Race Relations in «Post-Racial» American Life

by Helen Fox (Author)
©2015 Textbook 181 Pages


«What do you think is meant by the term ‘post-racial’ and how far do you think we’ve come, as a country, toward achieving it?» Helen Fox, a white teacher and scholar, asked variations of this question to 87 high school and college students, educators, administrators, community organizers, international visitors, and tribal leaders across the country. Their stories reveal how far we are from a «post-racial» ideal – even in the most liberal of communities. Despite her long experience as an anti-racist educator, Fox was surprised to learn how deeply the lives of people of color continue to be shaped by race, and how hard they have to work to ignore or overcome assumptions, remarks, exclusion, and at times, blatant hostility from whites. The kinds of racism they experience depend on their gender, their religion, their geographical location, their skin tone, their forms of speech and expression, their socioeconomic class, their aspirations, their determination to be outspoken or stoic, the kinds and amount of contact they choose to have (or can’t escape having) with whites, and of course, their ascribed race. Despite our nation’s «post-racial» climate, racialized assumptions, beliefs, and denials affect everything, from the reach of the national media down to the smallest community: the street where one lives, the friends one attempts to make, the social club, the study group, the classroom. As an art educator remarked, «The ‘post-racial’ reminds me of the post-modern – the fracturing of things. It’s not like our society has finally come together – unless we’ve come together as a fractured society and we’re feeling the prickliness of the broken shards.»

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: “This Town Is So Liberal, There’s No Such Thing as Race.”
  • Chapter 2: Are We Post-Racial Yet?
  • Chapter 3: “Santa Just Is White, Kids.”
  • Chapter 4: Racism by Any Other Name
  • Chapter 5: Dumping On the Poor
  • Chapter 6: Racism as a Complex System
  • Chapter 7: The Way Forward
  • Notes
  • Bibliography


As a white child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, my small world was surprisingly diverse. My earliest playmates were our Japanese and Chinese neighbors, the newly resettled German Jews who lived down the block, and my Irish Catholic cousins who lived in a tough neighborhood across town. I went to a predominantly black high school, chafing at the unspoken rules that kept black and white students apart: the dating taboos, the color-coded classrooms where the “college-bound” students—white—were separated from the “regular” students—black—regardless of promise or effort. My friends were a mix of rich and poor. My rich friends lived in stately homes near the university; my poor friends lived in dark, overheated apartments near the train tracks. We never discussed this much; in our world, class, like race, was not a topic of polite conversation. My mother had told me that we were “middle-middle class,” which was probably more wishful thinking than reality, for she was a single mother earning a high school teacher’s salary, paying off a mortgage on a ramshackle house and barely keeping up with repairs on our clunky old car. Nevertheless, she always found a way to pay for music lessons, fill our Christmas stockings, and have just enough cash left over at the end of the summer to buy groceries before her regular paycheck started up again in the fall.

When I was accepted at two top universities—Chicago and California—I knew it was not because of my grades, which were modest, or my SAT scores, ← 1 | 2 → which were pretty dismal, compared to what is expected at top schools today, but because of my ability to talk enthusiastically about books and my unusual interest, for a girl, in science. I understood that my acceptance at these schools was based on some form of affirmative action, though they didn’t call it that in 1960, and that this declaration of faith in my potential was not so freely offered to my black classmates. This, too, was never discussed in my family or circle of friends. I accepted my good fortune as my destiny.

