It’s a subtle form of racism – unseen but deadly. It’s powerful, painful and destructive – it’s the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. This is how it works.
My African American pastor Kyle Ray shared a story from the pulpit recently about a speech therapist working with one of his sons. She called Kyle and his wife Petra in for a meeting and expressed her feeling that the need for therapy was over – it was time to move on.
Kyle and Petra did not agree because their son was still mispronouncing certain words. At this point the therapist began speaking in ‘coded’ language. “Well there’s some mispronunciations I’ll allow because of cultural standards.”
“Wait a second,” Kyle said. “Are you saying that there are certain things you’re allowing in my son’s speech because he’s black?” After an awkward pause – the therapist continued. “Well yes. With words like ‘this’ and ‘that’ if a black child says ‘diss,’ or ‘dat’, we have to allow it.”
Really? You have to allow it? Kyle didn’t think so – instead his theory was that somebody in “speech therapy land” had decided to lower an English standard to accommodate kids stressed over the lack of language reinforcement at home. Is that true in the Ray household? No! These parents are constantly teaching English standards for an obvious reason – they don’t want their children to fail a job interview by saying ‘dis’ and ‘dat.’
This form of racism is unintentional but deeply systematic – a way that the standards for black children are lowered for obtuse “cultural” reasons – constructing an unseen institutional schematic that reinforces a caste system based upon race and class. For reasons few understand and even fewer ever see, the bar is lowered – expectations are reduced and soft bigotry weaves its web shrouded in silence and denial. This is just one example.
Skot Welch and I covered a story (Radio in Black and White) about an African American HS student in Pine Bluff Arkansas who was denied a Valedictorian award even though her grade point average was the highest. The official reason that Kim Wimberly was passed over? She had filled out the wrong form – the school apparently discourages black students from taking AP classes (keys to awards and scholarships) because “the work is too hard.”
These are just two stories that point to a stark difference in experience that is normal for African Americans. Bigotry comes at you in layers, nuances – racism driven by white privledge is very good at playing ‘now you see me and now you don’t.’
It’s essential that we become committed to the power of a sustained narrative – we need stories like this everyday and deconstruct the foundation that gives them power and life.