Growing up I would often hear adults around me needlessly include racial identification in descriptions of their daily activities. I might hear someone say things like:
- "My car battery died and a very helpful black man gave me a jump start."
- "This very nice Japanese woman helped me pick up my groceries when they fell on the floor."
- "I was lost and these Mexican children showed me how to get back on the freeway."
If memory serves, the references only seemed to be included when the story was positive. Now, knowing the adults in question, I never got the sense that they meant the statements badly. They did not seem to be commenting out of surprise that a black man, a Japanese woman, or a Mexican child acted helpfully, that the behavior they witnessed represented some freak departure from racial/ethnic expectation/stereotype. Still, it seemed so odd to me. Why mention that additional irrelevant information at all? Was it a holdover from segregation or lack of interaction with people of different backgrounds and the novelty of the racial/ethnic element in the interaction demanded some mention? Was it just a natural tendency of humans to convey visual details when describing an event? Was it a subconscious attempt to reassure me that all people have the same capacity for goodness?
I went the other way, specifically avoiding the mention of that racial/ethnic/etc. information in a story unless absolutely vital to the story, and even then I might only vaguely hint at it. And that's probably worse. The adults around me may have been acting harmlessly and naturally but I was acting unnaturally and in that overthinking and awkwardness dwelling on or highlighting differences (at least within my own mind).
Reminds me of this story:
Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.
But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. Later in the day the younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. The older monk replied, "I only carried her across the river, but you have been carrying her all day."
I'm not sure quite what I do these days... I think and hope my non-mention of irrelevant racial/ethnic/etc. references is at least more natural now.
But, the other day I was saying something to my girlfriend like, "I will have to watch this on the big tv when we get home." And she pointed out that we only have one TV in the house (and I've not had more than one in 20 years) and that despite that I always bafflingly call it the "big tv". And it struck me as perhaps being quite a bit like what the adults around me might have been doing years ago. I have apparently never gotten past the novelty of this TV's size*, just as interacting with a more diverse body of people remained a novelty demanding mention.
* The TV is ~50" inches, pretty average by today's standards but vastly larger than the TVs of my youth and early adulthood
(Racism comes in so many varied and often subtle forms that it complicates talking about it; you need to be pretty specific about just what element/manifestation of racism you're talking about. In this case I'll discuss one of the uglier and most visible kinds.)
To my mind the worst form of racism is the belief that one race is superior to another and that the superior race should take action (legal, social, religious, etc.) against the inferior race as a result of that conviction. Examples are legion, and included nations as well as social/political organizations (South Africa (during Apartheid), Germany (during the Nazi reign), U.S.A. (during antebellum and Jim Crow), as well as the KKK, neonazis, etc.)
What boggles my mind is the idiocy and dishonesty of their position.
When I was 14 I was at a small summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina. Everyone working at the camp and everyone attending the camp was lily white; no one of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent. Almost everyone at the summer camp was from the surrounding Southern states. Racism was rampant but fortunately ugly comments rarely came up since there was not but a pale face to be seen or insulted. But I remember this one time the topic came up, and this one boy, whose name was the name of a kind of monkey, suddenly announced, "I am smarter than any black person on the face of the Earth." What made this seem instantly laughable, distracting me temporarily from the horrendous and vulgar racism, was that he was truly one of the stupidest people (of any genetic background) I'd ever encountered; he was almost sitcom human stupid or perhaps penniless Trump stupid. But he was serious, horribly serious, and I feared and felt for anyone of any non-white hue who might ever cross his path. Several of us there argued with him, tried to point out the ridiculousness of his statement, but he was having none of it. He was so unaware of his own place in the universe that one could hardly hope to convince him of anyone else's place within it. I was still young, but I had certainly come across quite a few people, made from all sorts of different genes, who I knew or strongly suspected were vastly smarter than I was. How could this idiot imagine he was smarter than ~1 billion or so (depending on what you count) people he'd never met? That is idiotic and worse deeply dishonest, as he lived in a major city in the South, and surely had encountered many black people who were infinitely smarter than he was, and he simply chose not to notice or believe it.
