Sunday, January 4, 2009

Do racist ideas make one a racist?

Do racist ideas make one a racist?

I suppose it depends on how you define racist.

Before I go into this, let me do something…

[Writer gets down on knees]

My dear black readers, or any black person who has an interest in closing the racial gap in this country, please, PLEASE, take the card with the word RACIST on it and tuck it into your back pocket. You know the one; it has an arrow pointing to whomever you flash it at. Don’t get rid of it just sit on it for a bit.


The word racist is too singular, too final. It is a brand that many white people see as the end of the conversation. Society has succeeded in making being a racist so bad that once that accusation has been made, you have been excluded from having any further opinions and therefore need no longer participate in the discussion.

Quite honestly, I see the premature and too frequent pulling of this card as one of the singular biggest obstacles to real discussions on race relations, and the progress such discussions can foster.

“Why shouldn’t I call a racist a racist?” you may ask. “How is that hurting progress?”

Because it is possible to just be a little bit racist. It is not like being pregnant; it’s not all or nothing. The word does not allow for gradients and therefore should only be pulled when all doubt has been removed and the racist has completely lifted the bed sheet and been exposed in entirety. Keep in mind that to end racism, or simply make a little progress, white people will have to go along. Smacking around potential allies is not helpful.

[Writer stands back up]

Now that we took care of that, let’s address the question. The answer is maybe.
Many may have heard someone, while defending a charged statement, state that they have a black/white friend, so are therefore not racist. Most black people I know when encountering this argument would hit the B.S. button and immediately assume you aren’t real friends (true story; many, MANY, slave owners were honestly and deeply surprised when slaves abandoned them at the first sign of the northern army. They thought the slaves loved them).

During the early years of our marriage, my wife and I lived in an area where most people had never had the opportunity to get to know a black person. It was very sobering when my wife expressed to me her concern that one day one of these new white friends would say something ridiculous and then refer to their relationship with her in their own defense. This concern caused her to hold back opinions and expression till she not only liked someone but deeply trusted them. It takes a lot of time and effort to trust someone from a group that has historically proven unworthy of trust.

I understand the mindset at the root of this “defense” and wish to address it in my proposition that racist ideas do NOT make one a racist.

In the mind of most white people being a racist means that very simply you do not like black people or see them as bad. You may argue all sorts of societal or systemic issues dealing with power and what racism really is and where it comes from, but still, in the mind of most all whites it really is that simple… racist means you hate black people.

With that definition in mind, white people enter the world of race relations. This white person gets to know, and like, maybe even love, a black person and feels personally liberated and educated. They honestly like a black person and therefore know they are not a racist. They know their own feelings, despite what anyone else argues, and from there begin to build a foundation on the idea that they are not racist, which in their mind and hearts cannot be argued with.

This person may know nothing about history, sociology, culture, whatever. They may hold ideas regarding race and it’s surrounding issues that are on their surface racist. They may be a personality type that loudly expresses themselves with an air of authority… a type I find aggravating at best and autobiographical at worst.

This is the person that can be reached. This is the person worth reaching out too.
This may also be a person who thinks all rap is Gangsta and that backwards ballcaps are a sure sign of criminal intent. This person can be reached, or rather educated.

This person MUST be reached. Progress is possible and to move forward we, both black and white, must take the time to see where the other is coming from. Pointing a finger and slapping the bigot label on someone who is simply inexperienced and uneducated is the fastest way to create a passive bystander at best, and an actual racist a worst.

In closing;
[Writer gets back down on knees, hands folded in pleading submission]

“White people… Shut up for a minute and stop trying to defend yourself. You can be wrong in some areas and still be a good person. Admit you might be wrong, accept you may not be the expert, accept that black people may not trust or even like you, and stop defending yourself long enough to hear what black people are saying.
Guess what, saying black people are more racist than white people is a sweeping generalization and in and of itself a racist comment, so don’t say it.
Please white people, my people, stop thinking it is about you personally and really try to understand the big picture. Be willing to talk about race without assuming you are on trial. You are not.
Let’s just be reasonable.”

Being wrong about race does not make you a racist, but if not properly dealt with can create one.


uglyblackjohn said...

Depending on which defintion of "racist" we're using... EVERYONE is racist (But not necessarily a Rasist).

Joshua said...

I am, personally, ambivalent to "race relations." Bordering on apathetic. I feel no need to defend myself as non-racist because I don't consider myself racist and my opinion is the only one I have control over and/or care about. I try, and am successful most days, to be nice to everyone. I don't go out of my way to be extra nice or extra mean to anyone based on skin color. I just treat everyone - pause for effect - the same. The fact that they are black, white, beige, or sunburned red doesn't change the generic malaise I feel for all humankind.

