Interrupting the Patterns of Discrimination
Two years ago, I read a short article by renown scholar C. Eric Lincoln called, “All [N…..s] Have to Wait: A Child’s First Lesson in Jim Crow.” In the article, Lincoln discusses how he first came to know, in the subjective sense, the dual standards of access to participation in “democracy” for Blacks and Whites in the United States during Jim Crow segregation. In essence, he relates how he first developed a consciousness of himself as Black mediated with a consciousness of how Whites with institutional power see Blacks as “less than” White.I began to think about whether or not I had had a parallel experience in my gender identity development as a woman. As I reflected the possibility, I realized that: first, I did have such an experience — actually two very similar ones in close succession; and second, that for all the similarity that these experiences bore to his, the differences between then was perhaps greater.I have come to understand the experience of discrimination of any kind as connected. Discrimination is discrimination, plain and simple. I don’t advocate the measuring of different kinds of discrimination qualitatively or quantitatively as better or worse, although certainly the experience of multiple kinds of discrimination must have a cumulative effect — for example, the experience of a working-class, Black lesbian who also uses a wheelchair. Yet, even the experience of a single kind of discrimination is unique, different kinds of discrimination are, in fact, different. They are manifest differently, and as a result, impact differently — both qualitatively and quantitatively. Exactly how this occurs, I’m not certain. But I do believe this to be the case. And this belief — knowledge, if you will — is drawn from my own experience of discrimination and of different kinds of discrimination vicariously experienced through my association with others.Ultimately, I will never believe that the discrimination I have experienced in relationship to my gender will ever be equal in magnitude to what C. Eric Lincoln related. Actually, what I am trying to delineate here is more confounded. As an upper-middle class White woman, the discrimination I have experienced will never compare to the discrimination I understand to be experienced by a Black man. I make this statement having experienced extreme educational and employment discrimination; and having been battered, stalked, and raped. I make this statement as someone whose feminist views are closely aligned with lesbian ideology even though I’m heterosexual and married to a working-class Black man who says he is has never personally experienced a physically violent manifestation of racial discrimination. And I make this statement knowing I have been socialized by the sexist mainstream to de-emphasize my own struggles as a woman in general, and by the sexist left to prioritize the struggles of race and socioeconomic class ahead of gender.Still, I remember the exact moment that I developed a consciousness of myself as a woman (a “girl”) mediated with a consciousness of how men see women as “less than” men. Even 4- and 5-year-old boys somehow understand that they have institutional power and that this power legitimizes their actions against girls — after all, “boys will be boys.”My first consciousness-awakening experience occurred when I was 4; the second, when I was 5. The first time, there were two boys; the second time, there were five. All of them were my age peers, upper-middle class, and White — boys who I considered my friends and playmates. In both instances, the boys — with premeditation — isolated and cornered me, and then pulled down my pants against my will to view my vagina. A week before the first incident, the same two boys tried to drop a brick on my head when I followed them behind a garage to play. When this failed, they chained me to a tree, where I remained for three hours until an older sister who came looking for me at dinnertime helped me escape.I remember the humiliation and betrayal the experience of these incidents made me feel. I still carry that humiliation and betrayal to this day. For a long time, I was worried that this was status quo behavior for all boys — some will learn not to continue it into adulthood, others won’t. The wisdom I take from C. Eric Lincoln’s account and my own account of our “awakenings” is that the experience of discrimination is always rude, cruel, and enduring — especially the first time, from which point the wound never fully heals. By drawing connections between different kinds of discrimination and at the same time respecting their inherent distinctions, perhaps we can assuage the occurrence of any and all discrimination.We have all experienced discrimination, whether individual or institutional. Perhaps we have all perpetrated it. By knowing — as we all do — its hateful impact, we certainly can do our part to interrupt it. — Dr. Christine Clark is a professor of curriculum and instruction/multicultural education at New Mexico State University
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