When I went to India as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1964 I was confronted for the first time by deprivation so extreme that it defied all of my previous notions of poverty: huts made of straw and mud that collapsed in the monsoon rain, skeletal people who existed on skimpy meals of rice and dal with a bit of chili for spice if they were lucky; cows that could find so little grass that they ate discarded newspaper. When I returned to the United States, stunned by my new awareness of human degradation, I took a job in an urban ghetto where I ran a small preschool for children who had been cast aside by the public schools. Visiting my young students’ homes, I witnessed a different kind of poverty: a young mother of seven, so distraught over the death of her infant that its spirit had appeared to her in the form of a pigeon; a sad-eyed, mute youngster who, if it weren’t for his race, would have been an ideal candidate for scholarship to a specialized private school; a young black, nurse’s aide struggling to care for her profoundly disabled 5-year-old after working all night but too ashamed of her “failure” to apply for public assistance. In India, I had thought I had seen the worst of the human condition. But now I realized that what was happening in my own country was even more disturbing. Somehow, America had the resources to send college graduates abroad to improve the life chances of the world’s poor but could not do the same for its own people. I attributed my country’s appalling acceptance of poverty and racism to political blindness, or at best, the lack of a vision of a just society. It was only much later that I began to understand the working of systems that keep hierarchies of privilege in place, the ways that long forgotten history continues to shape the present, the tenacity of race and class privilege that has gripped our nation since its founding.

I began to teach about race at the University of Michigan’s Residential College in the 1990s at the request of a white student who felt that the silence about race left our social science concentration incomplete. I spent the summer reading stacks of books and articles on the history and sociology of race, the biographies of famous people of color, the novels and personal experience stories written by people of African, Asian, Latin American, Native American, and Middle Eastern descent that I had somehow missed in my ← 2 | 3 → previous education. In the fall, with some trepidation, I embarked on my first undergraduate discussion seminar, which I called “Unteaching Racism”—the idea being that since racism is taught, as it was to me, it can also be untaught. My students took to the study of race with enthusiasm and good heart. As my confidence grew, I began to anticipate students’ reactions to the material and to each other, understand their confusion and resistance, and find the articles, books, and videos that would help them open up in the classroom. During that period, I wrote a book for teachers—the book, in fact, that I wished I’d had in hand when I plunged into this new territory myself. When Race Breaks Out: Conversations About Race and Racism in College Classrooms has now gone into its second revised edition (Peter Lang, 2014), with a new emphasis on how today’s college students, the “Millennials,” can be brought into discussions about interpersonal and systemic racism, even when they feel, as they often say they do, that race is “no big deal” for their generation.

As I researched the latest revisions for When Race Breaks Out, I became interested in the idea, touted in the media, that with Barack Obama’s election, the United States had entered into a “post-racial” period where race mattered less than ever before in our history. From my reading of the academic literature, and perhaps more importantly, from my years of teaching and interacting with students, I knew this wasn’t true. Yet something was different about this time period, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My students were more polite to each other in the classroom, more willing, it seemed, to interact across racial lines. Gone were the days when an emotionally charged comment sent a student from the classroom in tears. Yet in conference and in my informal social interactions with students and faculty of color, I learned that many were battling intense emotions in class and on campus. My white students, on the other hand, seemed open, relaxed, and completely unaware of the effect of their naïve comments and uninformed opinions on their peers of color. What had happened? My questioning quickly turned into this new book project. I wanted to get beneath the surface, not only at my own university, where I had previously interviewed students and faculty about race, but across the country. What did people make of this supposedly “post-racial” era we had now entered with the election of our nation’s first black president? What do they think other people mean by that term? What were their own experiences with race? How had they seen race relations change over time? If they were teachers, how would they describe racial dynamics in their classrooms, on campus, and in their larger communities? How do they see socioeconomic class interacting with race? Which is more important in today’s society, in ← 3 | 4 → their view? If they were students, what did they think about the racial climate on campus, in their classrooms and living spaces, their clubs and extracurricular activities? My interviewees for my previous books had identified mainly as black or white. What was the feeling in parts of the country where Latinos, or Asians, or Native Americans predominate?

As I refined my ideas and interview questions, I planned interviewing trips to the East Coast, the Northwest, the Midwest, and the South, arranging to stay with colleagues and old friends who would put me in touch with their students, fellow faculty members, and local acquaintances who were willing to talk with me about race and class. Letting my interview pool develop organically meant that I would probably miss some areas of the country and some important voices, but it also ensured that I would get the honest, reflective stories I was looking for. I knew I could not just ask people randomly what they think and feel about race. I would need time and space for conversation and go-betweens who would assure my interviewees that I could be trusted. Nevertheless, that trust was not always there. As a white interviewer, I knew that my background, my experiences, and my racial identity would affect what people would decide to tell me. This was brought home to me most strikingly when I interviewed three women on a Native American reservation in the Midwest where I had extended family. Despite my family connection, the comfortable setting, and the ease I felt interviewing in a location I had enjoyed many times in the past, I was startled by the pointed question the tribal historian put to me before the interview began:

“Are you a racist?”