The argument people make whenever I make these statements is that I am delusional and I treat people differently and just don't know it. I believe this to be categorically false. My legal assistant is black and one of the greatest people I know. She is incredibly smart, I am trying to talk her into law school because she would be great, and one of the most honest and kind people I know. I don't care about any "black" culture she may or may not have. We talk about things we both share as interests (e.g. cooking, country music, etc.) and when we reach topics that we don't share we just acknowledge it as a difference and go on with our lives. We don't feel some compelling need to learn every detail of the other person's life just because we come from different races. I have a similar relationship with my black paralegal and had similar relationships with black friends in law school and black lawyers I worked with and against throughout my life.

I do not mean to diminish the need for race relations in some situations. I use to work in Philly quite often and know that it is a huge issue there. I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the places where race relations are so bad that we forget that there are a lot of places where it just doesn't matter as much, or at all. I do not believe that this is a systemic problem, I think that it is isolated to large but concentrated areas where there are personal situations that cloud peoples ability to just treat everyone as people without regard to their skin color. I am not looking for or trying for all black people to trust and/or like me. If I meet someone and they like me and after time trust me then that is great, regardless of, and most likely in spite of, my color. I find relationships, and even passing acquaintances, much more enjoyable and productive by finding common ground rather than trying to explore differences and opening the door to quantification of better or worse, more or less, and most damaging right or wrong.

Debo Blue said...

Great post. I admire your writings and that you publicize your musings.

I've been lurking around here for a while and decided to "decloak" to commend you on another awesome post.

Happy new year to you and the family.

PS-I didn't like "7 Pounds".

Duane said...

The unfortunate thing about being "reasonable" is that no matter how much a person thinks he/she is doing it, there are a room full of critics that will say you are not doing enough. To those critics on both sides of the race divide, I simply say "ignore them". Your beautiful children are the product of the love between two people who have learned to look beyond race and see each other for who you really are: people. As far as the cultural critics out there go, they do not deserve your kneecaps. Save 'em for all the running around you are going to be doing as a father.

tristanjh said...

Well said.

Changeseeker said...

This is a well written post with some very good points. I did have a few thoughts while reading it, however.

1) Asking that Black people NOT to play the race card is playing the race card.

2) Black people who use the word "racist" (or White people using using the word to describe other White people?) may, in fact, being trying to START the conversation. White people that panic at the sound of that word are typically not ready to talk anyway. We might WISH they were, but they're not.

3) "Society" hasn't made BEING racist bad (the default position of the social structures in the U.S. IS White Supremacy); it's just made being CALLED racist bad. Most White folks are comfortable with being racist. They just don't want to be called on it.

4) I would suggest that racism is a condition or an attitude rather than an "opinion," at least partly because an opinion ought to mean that there are facts to support it. Racism cannot be factually supported as reasonable.

5) I totally agree with you that there are levels of commitment to racism as a perspective, but I personally believe that one CAN be a "little bit pregnant" (in that being two weeks pregnant is quite different from being eight months pregnant) and in precisely that same sense being a "little bit racist" is still being racist. Trying to put a nice face on it is part of the problem White people need to get ahold of.

6) Your reference to "smacking around potential allies" ignores that African-Americans are, in fact, being smacked around by individual racists (intentionally and unintentionally), as well as by the system of institutionalized racism in the U.S. ALL day EVERY day. Asking them to continue to suck it up while being kind to Whitey is old, old news. They've had to do that for hundreds of years just to survive. It hasn't worked. The only wonder is that they haven't burnt the whole country down long ago.

7) If "racist ideas do NOT make one racist," exactly what is it that does? That's like the mother of a bank robber saying to a reporter, "My son isn't a criminal. He just has some criminal ideas." Our ideas drive our behaviors.

8) I would suggest that racism isn't as much about not liking Black people or seeing them as bad, as it is about seeing them as inferior. That's why many White people are so freaked out about the election of Barack Obama. It's not about "liking" him or seeing him as "bad." It's about "if Black people are NOT inferior (as I have been socialized to believe), then I am not SUPERIOR" and that's the rub.

I know this is a long comment and I hope that's okay. As I said, you raised some good points and your finish is strong. This is just my two cents.

brohammas said...

