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Steve Phelps: We cannot end racism without critically analyzing the role of race in our communities

It is possible to have ideas rooted in racism without having a racist ideology.

I grew up in small rural towns across Texas. I was taught how to be racist by my community and family. There were no Racism 101 classes in schools. None of the communities I lived in held KKK marches down Main Street. My parents and other adult figures never wore white hoods or attended cross burnings. The people would honestly say they weren’t racist because being racist was the extreme.

The adults surrounding me did not realize that racism and racist are two different things. Racism is more subversive. It is silent with unwritten rules.

In schools, classrooms were segregated white students in the front, black students in the back. You mostly stuck to your own color, because that’s the way it was. Community churches were similarly segregated.

Rules of racism were passed down in simple statements such as, “No coco babies.” Often attached was a disclaimer about how the phrase wasn’t rooted racial superiority. Societal norms reinforced practices of racism without no one ever uttering a word.

Schools carried this same level of silent racism. We didn’t learn about important historical Black figures or many of key events. Instead, we received a Texas-sized version of mythical heroes. Race was only brought up one time in school by any teacher, and it was to attack a Black cultural figure of the time.

We were not taught to think critically about race or question the unwritten rules of the society on which we lived. The discussions of race in the community were often not about black people, but were about “reverse racism” against white people. Any policy trying to end the practices of racism was labeled affirmative action and was inherently reverse racism. These themes around racism were motivated by fear and stoked by politicians.

As kid growing up in this, it didn’t seem wrong. How does a fish define water?

Many of the same arguments are being spewed today by the anti-equity movement. Labeling any attempt to increase equity as critical race theory is same rhetoric as saying that affirmative action equates to reverse racism.

Arguing to end critiques of racism upholds the status quo and allows the unwritten rules of racism to continue. Arguments over personal responsibility and “colorblindness” originate in “their fine people if they stick to their own” rhetoric and have a similar outcome of limiting access to people of color.

We cannot end racism without critically analyzing the role of race in our communities and this includes analyzing our own perceptions of race. We must recognize racism as a spectrum rather than believing it singularly lies in the extremes of white supremacy and accept it is possible to have ideas rooted in racism without having a racist ideology.

Hard conversations about race, gender and ability must be allowed to happen to end the silent teaching of racism. These conversations must not just happen at an individual or family level, but across all our institutions including schools.


Steve Phelps, Saratoga Springs, is a teacher in Salt Lake City School District with a degree in mathematics and master’s degree in special education. He is an advocate for educational equity for all students and inclusion for students with disabilities.

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