February is National Black History Month—a fitting time to ask, what is the extent of equality in Corvallis? How progressive can a population that consists mostly of individuals of one ethnic group be? In the nine years that I have lived in Corvallis, I have come to view Corvallis as a fairly progressive community, while at the same time, outside of Oregon State University, not particularly diverse in its ethnic composition. So while our community is certainly forward-thinking, it’s nevertheless useful to speculate on the question of race and misinformed opinions.
Here I define minority as an underrepresented group, such as women, ethnic groups, and the poor, rather than simply by numbers. Within any society, when a particular group of people holds a stronger position of power, that group will not simply lose its position, even when laws change. In the United States, arguably, many ethnic minorities do not hold the same degree of influence as do your average white males. Yet, many individuals, especially those in towns where diversity is lacking, maintain that the playing field is now even and we are in a post-racial society. Under scrutiny, this theory falls apart.
A metaphor might help make this clear:
The starting pistol goes off with a bang. One individual takes off quickly. Another runner is unfairly delayed, perhaps physically held back, yet is expected to catch up to the first runner. We might say that the late runner represents the ethnic minorities, while the runner who started first represents the ethnic majority. Simply stating that the two runners view each other as equal in strength and endurance does not address the disadvantage given to the late runner who was held back at an earlier point in the race.
Still, some of us may subconsciously or blatantly attach negative traits to various groups. The late runner might become, in the minds of some, unable to keep up because of some genetic or cultural inadequacy, rather than the history of oppression that actually holds the blame. Perceptions of a particular group are acquired through popular media, as well as through unsaid remnants of racism and beliefs in racial superiority. A lack of diversity can contribute to these assumptions because there are few immediate counterexamples to oppose stereotypes.
It is important for us to foster equality by guarding ourselves against incorrect opinions about groups outside our own. As feminist thinker Peggy McIntosh states in her often-cited essay, White Privilege, “Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.” We do not want to hide the truth of privilege, whether it’s privilege of a particular ethnic group or even the one percent.
Rather than be distracted by false assumptions about other groups, we might attempt to correct the economic and social inequality in our culture, and ultimately within our own hearts. To quote American philosopher and civil rights activist Dr. Cornel West, “When visionary and courageous citizens see through the dogmas and nihilisms of those who rule us and join together to pursue democratic individuality, progress can be made in our communities and our society.”
by Joel Southall