Debo- welcome, and as long as you don't trash the movie "Rudy", you can disagree with my movie picks all you want and still be welcome.
Duane- Thanks for the kind words and the "forget them" attitude that everyone needs to adopt on a personal level to some extent. I would have to say that I think my wife and I haven't learned to look past our race but rather have recognized each for what it is and appreciate our cultures as part of who we are, and we are OK with that... more than OK.
UBJ- sheesh.. your just being racist... must be that BYU coming out:)

Joshua- This post is a prime example of what I speak. I doubt you find yourself "superior" and would not call you a racist, but your apathy towards race is a privilege of being white that minorities do not enjoy. I was once apathetic but have created a family that no matter how much I wish to not care, others will not let me. That is not fair that a black person does not have the choice to be apathetic... they could try, and many have lifetimes of practice acting like they don't care (it makes getting by in this society much less bumpy), but race relations has direct affect on the lives of black people.
So again, I do not think you a racist, but put forward that your apathy is short sighted.

Change seeker-long posts are more than welcome.
Your stance of racism makes one racist may be academically true, but not popularly true. For a change in greater society we have to speak that society’s language. I see the problems with this issue as being primarily on the part of the larger white populace and would think it more productive to come at this from the same direction as those I really wish to reach. I agree with you on nearly all your points (probably all but I am non-committal) but I say for societal change as opposed to targeted individual change, we have to "back off" some things in order to make in-roads with those you say are not ready.
You say the defensive white is not ready to talk about race... sure they aren’t, at the level you speak of, but this is the person who must be spoken too before they misinterpret the world around them and sink deeper into what "I" would say is true racism. Sure black people have been and are the ones being smacked around, and asking them to "play nice" is unfair, but for the greater good of winning allies and not creating antagonistic whites, playing nice is a necessity.
In my sales experience, be it products or mind sets, I have more success when helping others to see a bigger world or empathizing with others, than I do if you begin by tearing down their present world view and then building them back up.

Most people who need reaching are not trapped in a classroom and run away when feelings or misconceptions are in danger.

I told you I have no problem with long posts.

lyric said...

Perhaps off topic - just wanted to note that this painting is my favorite of yours so far. Lovely lines.


Duane said...

I would have to say that I think my wife and I haven't learned to look past our race but rather have recognized each for what it is and appreciate our cultures as part of who we are, and we are OK with that...

My point is that when...

--you and your wife have a disagreement, it is not a interracial conflict

--/if your wife cooks for you, it is not a soul food experience every night.

--you go out with your wife, it is not a racial social experiment.

-- the kids are asleep and the night is about to get "fun", when the lights go out, everybody's black :). Race does not matter at that point.

Yes, both you and your wife bring cultural experiences to the table. But as I just pointed out, race is such a small part of our everyday lives. We just like to talk about it.

brohammas said...

Duane- agreed... though my wife does cook a good Jambalaya.

LJ said...

This is a very good blog post. I had to think a lot about it, and ultimately I agree with you in the sense that we shouldn't be so quick to use the word to condemn. Rather, we should focus on associating racism with certain acts/behaviors/attitudes by pointing these out, explaining, and criticisizing them as they occur.

But as an African-American, the biggest problem I have with this advice is that it plays into white privilege. It assumes that in order for something or someone to be deemed racist, a white person has to acknowledge it as so. This is perhaps one of the biggest frustrations margenalized people have to live with. The underlying problem is not being called a racist; like you said, it's being called a racist by a non-white. I think that I would rather have my voice heard and my opinions acknowledged than to wait until someone else feels comfortable enough to validate my reality.

IMHO, the ideal solution would incorparte what I wrote above, correcting the use of the word "racist" as a term of condemnation and removing the need for white validation in order to for something/someone to be recognized as racist.

This is a very good video on calling out racist actions while avoiding calling someone racist:

Also, I want to say that I cosign changeseeker.

brohammas said...

LJ- You are so right about how frustrating it is to have to wait for someone else to validate your experience before it is acknowledged. It should not be that way.
I agree with you about playing into white privilege, how tiring.

But once again I am looking at the end goal. What I am talking about is not what is right or wrong, not about "this is how the world is", but rather a tactic in dealing with, or interacting with, each other with an objective in mind.

I do not advocate letting racist comments, actions, or ideas "slide", but rather a different vocabulary or method in dealing with them when they occur.
Keeping the race card in pocket does not mean staying silent, it can mean asking a follow up question requesting the offender explain a little more or requesting to know how this person came to this opinion...
A discussion, leading to education, can happen this way.

Outright, blatant racism should be confronted directly.

I refer to issues or conversations more along the lines of someone opposing affirmative action, being republican, lamenting the achievement gap and it's possible causes, musical taste, pop culture, how someone feels about the NBA, Obama... any of these things can and do take on racial edges where what may otherwise seem to be right minded, well meaning person, may display an ignorance on how race plays into things.

