I feel like I’m getting a quick minor in social justice this semester as I do my pre-work for Teach for America. I have been inundated with information, anecdotes and statistics about poverty and racism in this country. Everything I’ve read has watered the seeds of justice in me enough to force them to crack open the shells and sprout buds. I have been reminded, in each of my daily readings, to be mindful and aware of the realities of the world—the ones we tend to sweep under the rug because they have become as mundane as dust or dirt. I have been forced to quietly reflect on how my own identity has been shaped by the racial and other social dynamics at play in this country.

Like most white Americans, I never had to think about the color of my skin growing up.

I shamefully remember feeling utterly annoyed by a good friend of mine in my high school class that mentioned how black Americans are systemically marginalized. I rolled my eyes, turned up my nose and scoffed, “Black people? Are you kidding me? They’re poor because they don’t work hard enough. Women are the ones that are marginalized!”

Why did I consider women but not people of color to be marginalized? Because as a woman, I am constantly having to compete with, defend myself against and compare myself to the established “norm”: white males. As a white woman, however, I shared at least one of the characteristics of the dominant group: white skin. And so I have a share of the power scheme. The color of my skin has ensured that I am part of the American norm, and therefore it has never needed to be brought to my attention.

That boy in my class was, obviously, worlds ahead of me developmentally. He had clearly done some reading outside of school to learn about the reality of the American system. (They don’t teach you that stuff in school.)

While I was no doubt right that women in American face misogyny and discrimination every day, it is impossible to pretend that race does not also garner abject discrimination of the worst kind.

Criminal injustice, achievement gaps in education, and socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. all share a common denominator: ethnic and racial discrimination. But since the Civil Rights movement has passed, the issue of racism has been habitually swept under the rug by nearly every American that doesn’t explicitly experience it.

Take me, for instance, in my high school years: I was completely unaware that systemic discrimination of people of color still happened.

More than anything, I blame the education system, which has a bad habit of dancing around reality. (Consider what you learned about the treatment of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and immigrant populations throughout history. Rest assured, you didn’t learn the whole story.)

The lie that keeps the cycles of disparity and inequality alive in this country is the one we’re taught from our first days in school: we live in a meritocratic society in which people who put in the work and effort will succeed.

It’s not true. For white people, this notion merely reinforces negative stereotypes of people of color and of the poor in general. For people of color and the poor, this idea informs them that they are to blame for their own marginalization. Also not true.

None of this means that being white is a bad thing. It means that we have a responsibility to lift up the rug and shake it out. See what has been swept under it. Acknowledge that the color of our skin means something. It can mean that we continue to benefit from an inherently racist system and maintain power that way; or it can mean that we become vehement anti-racists and use our power that way.

For a nation that proudly claims to stand for justice, liberty and equality—the fundamental tenets of our civic culture—I think the duty of white Americans and the choice we face is obvious.

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