In high school I had a beautiful white cocker spaniel named Champ. When an African American would come to the house he would bark furiously. Was Champ a racist dog? Can dogs even be racist? The explanation of Champ's racial bias was pretty simple. My family is white. We weren't terribly social. My mom had few friends come over, and the ones that did were probably all white. I had few friends over, and the two or three I regularly did were all white. The only African American (or non-white) people Champ experienced were there in a role which dogs inherently hate: meter readers, mail men, and delivery people. I didn't realize my dog's bias until I invited a friend over who was African American and Champ absolutely would not stop barking at him, which was totally uncharacteristic of his normal behavior with white strangers who come over. So again, was Champ a racist? By the literal definition I suppose he was, his reaction to a new person was based on race. He was using race as a mechanism for judging people. But I would argue that this sort of racism, if it really is to be considered racism at all, is somewhat unavoidable, and not in the same class as a bias which has no contextual explanation or basis. If Champ had gone on to have numerous positive experiences with non-white people and persisted in his negative reaction to non-white people, then I think he can more confidently be labeled a racist dog. But that may not entirely be the point.
The reason I bring all this up is because of my own experience the other night,and my attempts to understand it. The other night I went out to walk another dog (this one shows no sign of the earlier one's race bias). It was about 1:00 am. My neighborhood is usually completely deserted at that time, I never see anyone. On the other side of the street, heading towards the front of a small condo complex was a young, early-twenties African American. If I had merely factually noticed his existence and his physical features, that would be the end of this blog post. But, I did more, and I'm still trying to understand what and why. I've been over-analyzing those milliseconds for the last few days and along the way I've surely begun to lose some clarity on what flashed through my mind, but I'll try to relay it as accurately as I can.
My reaction seemed to be something along the lines of suspicion, the feeling that he didn't belong, and that he might be a suspicious character. The big question I asked myself immediately after realizing the flash of reaction I had was to wonder if I would have thought anything of him if he had been white? or Asian? or...? And the answer appeared to be no. Without any context my reaction sure seems like a racist one. But, was it really? Am I? On some level I think we're all guilty of erroneous and unfair biases, but picking apart the reasons for my reaction makes me a little unsure about whether my particular reaction crossed that most important line.
As with Champ, there are contextual bits of information that may be relevant.
- Having seen them come and go for years, having interacted personally with quite a few of them, I knew everyone in the small condo complex of 6 or 7 units. The owners have been all in their thirties, forties, or fifties, and there have not been any African Americans living in the units. Seeing a younger African American approaching the complex was, therefore, unusual. But, does that absolve me of the crime of thinking he was out of place? I'm not so sure. Clearly in this case the only information available to me to form any sort of reaction his race, his age, his dress, and the lateness of the hour. His dress was normal and his age was a little young for the complex.
- The street on which I live has lots of whites, quite a few Asians, a number of people of Hispanic descent, but only one house two blocks down that has African Americans.
- The only African Americans I routinely see on my street live are a group of regulars who come through this neighborhood to get to the liquor store adjacent to my house, where they buy those single serving cigars which they then seem to fill with marijuana and smoke in the alley right behind my house.
So, like Champ, my experience of African Americans in my immediate neighborhood is very slight, and where it exists at all it is primarily negative (the drug users in the alley). I would argue that our brains, which are engineered specifically for the task of looking for patterns and trying to extract meaning from what can be meaningless or misleading data, are very prone to making unreasonable and unfair conclusions which may linger in our subconscious before occasionally bubbling up into our conscious mind. It was not right that I should see a person and make any assumptions about him based on his race, but is it necessarily racist? Or can it merely be unconscious pattern recognition spewing out erroneous notices? Is it racist to merely have such a brief reaction of suspicion in this situation, or does it only become racist when you accept that suspicion as valid?
I found the incident troubling because I knew I had felt something unfair towards a man who did not deserve my suspicion, and that my suspicion was most likely based primarily on his race. And all the context in the world doesn't remove those facts, though it might explain it.
I saw the same person the next day and had the urge to go up to him and apologize. But I instantly realized that I'd only be doing it to make myself feel better and in the act be burdening him needlessly with the awareness that he had been the object of my suspicion; sometimes I have well meaning but very stupid ideas.
Most of us strive to be better than we are, kinder than we are, fairer than we are, and I was disappointed with myself the other night. Hopefully this disappointment and my thinking about it will inform my future reactions.