Calling this person racist will not enlighten them but will send them into outright retreat or self defensive offensive, neither of which lends itself to listening or learning.
The vast majority of white people are not full blown racists and treating them as such has a more likely result of a self fulfilling prophecy than a repentant soul.
Most white people do however have a huge understanding gap, a level of racial ignorance, racist with a lower case “r” if you want to call it that.
What I am communicating is that in the common white vernacular racist always has a capitol “R”. I see a growing backlash against the confrontation approach and it is pushing the two sides further apart…
Hence my bended knees.

Amber said...

Changeseeker: You wrote: "Society" hasn't made BEING racist bad (the default position of the social structures in the U.S. IS White Supremacy); it's just made being CALLED racist bad.

Through this point I was thinking, yes yes yes! You're so right. Then, you added the assumption

Most White folks are comfortable with being racist. They just don't want to be called on it.

And you lost me... for exactly the reasons this post is about. All I could think from then on reading your comment was 'really? MOST white folks are COMFORTABLE with BEING racist? REALLY? I don't think so. REALLY??? I mean, being white myself, I'll agree with Dalyn defining that in most white people's minds racism=believing black people are bad. You really think most whites think black people are bad, and are comfortable thinking that? I know I'm not comfortable with that. Not at all. Be it misunderstandings and misconceptions in my own mind that need changing, or being around other whites who are racist. I'm NOT comfortable with it. Even with your softer definition of racism=believing black people to be inferior. No, I'm not comfortable with that idea at all.

Which gets to the post's point, doesn't it?

And Dalyn, I don't know if your readers can see the value of YOU on bended knee without knowing you. I just can't picture you EVER begging down on your knees. So picturing you doing so is a powerful thing.

Finally, someone brought up the point of defining what constitutes racism and how those marginalized must wait for others to validate such instances. I would put forth that I would not call Dalyn a Racist. However, he has no problem shouting "How 'bout them Utes" when using tribal names for mascots is a debatable issue.

brohammas said...

The University of Utah has permission from the leadership of the Ute tribe to use the mascot. There is no Characature of an American Indian, but "Swoop", a hawk.
Using the name of a tribe, such as Celtics or Irish or Seminoles can be OK... words like "Redskins" is another story.
I of course always root for them to beat the Cowboys (or ANYONE to beat the Cowboys).
I think most tribes have read my post on the merits of football and consequentially were happy to lend thier name to a team.

Amber said...

Thank you, bro. It's good to know they actually have permission from the tribe. I know a few people that say they would like the UofU, except for their mascot - so I will pass the word along to them next time the issue comes up.

And for the third time in one day ('cause I rock): Happy Birthday!

SOILA. said...

Lovely painting, thought provoking post.

Changeseeker sd:
"I would suggest that racism isn't as much about not liking Black people or seeing them as bad, as it is about seeing them as inferior."

That pretty much sums up my view of racism.

I'd rather someone thinks of me as bad (as that is relative) than have one view me as inferior to them just because of being of a different skin colour, religion, social background etc etc.

Claudia said...

Great post! And Amber, thanks for pointing out the aging - Happy Birthday!

On the UofU mascot (which wasn't part of the post), there was a bit of controversy when I was there - the years when Swoop was introduced. As I remember it, yes, the U has permission to use the name. And they could have kept the brave on the horse, with the tribe's permission, if they were willing to offer a certain number of scholarships to Ute tribe members. The decision was made, after much debate, that either it is okay to use the brave or it isn't, therefore, enter the hawk.

And while attending said institution of higher learning, I was forced to take a psychology class, and remember some very interesting studies. Ones that tag us all as racists, depending on the definition. It seems that, using high school yearbook pictures (the favorite tool of psychology researchers), the research showed that no matter your race, you tend to generalize other races. In other words, Asian people recognize differences in other Asian faces much more easily than in White or Black faces. Ditto for Black and White participants. All Asian people look the same? No, of course not. Just to their White and Black counterparts - okay, that is a sweeping overstatement, but you understand what I mean. It seems that looking at your own face in the mirror every day has an effect on your brain. The human brain classifies and categorizes people based on first appearances. Think: old/young, rich/poor, black/white/asian/hispanic/etc.

Am I arguing that we can't help being racist? No, not at all, but it definitely depends on your definition. When you call someone a racist, do you mean that they are behaving in a manner that treats someone unfairly based on their color? Behavior can be shaped. Thoughts? Yes, those too can be shaped, but only through experience, because those categorizations made by one's brain are based singly on what a person has lived through.

