restricted access 22 Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and Miseducation
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22 Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and Miseducation JOYCE E. KING [The author, a professor of teacher education when this was written, describes her experience of racism in the classroom. Ed.] "Dysconscious racism" is a form of racism that tacitly accepts dominant white norms and privileges. It is not the absence of consciousness but an impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race as compared to, for example, critical consciousness . Uncritical ways of thinking about racial inequity accept certain culturally sanctioned assumptions, myths, and beliefs that justify the social and economic advantages white people have as a result of subordinating others. Anything that calls this ideology of racial privilege into question inevitably challenges the self-identity of white people who have internalized these ideological justifications. The reactions of my students to information I have presented about societal inequity have led me to coin the term"dysconscious racism" to describe one form that racism takes in this post-civil rights era. Most of the students begin my teacher education courses with limited knowledge and distorted understanding of societal inequity. Not only are they often unaware of their own ideological perspectives, most are also unaware of how their own subjective identities reflect an uncritical identification with the existing social order. Moreover, they have difficulty explaining "liberal" and"conservative" standpoints on contemporary social and educational issues, and are even less familiar with "radical" perspectives. My students' explanations of persistent racial inequity consistently lack evidence of any ethical judgment regarding racial (and class/gender) stratification; yet, these same students maintain that they personally deplore racial prejudice and discrimination. This suggests that the ability to imagine a society reorganized without racial privilege requires a fundamental shift in the way white people think about their status, their self-identities, and their conceptions of black people. For example, when I broach the subject of racial inequity with my students, they often complain that they are "tired of being made to feel guilty" because they are white. The following entries from the classroom journals of two undergraduate students in an education course typify this reaction: With some class discussions, readings, and other media, there have been times that I feel guilty for being white which really infuriates me because no one should feel guilty for the color of Copyright © 1991 by the JOURNAL OF NEGRO EDUCATION, Vol. 60, No.2 (1991). Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material Dysconscious Racism 129 their skin or ethnic background. Perhaps my feelings are actually a discomfort for the fact that others have been discriminated against all of their life because of their color and I have not. How can I be thankful that I am not a victim of discrimination? I should be ashamed. Then I become confused. Why shouldn't I be thankful that I have escaped such pain? That students often express such feelings of guilt and hostility suggests they accept certain unexamined assumptions, unasked questions, and unquestioned cultural myths regarding both the social order and their place in it. The discussion that follows will show how dysconscious racism, manifested in student explanations of societal inequity and linked to their conceptions of black people, devalues the cultural diversity of the black experience and limits what teachers can do to promote equity. The Findings Since the fall academic quarter 1986 I have given the student teachers in my course statistical comparisons such as those compiled in 1987 by Marian Wright Edelman 's Children's Defense Fund regarding black and white children's life chances (e.g., "Compared to white children, black children are twice as likely to die in the first year of life."). I then ask each student to write a brief explanation of how these racial inequities came about by answering the question: "How did our society get to be this way?" An earlier study comparing student responses to this question in the fall 1986 and spring 1987 quarters identifies three ways students explain this inequity: As the result of slavery (Category I), the denial or lack of equal opportunity for African Americans (Category II), or part of the framework of a society in which racism and discrimination are normative (Category III). I use these same categories to compare student responses collected in this present study. The responses presented below are representative of 22 essay responses collected from students in 1986 and 35 responses collected in 1988. Category I explanations begin and end with slavery. Their focus is either on describing African Americans as "victims of their original (slave) status...