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Every degree from every accredited college, university, or trade school must include at least one mandatory course on race, gender, and social justice. There is no field in which students and workers do not need to understand the history of discrimination and the ways oppression still occurs in virtually every work environment in America.

implicit racial bias

I grew up in New Orleans, with extended family in rural Mississippi. As a child, I was given Confederate caps and flags to play with. When we visited Vicksburg, my mother told me, “Oh, don’t look at THAT monument. It’s for Yankees. Ooh! Look at THIS monument! It’s for US!”

I also grew up Mormon, in my late teens before the LDS Church “allowed” Blacks to hold the priesthood. Women still can’t.

As a gay man whose personal politics grew increasingly progressive throughout my adulthood, I am still woefully ignorant of the history of oppression and of ways to diminish institutional racism and sexism and all the other types of discrimination which occur throughout society.

I earned three English degrees. While literature helped me understand other cultures and social classes a bit more, there was never any instruction specifically on race and gender. I had to pick up little snippets here and there. I also taught at a Black university for ten years. An eye-opening experience, I still only caught brief glimpses of my unintentional but still harmful bias and discriminatory behavior. Random learning isn’t sufficient.

I found myself shocked by the racism and sexism I witnessed among some of my gay friends in New Orleans, disturbed that so many people seemed unable to transform their own suffering into understanding the suffering of others.

I found myself shocked by the racism and sexism I witnessed among some of my gay friends in New Orleans, disturbed that so many people seemed unable to transform their own suffering into understanding the suffering of others.

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After relocating to liberal Seattle after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster which itself taught me more about racism, I married another ex-Mormon who believed in social justice. My husband became involved in Socialist politics, and I volunteered with Radical Women. But because my work schedule didn’t allow me time to take actual coursework, I still only learned bits and pieces.

I recently watched “Hidden Figures,” horrified to witness a scientist who wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom in her building. Instead, she had to run half a mile, in heels, sometimes in the rain, every time she needed to pee. How did I not already know about this demeaning, humiliating, everyday oppression?

My current employer feels it important to address racial and social justice. Every employee is required to participate in an all-day training. I also chose to take three additional half-day trainings—Implicit Bias I, Implicit Bias II, and Internalized Racial Superiority. I was astonished to learn that the Irish were not considered white during part of American history, that Finnish people weren’t considered white. It reinforced my understanding of race as a social construct, but I realized immediately I needed an entire semester of such instruction, at the very least. If I had reached the age of 57 without knowing these basic facts, how much more history did I, a reasonably well-educated adult, know nothing about?

A Black co-worker asked me why I was taking this training. “Because I don’t want to be an asshole,” I replied. “Or at least be less of one.”

Yes, we could all study on our own, but the realities of life prevent that from actually happening, even for people who want to learn. And it’s just as important, perhaps more so, that people who aren’t interested in learning about these issues do so anyway. Something so essential to the success and security of our nation can’t be left to chance, any more than we would allow citizens to choose whether or not they felt personally compelled to pay their income tax, or to get a drivers license before sitting behind the wheel of a car.

If our country is ever going to be truly post-racial, ever truly cease its misogyny and finally treat all people equally regardless of color, gender, orientation, religion, or anything else, then everyone must learn about these issues, and much earlier than I have. Some of this history should be introduced in middle school and high school, and taught in even more depth in every accredited institution of higher learning. People in every field of study or work must understand oppression and ways to reduce our complicity in continuing it.

Mandatory courses on race, gender, and social justice should be prerequisites for graduation into society because everyone, even those already enjoying privilege, will benefit in countless ways once all people are treated with equal respect, humanity, and justice.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend