Book Review - Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation
In Derald Wing Sue's Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation, the author mostly examines sociological and cultural factors that lead to ingrained racism in all individuals, no matter their personal perception of their tolerance. Written for a white audience, the overall goal of the book is to get people to understand the concepts of white privilege and to comprehend their role in the continued oppression of minorities, regardless of their level of involvement with racial politics. The result is an eye-opening and well researched book of sociology, psychology and counseling that allows for an honest look at American society, despite its surface abrasiveness.
First, Sue examines the role that each of us has in oppression and racism by noting the unique factors that contribute to privilege. Unintentional racism is discussed as a factor, noting the fact that one does not have to be an open racist, or even contribute openly to the discrimination of black people to play a part in that oppression. The "invisible whiteness of being" is explored as a concept, as white-dominated culture permits white attitudes and preferences to be considered the 'default' or the norm, thereby subconsciously painting minority and divergent attitudes to be abnormal or strange. Unintentional racism, according to Sue, happens in small ways every day, and typically stems from varying levels of discomfort with associating closely with blacks and minorities.
The overall goal of Sue is to allow whites to recraft a new identity, one where they are entirely aware of their privilege and, by extension, will do what they can to address the inherent socioeconomic problems in American society that expressly target minorities. This is meant to provide an emotional catharsis that causes us to examine our attitudes and where they come from, with the goal of furthering racial equity and equality.
The most crucial topic of this book is understanding white privilege, which is said to be "oblivious" to most whites who experience it (Sue, p. 119). In essence, interviews, lectures and sociological data are used to demonstrate the use of 'white' as the norm in American society, which allows whites to enjoy the privilege of true freedom when it comes to jobs, living arrangements, treatment by authority figures, and more. This privilege is invisible to most whites, who take it for granted and do not recognize that minorities do not enjoy this comparative sense of safety and positive treatment by others. Sue hammers home the notion that minorities, much more so than whites, have to worry about being seen as a thief, or a freeloader, or someone generally undesirable to be around, wherever they go; it is an unconscious factor that nonetheless dramatically affects their ability to succeed and persevere no matter how hard they work. Often, perfectly competent minority jobseekers are not offered the same privileges due to "systemic societal forces that produce segregation" and other biases preventing them from having the same leg up whites do.
In terms of school leader preparation programs, this book provides a great deal of insight into how to treat students and followers and their interactions. Learning to recognize inherently or unconsciously racist attitudes in ourselves can allow us to view our own behaviors with a fine-toothed comb, recognizing when we do things that could be misinterpreted by minorities as patronizing, or even when we are patronizing. Even the most well-meaning school leader can make mistakes like this, due to a mixture of lack of knowledge and self-reflection; as a result, this book is entirely relevant in preparing school leaders to handle diverse and multicultural student bodies. Sue cites many instances of this kind of patronization, including "the well-intentioned high school counselor who tracked [Asian author Sue] into math and science courses because 'you people are good at that'" (Sue, p. 14). These responses and gestures are often unintentional, and do not necessarily come from a place of malice, but school leaders must be cognizant of the stereotypes and attitudes that they are perpetuating through this behavior.
In order to apply the teachings of this book to actual school leader preparation, it is necessary to check our behavior as we perform it, as well as understand the sources of our information and perceptions. Sue argues for the substantial influence of mass media in the linking of whiteness with 'positivity,' linking blackness to negativity by comparison (p. 85). The presence of mostly whites (white men to be precise) in major roles in film and television is also a major factor, as well as the tokenism of minority characters who are acknowledged as being there to fulfill certain diversity 'quotas,' and who are often defined by their race.
When I first read this book, I felt somewhat offended and insulted - I consider myself to be a very tolerant individual, and thought of myself as enlightened, due to my perception of not being a racist and having black friends. However, upon reading Sue's book a bit more, I began to see how my attitudes were indicative of the invisible whiteness that he describes - I held my own tolerance up as a badge of honor, and my behavior, upon reflection, has bordered upon patronization of black people. I began to see that, despite my perceived enlightenment, I still looked down on blacks but in a different way. I have spoken out against affirmative action before, for instance, because I felt that it was not fair to everyone else. What I came to realize later, however, was the fact that the playing field was, in fact, not level - there are an array of subconscious and systemic biases that occur in the media and the job world that disenfranchise blacks and other minorities.
With the help of Sue's book, I managed to get past the accusatory tone and actually ask myself honest questions. Did I really think of minorities as my equal, or did I value them for their 'exoticism' while still feeling fear in the back of my mind whenever I was around them? The key to enjoying Sue's book and taking messages from it is not to take their tone, and Sue's accusations, personally; his messages are taken with the understanding that every one of us does these things, and we do them without knowing. He is not accusing us of being evil; the book just serves as a means for us to honestly examine our attitudes. Instead of bucking down and becoming defensive against Sue's arguments, allowing an honest, objective discussion of them as you engage with the book is the ideal means to take its message of overcoming racism.
Sue, D.W. (2001). Overcoming our racism: the journey to liberation. Jossey-Bass Publishers.