Published: April 24, 2007
Golden Gate [X]press

By Christine Joy Ferrer

While the rest of the students in her class giggled, liberal studies major Michelle Rodriguez remembered sitting in shock at what had transpired.

Rodriguez, an American Indian belonging to the Picayune Chukchansi tribe, said her Archaeology of California professor explained the controversy over what happened to the remains of early Native American bodies buried beneath shell mounds found throughout the Bay Area.

Rodriguez said a white female student commented that she didn’t realize American Indians had burial grounds, but thought they were all trying to eat each other before the Europeans came to America.

The professor replied “no” to the student; then the class moved on as if nothing had happened, said Rodriguez, 21.

SF State is recognized as one of the most diverse campuses in the United States and has at least 25 cultural student organizations. Yet, students argue, that does not mean SF State is colorblind when stereotypical attitudes about people of other cultures haven’t changed and our society fails to confront on-going racism that exists on a subconscious level.

“Everyone is so clique-y [at SF State]. I have never been to a school that was more divided… we are very acceptant of others’ cultures, but don’t really inter-mix so there’s still a lot of misunderstanding,” said Palestinian ecology major Somer Aburish, 22.

In fall 2006, the undergraduate profile of 23,843 students at SF State consisted of 0.8 percent Native American/Alaskan Native; 6.8 percent African-American; 9.6 percent Mexican/Chicano American; 7.3 percent Latino; 24.5 percent Asians; 10.7 percent Filipinos; 1.0 percent Pacific Islander; 34.0 percent White/Non-Latino; and 5.2 percent other.

When SF State President Robert A. Corrigan first came into office in 1987, various student groups claimed that they were suffering from institutionalized discrimination, racism, sexism and unfairness on religious and other beliefs, according to Jamie Newton, a social psychology professor. In response, Corrigan established a commission of 50 people, including students, faculty, staff and administrators, who were responsible for investigating the claims.

The survey that is conducted every four to six years has found that a substantial number of minorities –– not more than 50 percent –– said they sometimes or often felt mistreated on campus because of their affiliation with racial, religious, or sexual orientation, etc. groups.

“What people believe to be true does matter,” said Newton, who helped to produce and conduct the research since its inception.

Laura Head, an Africana studies professor who is black, said that within her classes she’s found that students have very little knowledge and/or interaction with their own culture or anyone else’s.

“I’ve had white [students] in my classes who don’t understand slavery, others who don’t understand the effects of Japanese internment… or know the history of U.S. Native Americans,” said Head.

Shanina Shumate, 25, a black college and career counseling graduate student, said she’s experienced subtle racism on campus numerous times, from a variety of races — Asian, white, and even black.

“I remember during my undergrad. I would always get these small side comments from people. It didn’t matter what race…they would say, ‘she’s too dark,’ ‘she’s too chocolate,’ ‘she’s not right for me,’” said Shumate.

She said that stereotypes create order.

“With them, everyone knows where everyone stands. It may not make sense, but it makes order,” she said.

The illusion of race seems like it is natural and common sense, but in reality it’s socially constructed, explained Asian-American studies professor, Russell Jeung who is Chinese.

People use what is called schema. When people see something, they have a set of associations connected to what they perceive and along with that, they hold certain assumptions about race that’s reinforced by what they want to see, Jeung said.

“As a culture, we don’t spend time de-constructing our thought processes. We all have the same stereotypes, but people who are prejudiced just look at race and don’t stop to think of the context,” he said.

However, Jeung added, the consequences of subtle racism are equally significant, if not worse than blatant racism because it’s harder to distinguish and therefore, harder to address and confront.

“People just don’t know what they’re looking at… blatant racism is not socially accepted, that’s why it comes in these covert forms,” Head said. “Also, people think that because they’re liberal they can’t be racist, but that’s not true.”

Most students who admitted experiencing or witnessing subtle racism said they didn’t know what to say when the situation occurred.

“You feel like you’re gonna be shunned by others if you say something, that they’ll discredit what you say and tell you, ‘Don’t be so sensitive,’” said dance and humanities major Dominique Nigro, 20, who’s Italian and Armenian.

Undeclared major Max Gerhardt, 18, of French, German, Belgian, Russian and Native American descent, pointed out that people may not realize that what they’re saying is racist or stereotypical. Many grow up around very subtle innuendos that people don’t consider racism because it’s not as blatant as seeing someone being attacked for it.

“Being white in this society, I’m benefiting from racism… a lot of white people don’t think they’re racist and therefore it’s no longer their problem. I’m not saying everyone who’s white is a bigot and a racist,” he said. “But it makes you just as racist if you don’t do something about it. Even if you’re joking… eventually it convinces you that there’s some truth behind it.”

Beyond the scope of what we can do as individuals to address racism, educating ourselves about other cultures, interacting more with others outside of our own racial/ethnic groups, we need to look at how our institutions perpetuate racial privilege, explained Head.

“Racist ideology is so pervasive in our belief systems that it reinforces white privilege,” said Head. “The problem is not for people to be more culturally sensitive, we just need to analyze and change our institutions that are structured to support all forms of racism.”

“People’s mentality has been shaped by the system… I don’t think there can be any equality within a system that’s based on race, class, that keep people at a certain spot,” said Rodriguez. “You have to change [the system] completely… because there’s no room for cultural sensitivity or antiracism.”