The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Everyone’s a little bit racist

So, some windbag apparently came out and declared that if racism is inborn, then shouldn’t racism be perfectly acceptable?

Well, here’s the thing. Racism is not inborn. No, no, no. Racism, in fact, *can’t* be inborn, because biologically there is no such thing as “race.” In order to be racist, therefore, people have to – HAVE TO – be TRAINED to recognize a thing called “race,” TAUGHT to understand what its characteristics are, and SHOWN how to interact socially with people from other “races.” Race is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION.

Now, certain patterns of behavior may be inborn and the concept of “race” may be deployed in society to access certain inborn patterns of behavior in different circumstances. You can be taught, for instance, to access the “member of my group/herd” pattern around “white” people and the “member of a rival group/herd” pattern around “black” people – that is, once you’ve learned what a “white” person is and what a “black” person is, definitions which vary widely from place to place and time to time. Most people today probably don’t know what an “octoroon” is but it used to be quite important in this country (hint: Homer Plessy was one, and, in order to get arrested for riding in a whites-only car, had to *tell* the train conductor about his lineage, because that was how white he looked.

So, now that we’ve established that there is biologically no such thing as race and that racism, therefore, is inherently ridiculous, let’s talk about how and why everyone actually is racist.

Let’s consider the average white person who does not consider himself racist, and imagine him walking through a black neighborhood. Imagine that for a moment, now, answer: is he nervous? Is it okay for him to be nervous? Is it racist for him to be nervous?

Now let’s back up a little bit, because there are several problems with the question that I just asked. First, I wrote about the “average white person” using the grammatical male gender, and I imagine that you imagined a male as the “average white person,” although if you didn’t good for you. That’s a problem with language and gender, that I’m sure many of you were already aware of, but I bring it up because it foreshadows what I’m about to say about race.

When I asked you to imagine a “black neighborhood,” what did you imagine? Was there a specific, predominantly black neighborhood that you know of that you imagined? Did you just imagine a generic ghetto? Perhaps a scene from “The Wire” or some other mass-media entertainment program? Did you imagine a black neighborhood that you have walked through and felt nervous in? What are the qualities and characteristics of the black neighborhood that you imagined?

So just think about that for a minute, in a non-defensive manner. Yes, it was a trick question, and yes, by making the white guy nervous I activated some cultural connotations that I knew carried images of “the ghetto.” Yes, just because some black neighborhoods have high crime rates doesn’t mean that your simply knowing that fact makes you racist. Statistically, black people in this country are poorer, less powerful, and more likely to commit violent crimes than white people, and using a simple statistical fact – one that every white person seems to know – as data to populate your imaginary black neighborhood doesn’t make you racist. Right? Well, actually, it does. Separating people into groups based on skin color – a biologically irrelevant trait – and then making generalizations about those people (or where they live) is, by definition, racist. I know it’s widespread, it’s in our culture, it’s impossible to get away from — but that is EXACTLY why we have to acknowledge it. We have to be aware that our default ways of thinking about certain culturally delineated groups are based on historical accidents and methodological fallacies in order to be able to even begin to resist the constant and continuing indoctrination of our racist society.

So is racism acceptable? Yes and no. It is acceptable in that we HAVE TO accept the fact of our racism in order to defeat it, because racism is tricky, as my little ploy hopefully illustrated. On the other hand, we shouldn’t just accept it without trying to change it because it holds us back as individuals and as a society to rely on irrational and baseless tropes to provide us with context for our decision-making.

And look – we’re making progress. Anyone who’s studied the civil rights movement in this country, or who knows who the President is, has to acknowledge that we’re making progress. But as people like Rush Limbaugh show us, we’re still far from living in a post-racial society and we all have a lot of work to do.

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September 19, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,

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