Do racist ideas make one a racist? Ask your brain.

LJ said...

Thanks for responding.

Once again, ITA about engaging someone in a discussion and hashing out ideas. But, IMO, that's how you should handle any argument. Personally, I refuse to tread lightly in order to avoid offending you while you are free to offend me. And at least for me, that doesn't have to be resolved in a combatitive manner.

I think the first step would be to change the definition of who does racist things. I'll take it from you that most whites have a rigid definition of what is racist. I think for most people, we've been trained to accept that racism only comes from members of the KKK. By going ahead and pointing out racist acts (without totally avoiding the word) and creating an association with a multitude of actions from different kinds of people, we can show that there are gradients of racism. Perhaps your it's just the case that your solution would be better in the short-term, and I'm taking a more long-term approach.

Also, I believe if having an earnest discussion and using "racist" or some varient of it is enough to scare someone off, that person can't be reached. And it's not my job to force my ideals on them.

Bottom line: I think we should somehow remove the condemnation out of the word and expand the popular definition. I think we should work more towards changing the language of the society instead of speaking it in its current form. It's not the easiest of tasks, but it also isn't the hardest.

Corbie said...

I read your post in google reader when it first came up and then I have been thinking about it since. Now I see that if I take too much time to ponder, I miss the party (and your birthday party apparently). So, happy birthday (belatedly - sorry) and I won't add any more fuel to the fire. I liked the post though and I like Lyric, I love the painting.

JDR said...

I think that the biggest problem in this country is that we are educated wrongly. In school we are never taught to look at thinks from the bigger picture. We are taught economics, chemistry, and history, but we are never taught how they connect to each other. That is the problem with the world right now. Most people aren't critical thinkers, they're critical followers and memorizers. We don't see through the racism because we can't see the bigger picture and weave through the spin coming from every angle. I think that there is a direct correlation between the level and quality of education in a country and the amount of racism and bigotry in a country (if I could prove this I would probably win a Nobel Prize). But there are many evidence of this through out history and the world. I believe improvements have been made, and they will continue with the advancement of the quantity and quality of education, and hopefully we will achieve a great society in my life time.

Rod Johnson said...

I enjoyed this thoughtful post. I am quite pleased with the expression and ease with which you delivered your perspective. I must add, and I may be tardy on my part--being that I have not read all the posted comments--that in my experience, it would appear that Black people are more racist generally, than White people are.

I have only the perspective of a Black man from a limited vantage--biased by the miniscule experiences comparatively to others. Yet, with the limited perspective, what I see and experience is a factor, though a slight one.

I have traveled up and down the east coast, to Africa and now the West. The one thing I have found linking all the African Americans is their disdain for White people, and the unabashed audacity of many of them to express that disdain publicly.
My wife sat in a Health Center once next to a Black woman. There were children of Mexican decent running around screaming and yelling and just being kids. The black women comments to my wife that she hates Mexicans because the Mexicans enter the US to consume its resources and have unruly offspring. That woman's language was more rudely spoken. My wife, shocked, said nothing to the woman but immediately exclaimed to me "Why do Black people think its okay to say racist things to me just because I'm black? Do they think I don't mind?" She said this on more than one occasion and it has been my experience on countless occasions.

My perspective is colored by with whom I choose to associate. My circle of friends includes a significant number Caucasians. The few Black people in that circle have never mentioned racially motivated statements. My negative experiences stem, it seems, from racist family members.

So that leaves me to speculate weakly that based on my family Blacks are more racist. I know that assumption is false. I think it nonetheless.

I do, however, assert that in most Black families I have encountered there is at least one person that is vocally racist. I offer that Blacks in general, particularly fostered by the current social trends in the US, tend to be more vocally racist than Caucasians.

I am finished rambling people.

brohammas said...

I had a long response calling you crazy all typed out and poof! it was gone. I should go get Jermaine so we can pass around the mate' and call you crazy just like old times.

Society does not punish black people for publicly verbalizing thier racism the way it does whites. I have no problem with this, history gives black people much more justification in those attitudes than it does whites.
I would say your experiance shows less how many racists there are but more that white people are on thier best behavior around you.

You have no idea what white people whisper while your kids are running around loudly.

You speak of frequency of racism but how about severity?
How often do you hear of white people being beat by cops?
How many black militants were found plotting the death of a white president?
Who is more active today the klan or the panthers?
Jeremiah Wright complains of what white people and society have done while the Neo-Nazis complain about black people existing.
Which is more racist?

O yeah, props out to your wife for her cool waiting room smack down. We both "married up."