Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm a Racist, and You Are, Too

Please read this excellent article at The Root: But My Best Friend Is Black!

Amen, brother. There's a reason why I am not a professional writer--I can't put my thoughts as clearly as this man has and I never will be able to. He nails an important point that I've firmly believed for years: We are ALL Racist. You are. Yes, you. And you, too. And you, up there in Canada, and you, over there in Pennsylvania. You are, and what's more, there's no way you can NOT be Racist. It's built into the human condition, and there's nothing you can do about it.

As the author points out, a lot of people seem to think that "Racism" equates to "Member of the KKK", and so they shy away from this word, and of course, with good reason. Very few people in this world would actually join the KKK, or admit that they think black people have less value in this world than white people. Or, indeed, actually think that way at all. But that's not the ONLY way to be racist, and in fact, that's the most rare way.

Much more common: happening to notice there's three young black guys walking toward you on the street corner and using that moment to power-lock your car doors while you're sitting in a parking lot. (For the record: that's awful. You should be ashamed of yourself.) What's even worse: convincing yourself that the presence of the young men had nothing to do with it and that you just happened to remember to lock your doors at about that time. Now you're a racist AND you're lying to yourself. Or, also very common, having a playlist labeled "Black People Music". (I'm sure John Coltrane is tickled to find himself lumped in with Jay-Z.) An example from my own life: I'm often too friendly to young black women here at The Office. (All two of them.) I don't know these girls from Adam and there's no reason for me to give them bigger smiles in passing than anyone else. But I want to encourage their presence, and I worry that they feel ostracized due to their race, and noticing that is just as racist as locking a car door.

Sigh. The problem, like I said earlier, is that being racist is part of the human condition. Humans feel most comfortable with other humans who look exactly like them. I'm no anthropologist, but my own theory is that back when we were apes, recognizing a strange ape in a nest could be the difference between living and dying. "Stranger" usually meant "danger". (And indeed, the two words are almost identical in French.) And until a method arises in which we can see into a stranger's intentions, judging them as a potential threat relies on visual cues, and for some reason, the prevalent social method to avoid danger involves preconceived notions about the stranger's race. This sort of broad stereotyping may have been beneficial as apes, but as humans, it's just as inhibiting to our development as our old "prevent starvation" metabolisms that make it much easier to gain weight than to lose it. It's much, much too broad. A human of another color doesn't signify danger any more than a piece of cheesecake should be stored as fat in case we don't eat again for three days. The scary thing is, racial stereotyping will blind you to the other contextual cues you SHOULD be paying attention to, like: Possible Intoxication. State of clothing. Time of Day. Intentions of possible stranger. Are they on their phone? Are they listening to music? Do they have their keys in their hand because they're obviously walking to their car? They do? Then why are you locking your car door?

I can't, and you can't, get over being a racist all at once, and in fact we'll never chase away the tendency entirely. But shying away from the concept isn't the way to fix it. When a black person says, "That's racist, and here's why," it's our job to listen. Yeah, minorities disagree within themselves, much like how women disagree over what's sexist and what isn't. And yeah, some minority representatives are super-sensitive and thin-skinned and appear to be constantly offended, and that's annoying. But the beautiful thing about humans is, that person would be just as annoying if they were white.

Two more fascinating posts on race, both short reads, one involving Mad Men*.

Feminism's Problem With Race

Why "Mad Men" Is Afraid Of Race

*Which has the official Stuff White People Like stamp of approval.

1 comment:

Calsee said...

I'm sure you've seen this before, but every time I take a Project Implicit ( test I'm amazed at my own biases. I'm somehow biased against career-driven women, i.e. myself.