Nuances of racism
March 23, 2021
I hesitate not because it's hard to think of examples. The examples for me are quite different from the kind of typical examples that we normally kind of work through, like, you know, a Black man in Manhattan not being...you know, true as it is, I guess one of the stereotypical ones. Yeah. In Atlanta—this has not been in my experience since I've moved to South Bend, but in Atlanta, getting pulled over on a regular basis.
Yeah, that was that happened more often than I like to think, and in fact the very last time I got pulled over was like days before I was packing up to drive up to South Bend for the big move, to drive in front of, ahead of the movers with all of my stuff. And it really was stereotypic. I was at a gas station, I don't know, a half mile from my house and my house was then in Atlanta in a predominantly White neighborhood. And this cop car followed me into the parking lot of the gas station and then flipped on his lights and came over and...and the guy actually said, "Well, you have a tail light that's out. And so we have to run your plates, et cetera, et cetera." And I was just, I was just fuming because this is just...it was true, I did have a taillight out, but it was just, you know, you've read about it and you know that this happens. And it used to be that I would just get more often pulled over, allegedly, for traffic violations. And I always went to court. I have to say, I always won! I never lost a traffic court case representing myself in three counties across the Atlanta area, Cab County, Fulton County and Gwinnett County. I've been to traffic court in all of them, won in all of them.
So that's the kind of stereotypical thing that just about any one kind of Black in America can refer to. But at the same time, kind of being an academic and being middle class, there are different kinds of subtle confrontations with racism, both interpersonal and structural racism, that are just more complicated to talk about. We can, in terms of kind of the big picture of structural racism, we can point to the overrepresentation of Blacks in the penal system. We can point to redlining. We can point to the lack of access Blacks historically have had to credit and capital accumulation, buying houses, et cetera. I mean, all of those things we have lots of documentation for. We really don't have as much testimonials and documentation about what I would call questions around professionalism. So, my experience. In the academy, in a larger sense, of I'm not saying anything specific about my experiences here at Notre Dame, but that was always kind of, if someone did know me personally and hadn't read my CV or anything. There was always an open question as to my professional status as to whether one, I really was an academic, or two, whether I was a good one or not. Having to kind of prove that I knew my field was...and at moments still is a kind of open question. And so...walking into a classroom the first day. I think if you were to talk to other Black academics, you'd probably find a similar kind of orientation where faculty, Black faculty, have encounters with various students, not necessarily an entire group, but various students who are just unconvinced that you know your field and you have to prove it. And so those kinds of questions about one's professionalism are kind of the first thing I think of when I think of the way in which racism informs my kind of day to day life.
Mark Sanders is a professor of English and Africana Studies at Notre Dame.