Racial issues still faced

Junior Carlton Lewis remembers his dad’s words: Don’t ever have your hands in your pockets when you go in a store because people will think you are stealing.

The images of being racially profiled are vivid in Lewis’s mind. His experiences growing up in Birmingham, Alabama are nothing short of prejudiced.

“I went to a store where typically a lot of black people don’t go,” he said. “It was one of those outdoor stores where mostly they sell stuff for climbing and hiking and boxing and stuff like that. They probably don’t usually see a lot of black guys in there, and I’m in there with my sister and my younger brother just looking at the shoes because we like stuff like that — the different tents they have and the hammocks and stuff. People kept asking us, ‘You guys need help finding anything?’ as if I couldn’t find something in the store.

“More people kept coming back asking over and over again. They probably asked at least four or five times if we needed help looking at shoes.

“I understand that’s their job and what they do, but it was at that point where it wasn’t just their jobs. Or, people would be acting like they were putting up stuff, but really they were just watching us. One girl kept following my sister.”

Professor of Sociology Andrea Hunt said experiences like this negatively affect the way people see the world.

“We are living in an increasingly diverse world, and when you’re dealing with people from diverse backgrounds, students need to be equipped to encounter people that are different from you,” Hunt said. “We often aren’t able to see those things other people might go through.”

Racial privilege does not necessarily mean people are getting something others are not getting, said Professor of Sociology Alex Takeuchi.

“For example, Asian Americans who were born in California or Hawaii are often assumed to be foreigners and asked what country they are from based on appearance,” Takeuchi said. “If it is once or twice, it is not a big deal at all. But if you experience it constantly in your entire life, you really wish you had a ‘privilege’ to avoid the burden somehow.”

Hunt said not every member of a group enjoys those privileges, but, historically certain groups that have had more positions of power and more rights than other groups.

To explain racial privilege she used examples of gender privilege.

She said males have historically held more positions of power than women, and certain racial groups have held more power than others. But, sometimes women have held higher positions than men just like minorities have held higher positions than other races, she said.

“Racial privilege concerns everyone, especially in this area because of the history of the region,” Takeuchi said. “Unfortunately we’ve historically had racial tensions.”

Hunt said her race gives her the privilege of avoiding tough situations in raising her children.

“I don’t have to teach them to live in a world where they’re going to be questioned about their skin tone everyday, so I have that privilege of not having to (address that) like some parents do,” she said. “Having white privilege, I don’t have to explain why I’m at certain places, I don’t have to think about people following me in a store — those things just don’t happen, but other people have those experiences on a daily basis.”

Recognizing these issues exist and openly discussing them is the key to moving past our history, she said.

“People assume we live in a colorblind society and that these things don’t happen anymore,” she said. “We have to have conversations about these things, and I’ve found students want to and are ready to engage in those discussions, but they need a safe place to really talk about those things.”

She said a culture change will occur when students take things they learn back to their home communities and share their experiences with others.

The most important thing is remembering, “people are people, no matter what they look like,” Takeuchi said.

Lewis said he is not bothered by the way people have treated him in the past because he knows what other people think is not what matters.

“I know they don’t know who I really am,” Lewis said. “My reaction to it is basically I know I’m going to be judged. I just make sure that I just maintain my character.”