I fumbled for an honest answer. Could I say, truly, that I hadn’t internalized the racist stereotypes about Native Americans that I had learned from movies and television as a child? Could I honestly say I had not been taught throughout my education—and indeed, my career—that my own European American culture, “the dominant culture,” was superior to anything that “non-whites” had to offer? Could I say that I understood, viscerally, that the impoverishment, substance abuse, and suicide on so many Native American reservations are directly related to the history of extermination and its partner, the “Indian schools,” and are not simply the fault of individuals who make poor life choices? No, I could not. But if I agreed that I was indeed a racist, what was I doing there?

Seeing my confusion, the tribal historian went right to the heart of her concern: “I mean, are you going to look down on Indian people and write racist things about our community?”

← 4 | 5 → “No, certainly not,” I answered, with some relief.

“Okay then. We just needed to know. Because we’ve dealt with too many people like that before.”

With white interviewees, too, interviewing is not a straightforward thing. Whites are often reluctant to talk about race at all, and when they do, they try very hard to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear, especially if they have little understanding of how race works in this country and how they themselves are implicated. My being white may have given my white respondents confidence initially, but they were also on the lookout for my political stance, my inclination to judge them for their views, my motive for writing this book, and my own experience with race. It would be better to be open about these things, I thought. If I were to simply ask them objective-sounding questions without divulging a hint of my personal background or point of view, they might be even less likely to give me honest, detailed answers. And to add to the complexity, I knew that my gender, age, profession, dialect, accent, regional identification, socioeconomic class, and immigrant status would also play into these perceptions. So to make the interviews as real as possible, I conducted my one- to two-hour interviews more like intimate conversations than straight question and answer sessions. And while I know that my respondents’ remarks would have been different if I had been a different person, my interviewees, all 87 of them, have given me some remarkable material. I have foregrounded their stories, their words, and their emotions as much as possible throughout the book. To preserve privacy, and in some cases, to protect job security, I have avoided mentioning specific institutions, departments, or workplaces, and I have used pseudonyms unless a respondent specifically asked to be identified by name.

I have been delighted at the variety of areas of the country I was able to cover in my travels. I soon discovered that many of my interviewees had studied, worked, or lived in several different areas of the country and the world, so they were able to compare their diverse experiences with race. They talked about life in a great variety of places: Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Saipan, Haiti, Costa Rica, China, Britain, Senegal, and South Africa. I interviewed people mostly as individuals and occasionally in groups of three or four, almost always in person and occasionally by Skype. I talked with 53 females and 34 males: 27 identified as African American or black; 5 as Native American; 7 as Latino, Hispanic, or Latin American; 2 as Asian; 12 as biracial or multiracial; and ← 5 | 6 → 34 as white. They were undergraduate and graduate students at colleges large and small around the country. They were graduate student instructors, professors, deans, program directors, and administrative staff. They were community relations specialists, community organizers, international students, and primary school educators. They were high school students, high school teachers, moms, and dads. They ranged in age from 16 to about 80. There was no way I could pack all their wonderful stories into this book. But each of their observations and personal experiences added to my own understanding of how race and class work in this country, and this has made the book more nuanced, more informed, and I hope, more convincing.


ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
social studies liberal thinking santa
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 181 pp.

Biographical notes

Helen Fox (Author)

Helen Fox has taught about race and racism, human rights, peace activism, and international development at the University of Michigan for 22 years. She is the author of Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing (1994), When Race Breaks Out: Conversations about Race and Racism in College Classrooms (2001, 2009, 2014), Their Highest Vocation: Social Justice and the Millennial Generation (2012), and the editor, with C. Schroeder and P. Bizzell, of ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy (2002).


Title: Fractured
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
190 pages