bias based on gender, race, or ethnicity considered unacceptable, in some instances, like employment or pay status, it can be illegal. Our nation does not condone discrimination on factors like these, and for many years we have, as a whole, enforced laws and policies that make racist or biased behavior difficult to institute. This attention to equality, however, does not mean that racism, gender bias, or other biases do not occur. In studying the existence of these biases, I examined my own community of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Grand Rapids is a town of about 200,000. As of the 2000 census, the racial demographics of Grand Rapids were 67.30% white, 20.41% African-American, 0.74% Native American, 1.62% Asian, 0.12% Pacific Islander, 6.63% from other races, and 3.19% from two or more races. 13.05% of the population are of Hispanic or Latino heritage from any racial background (Grand Rapids, 2005). All in all, Grand Rapids is a diverse community; I have lived here for many years but in spite of this diversity of backgrounds, I had never noticed any racist behavior and would have classified the community as very racially balanced with a mutual understanding between the largest racial categories of whites, African-Americans, and Hispanic heritage.
In doing this project, I thought about the images of Grand Rapids that are portrayed by the community -- local brochures and billboards feature individuals of all races and of both genders in a variety of roles, from tourist to waiters to professionals. I had never noticed a predominance of one racial group in the local media, or of minorities only being portrayed on the news as criminals or beggars, as I know can happen in a biased environment. I knew that I had seen community leaders in our local government who were racial minorities or women, and so I never thought that our community harbored racial or gender biases.
Before going into my analysis further, I should introduce myself: I'm a white, heterosexual, single female in my 40s, of Irish and German descent, and I live and work in downtown Grand Rapids. I have friends and neighbors who are different from me in terms of familial status, sexual orientation, race, and economic status. I would have never said that these criteria influenced my behavior around these people or that my opinions of them were altered because of these factors. I grew up in a very open and tolerant atmosphere, and I believe that Grand Rapids is a tolerant place that treats all persons equally.
But does inequality exist in my community? Are there other ways that racism and prejudice can show themselves besides the overt discrimination that is a thing of the past? Two hypotheses in the text are especially applicable to this examination of discrimination as a more insidious phenomenon as opposed to a blatant act: first, the Noel hypothesis, which states, "if two or more groups come together in a contact situation characterized by ethnocentrism, competition, and a differential in power, then some form of racial or ethnic stratification will result" (Healey 2003, p. 175). This "contact situation" obviously includes the mixing of groups in a community like mine, and the human tendency toward ethnocentrism leads members of a group, for example, me as a white female, to think that their way of doing things is best, or at least normal. With that in mind, I accepted the fact that the situation in my community was one of conflict between different groups, even if that conflict was not overt or violent.
With this definition in mind, I re-examined the situation in my community: very few of the local news personalities are of a minority racial group; only two of the twelve elected officials on the city's website are racial minorities (Elected and Appointed Officials, 2005). Only two of these twelve were women, either, and that began a small doubt in my mind on the "equality" of my community (ibid.). Is it possible that people in our area, even myself included, subconsciously don't vote for women or racial minorities? Maybe we subtly discourage these groups from running for elected office, or from performing on such a public stage as a newscast. Maybe they are not confident enough in their positions in the community to campaign for such a public office.
I began to re-examine my own interactions with different cultural groups to see if I, as a member of the white majority, could have accidentally perpetrated any of these biases. I remembered one instance as I was getting to know my African-American neighbors several years ago. Our homes share a driveway area, and their home business (a daycare service) required in-and-out traffic often, resulting in my driveway often being blocked. I asked if they could possibly use the back door for comings and goings, not realizing the negative connotation of "back door" for a racial group who was once not allowed to enter an establishment through the front doors. Needless to say, they were insulted by my careless suggestion, and even though we have since built a strong friendship (and negotiated a compromise on the driveway use), I can see now how a cultural bias which I had no intention of suggesting can still influence interactions between groups, strongly supporting the Noel hypothesis of conflict between different groups.
At this point in my recollection of the tensions between groups, I was still not convinced that these types of misunderstandings constitute "racial discrimination." Perhaps these kinds of miscommunications are unavoidable when groups are mixed, and that the conflict proposed by Noel is just a side effect of today's multicultural society. Then, however, I thought about another instance of unequal treatment based on membership in a certain group -- the bias that I can see in our own community against homosexuals. Grand Rapids is a prevalently Christian community with traditional moral values, and homosexuality is not generally accepted as a lifestyle. I noticed a specific instance of the discrimination against homosexual individuals and couples in our community in the coverage by the local media of the renovations undertaken by homeowners in the historic district in which I live.
Recently, the local paper did a full-page spread on the project of rebuilding and renovating the historic homes in my area; the couple whom they profiled was a traditional, Caucasian, heterosexual couple. The couple who live across the street from me have also invested significant amounts of time and money in restoring the homes in this area; they are also homosexual. They weren't mentioned in the article or in any other area coverage of the historical district restoration. Although this instance could be interpreted as a simple choice by the reporter of picking one couple to interview over another couple for simple reasons like their schedules, location (proximity to the station), or other minutiae, I feel that the media purposefully did not include the contributions of the homosexual couple to our district's historical housing because of their sexual orientation not being that of the majority of area readers.
At first glance, these instances of subtle discrimination were so slight that I did not see their significance to the community -- perhaps I was being too critical, or too sensitive, and anyway, I thought to myself, it isn't like I was being discriminated against, right? Upon further reflection, I realized that it was not that long ago that my own status as a woman would have precluded me from my current position as a manager, or even from voting and fully participating in our community. I also realized that in many cultures, my personal religious beliefs as a Christian would place me directly in the minority, and that many cultures could use this to categorize me for different treatment.
In light of these new realizations, I began to examine the exchanges between groups in my community more closely. In looking at both my own experience as the descendant of Irish immigrants as well as the hypothesis of Robert Blauner, that "minority groups created by colonization will experience more intense prejudice, racism, and discrimination than those created by immigration" (Healey 2003, p. 177). In light of this theory, my own experiences as a one-time minority (an Irish immigrant) pales in comparison to the discrimination experienced by groups who were "colonized" as opposed to being immigrants, such as African-Americans. The decimation of the African culture, from traditions to language, was significantly more devastating as a conquered group than the cultural changes that the new world imposed on voluntary immigrant groups like my own German and Irish ancestors (Healey 2003, p. 187). These freedoms to protect their heritage, language, and other identifying characteristics, gave my ancestors more control over their fates when compared to the slight control, if any, exercised by the African-American community in establishing their identity (ibid., p. 49).
This generations-long tradition of categorizing people by their social group and, in turn, by the characteristics that we imply they possess has been beneficial to some groups in my community…