But it is not hard to imagine why he (and others) seem to need to believe such an absurd position, need to believe that they are better than an entire race, because things get rather confusing for them if they don't. The wildly racist often profess strong values, and no doubt most try to live in accordance with them. And many of their values involve a love of freedom, family, righteousness, justice, etc. So to avoid a deep and disturbing sense of hypocrisy they must write off the members of the group against which they stand. If all blacks people are inferior to white people then they can see a logic in allowing them fewer rights, deeming them unworthy of a full and equal position in the world, and any white actions taken against blacks are reasonable in defense of white interests. If these racists allow that some percentage of black people are actually their (individual) superior (across many facets of being, including intellectually), then what are those racists going to feel? I think some parts of their brain would cry foul, detect their hypocrisy, detect their injustice, and threaten their ordered world view. And so it is only a stable and comfortable position if every white man is inherently superior to every single black man (a position requiring ample employ of idiocy and dishonesty).
I keep wondering if that particular camper ever wised up. I hope he has.
The horrible case of 8 year-old Leiby Kletzky lost on a seven block walk to meet his mother, kidnapped and murdered by a stranger he'd asked for directions, has prompted various forms of outrage and advice. One thing I've seen quite a few places is the recommendation that children be instructed not to ask men for help, on the basis that men are more likely than women to exploit a child. And I can't help but wonder if that's really the advice we should be giving?
How much harm does it do children to make them afraid of men, to be given the not so subtle message that men are by nature dangerous? I can't help but think that childhood lesson produces a lasting impact that is very real, but also hard to quantify. And is the damage done by that lesson given to all children truly less than the impact of the assaults/killings/abuses directed at a minority of children? We can easily say that protecting even one child from abuse is worth just about anything, but that would be a lie. While it's hard to compare these things, as a society we clearly do... All parents could escort their children everywhere they go until they are 18, to ensure their safe passage, but society has decided that the children's mental health requires the risk of them being given independence, accepting the horrible things that could happen when they exercise it. So is a society tainted by the fear that men are likely to abuse them worth the reduced harm to some children? I'm not sure.
And separate from that, does the warning to avoid men when in need not cross (or at least come infinitely close to crossing) a very sexist, stereotyping line? What makes me uncomfortable is that you could use a similar logic to explain to a young daughter that she should stay away from black boys. Statistically they are more likely to commit crimes. This advice would make her "safer". But that would be a horrible message to send a child; I can't imagine any decent parent doing it. It's offensiveness is obvious, the fact is black people aren't genetically more likely to commit crimes, the increased crime rate is explained by socioeconomic factors. And so now we turn to the advice for daughters regarding men. Are men more likely to commit crimes because of genetic/hormones or is it because of other factors (environment, education, culture, etc.)? If it is not genetics/hormones then it would seem wholly "unfair" to discriminate on that basis, just as it would be to warn whites about black people when the root danger is socioeconomic, not race. Presumably one would argue that crime is more common among males for genetic/hormonal reasons, and I'd probably agree that there is some truth to that. But I'm not sure even that is enough to make it an acceptable form of discrimination, when every individual male is being judged with comparison to the aberrant males.
And of course all this relates somewhat to my earlier discussions about SlutWalk and whether or not women advising women to take precautions in situations where their behavior and/or dress could put them at elevated risk constitutes sexism. In that case my argument was that it's not sexist (against women) to make women aware of the risk of assault and mention precautions they could take to improve their odds, as long as those precautions outlined do not necessitate women being restricted in how they dress or where they go, and so long as society does not see those who flout these precautions as no longer being victims, should an assault occur. In this situation with children, I see a few key difference. There is in this case the prejudgment that all men may be potential kidnappers/pedophiles/murderers. In this case the solution is to avoid asking all men for help, and it is the blanket nature of the warning that I think makes it so sexist. If the advice given to children was instead, ask any adult woman or any adult man in some degree of authority wearing an employee's uniform engaged in his duties (e.g., grocery store manager, postal worker, city construction worker, etc.) then I would feel the advice less sexist and more reasonable; I do not know what the right selection criteria would be for men equally unlikely to violate children as the average woman, but I'm sure there are some.
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.
