not want to live in, we’d ask, “Isn’t this a “bad” area? Where are the “good” areas to live?” Without saying it, we all knew what we meant. The realtors, by law, could not say what was a good or bad neighborhood and they’d encourage us to look around. Most times, we’d find houses we wanted to see on our own and the realtor had no choice but to show them to us.
These were not bad realtors. They would deny it if you called them racists. My husband and I are not bad people. We are not racists. We, because of our light skin, have always identified with white people. The realtors saw us for what we are. If our skin didn’t betray us, our accents did and as soon as we spoke, they knew we were different. They'd be happy to show us around when they finally realized we had the money to live in better neighborhoods. Money gains you access but acceptance is harder to buy.
This is an example of institutionalized racism when the perpetrators and those that are on the receiving end of the racist act don’t even recognize it for what it is because it’s so ingrained in our upbringing and in our everyday life.
In my opinion, we would all benefit if we stopped labeling people racists because it makes everyone defensive and doesn’t address the underlying issues. I believe most people are not openly or deliberately racist but we are a product of our upbringing and our shared history. The systems and institutions that are supposed to serve us do not do so equally. To hide behind “I’m not a racist” does not change policies or behaviors that have racists results. To say we are “color blind” is wishful thinking. We must ensure our laws and the enforcement of those laws, our systems and institutions that are supposed to serve and protect us are color blind, fair and just because injustice for one is injustice for all.