A Reflection on Structural Racism and The Root Cause of Prejudice

The following piece is a reflection written by our Baha’i Chair Student Intern, Sara Rissanen. This piece discusses Structural Racism and The Root Cause of Prejudice, the first of the five central themes of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace.

Structural Racism and The Root Cause of Prejudice is the first of the five central themes of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace. As an intern for the Baha’i Chair, I have learned the essence of this theme and have come to see how it plays out in my own life and our world as a whole. In saying that, I am still a student, learning every day how to bring about a world of peace. I hope you enjoy these thoughts and reflections on what this theme means to me and how I see it playing out in our world today.

This past semester at UMD, I took an intergroup dialogue course. The aim of this course is to bring together individuals of different backgrounds to have open discussion on a specified topic. As a basis for all topics, we begin by discussing discrimination as a whole. An assigned reading for this discussion on discrimination was Fred L. Pincus’ Discrimination Comes in Many Forms: Individual, Institutional, and Structural.  In Pincus’ piece on discrimination, he expands on these three forms of discrimination. Both individual and institutional discrimination are fairly straightforward – the behavior of individuals or institutions with the intention to have a harmful effect on a particular minority group. I found Pincus’ writing on structural discrimination to be very thought-provoking in its application to structural racism. The actions within structural racism are intended to be race-neutral, but even with these “good” intentions there is unknowing harm. It is difficult to eliminate structural racism through enforcement or legal action. The elimination of structural racism takes diving deeper into the cultural values and examining how the society is set up. In learning this, I immediately recognized that structural discrimination is the most harmful of the three as it is the most difficult to remove from society. While individuals can acknowledge and work to change their own intentional harmful actions, unintentional and unknown discrimination is significantly more difficult to bring to the forefront.

I believe that structural discrimination, and in particular structural racism, arises from a lack of understanding. As a matter of human nature, it is typical that unless someone has gone through similar pain in their life, it can be difficult to cultivate true empathy for the pain of another individual or group. Having an understanding helps cultivate empathy. If we look back in history during the abolition movement, there was a great overlap between abolitionists and women’s suffragists. This makes sense when you considered the shared struggle, allowing empathy to grow between the two groups.  In a piece by Beverly Daniel Tatum titled “Who Am I?”, Tatum states that “The truth is that the dominants do not really know what the experience of the subordinate is,” and goes on to talk about how our culture offers only a single stereotypical depiction of any one subordinate group. I believe it is important for individuals who are part of the dominant group to recognize this – that because they do not have the same experiences, or effects of those experiences, working to understand where others are coming from in their actions and beliefs is pertinent. 

As a white woman, my basis to speak on racism feels small. Honestly, writing about racism is uncomfortable for me. There is no way I can understand the experience of discrimination and segregation to the extent that individuals of color have experienced here in America for centuries and continue to experience today. Although it can be uncomfortable it is something that demands to be discussed. Turning a blind eye contributes to the structural racism already in place within our society. The Baha’i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland creates a space for students to consider and gain new perspectives. The Baha’i Chair aims to cultivate strong individuals and allies to examine structural racism in place in our society for centuries.

As the name suggests, the Chair’s aim is world peace. On a world scale, the problem of structural racism expands. Our world is full of different skin colors, cultures, and traditions. It is impossible to aim for world peace without confronting structural racism within individual societies. As best said by the Baha’i Chair’s own Hoda Mahmoudi, “Poverty, discrimination, segregation, and all forms of inequality hold back the advancement, prosperity, and well-being of the whole.” It is only through addressing this problem can we even consider the creation of a peaceful world.

You can view all of the lectures in the series on our youtube channel here.

You can find out more about the Bahá’í Chair by watching our video here.

About the Author

Sara Rissanen is a junior studying Marketing at the University of Maryland. She is currently the Marketing Specialist at the Baha’i Chair for World Peace. Sara hopes to create a better future by opening the conversation of peace-building among her peers.

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