Political Correctness often runs amok, and when it does its primary fault is that it denies very real but unpleasant truths. We shrink from the real discussion of the issue by being offended when a little boy tells an emperor he has no clothes. In the news today is the story of Harry Reid apologizing for making racial remarks about Obama during campaign. The comments he's being made to apologize for are:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'
To those who find offense in the idea behind the words he chose, I say... What I find deeply offensive about that statement is that it is a true and accurate reflection of our still racially biased America. There is nothing we should find offensive about someone acknowledging that truth. Would anyone seriously argue that Obama's odds of election would have been greater (or exactly the same) had his skin been very dark? You and I may wish his skin color didn't matter to many of the voters, but I'm not so naive as to believe it doesn't. And no one could reasonably argue that Obama's oration, and its lack of Ebonics, didn't make him a far more palatable candidate. Harry Reid made a true and accurate statement, and now must apologize for it, because that's easier than requiring those who find knee-jerk offense acknowledge the shameful truth in his statement.
To those who find offense in the phrase "Negro dialect", I say... The phrase may have been poorly chosen, but I'm not clear if that phrase would necessarily offend most people. And I'm not sure what phrase would have been the right one. The term "Ebonics" seems to be the preferred term for what he was referring to, though I must confess I feel somewhat uncomfortable using that term, it has never felt like a legitimate word, being used primarily in non-serious contexts, as part of late night comedians' joke. And it seems like that word only came into being within the last 10-15 years. Would African-American dialect be an acceptable term? The term "Negro" can certainly be a charged word, but I've never understood it to be an automatically offensive word. The word is to be found in the terms "Negro spirituals" and the "Negro League", and while those terms represent things born of cruel and always unequal treatment, the "Negro" in those phrases calls to my mind the very best of men and women. The "Negro" in those terms is the one who triumphed against adversity, found beauty in despair, demonstrated excellence in injustice. But perhaps the word has a very bad association for many, I can certainly imagine some hideous people using it offensively, but there I think it's the context and not the word that primarily offends. (To be safe, I never use the word.) Whatever the case, I would hope people could see beyond the word, and find in this context no offense.
To those who find offense in Reid suggesting Obama could choose to speak in Ebonics, well, that is reality. People routinely vary their speach patterns to fit in. I've seen African Americans do it, Southerners do it, rednecks do it, Bostonians do it, etc.)
(I know little of Harry Reid. I've heard his name quite a lot over the last few months with regard to the health care debate, but other than that I'm woefully ignorant of the man, and am certainly not defending him on the basis of any knowledge of him or fondness for him.)
It's a few days later, and the more I see people react to this, the more it puzzles me. When I've listened to people, from pundits to politicians to people on the street, no one seems sure exactly what part of what Harry Reid said was offensive. It's quite bizarre. Everyone seems to feel some obligation to suspect offense (white guilt or black outrage), but no one seems to be able to pinpoint the offense. A few seem to feel "Negro dialect" is an offensive term, but many people (and scholars) say it's a valid and inoffensive term, but technically different from Ebonics ("Negro dialect" being the dialect of slaves and former slaves). Others seem to feel you just shouldn't speak about how much "hue" can matter in public acceptance, regardless of that horrible truth.
The Republicans are thoroughly disgusting me with their attempts to make this issue into something. It's clear they are trying to use this to derail Harry Reid and delay, distract, or derail health care. I find it hard to believe men or women of intelligence could find anything worth outrage here. Their only arguable point is that this in some way is reminiscent of Trent Lott's statement back in 2002and as such we should all stop being so "touchy". And if that's their real point (which I doubt it is), then I'd agree with that. Strom Thurmond's politics in the 1940s were horrendous. But, I don't believe Trent Lott was in any way thinking about those aspects of Thurmond's politics when he opined that America would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency; Lott was surely thinking about the many racist-free contributions Thurmond had made to the US in the 50 years which followed. It may have been a short-sighted, stupid, and recklessly effusive thing to say, sure. And an apology was warranted, as it was now, but only because apologies cost nothing, and give us a moment to explain what we meant, and what we didn't mean, and give those who feel slighted an opportunity to feel heard, to be magnanimous, and to be forgiving (and to be loud and rally the masses when it's truly not enough).