I've been meaning to write about racism, but I've been too scared
How can I, a middle-class white man, make that statement? I mean, I must be, as the song says, a little bit racist, right? I must harbor some resentment toward people who aren't white people, right? I'm deluding myself, right?
Well, I don't think so. I know that some people are racist, and I know I'm not perfect, but racism just isn't a part of my mental or emotional makeup. I'm not even trying to be "politically correct" and say that I'm careful never to offend people while I'm really masking my racism. I still use the term "black" more often than "African-American," and if that makes me racist, then I guess I am. But that seems silly. Everyone calls me white and not Polish-Lithuanian-German-Scotch/Irish American, and that's fine. Maybe that makes those people racist, too.
I don't know why I'm not racist. My parents don't act like racists, but they're more prejudicial than I am, and I call them on it all the time. They don't go around burning crosses, but they do make generalization based on race, and I always have to point out how silly they sound when they say it. My father is worse than my mother, but they both do it. I don't think of them as racist, but I suppose some people would. The point is: When I was growing up, they never made those statements around me (my parents, to their credit, understood that adults don't really need to discuss absolutely everything with their impressionable children, so I never knew much about my parents' political beliefs, for instance, until I was much older, because when I was 12, it wasn't any of my goddamned business), and they never did anything that was racist. It was never an issue for us. I didn't know many people of different races, because Bucks County in the 1980s was mostly white, but when I did encounter people of different races (mostly Asians, if I remember correctly), I didn't really think anything of it. They were just kids. Of course, some of the stereotypes applied, but not to the point where I could say "Man, all those Asian kids are good at math and science!" It just wasn't an issue.
It became less of an issue as I got older, because I met more and more people and learned more and more about people. I have worked with people of other races and taught people of other races, and if I was racist before (and I doubt it), I learned that you really can't generalize about people. Why this is a stunning insight I'll never know, but it seems some people still can't make it (including, occasionally, my parents). I say I'm not racist not only because I don't discriminate against people (I'm not in any position to do so, but it's not like I would anyway), but because I never make statements (or even think statements) like "Well, all black people like fried chicken." I think that's what people say when they claim that everyone is a "little bit" racist - doesn't everyone say or think something like that at some time or another? Well, I don't. I've said things like "When I taught, I noticed that many of the Hispanic kids came from single-parent households," but if that's racist, we might as well never discuss anything ever again. That's just a statement of fact based on the kids I talked to. It's certainly not generalizing, as in, "All Hispanic kids come from single-parent households." That would be untrue and racist.
I suppose it depends on your definition of racism. Have I told racist jokes before? I sure have, when I was a kid and didn't know any better. I've also told Polish jokes even though I'm Polish, so there's that. Yes, the jokes were racist, but I also had no idea that they were racist. Nobody told me, either, I just came to the realization that they were. I don't call people "Oriental" anymore, either, because those people who were offended by it said it was dismissive, and as I read exactly what "Oriental" meant, I came to realize that while I might not consider it offensive, it's defining a group of people by what they are not, i.e. European. "Oriental" is a term that Europeans used to define something exotic, and it's outdated. I don't think it's politically correct to call someone Asian (or, better yet, by their specific nationality), but if it is, so be it. Similarly, I don't think calling someone "black" is racist, mainly because I see far too many "African-Americans" calling themselves "black." Of course, many African-Americans call themselves the "n" word, too, but I never use that because, well, it's racist. It saddens me when black people call themselves the "n" word, as well.
Again, it gets back to your definition of racism. Is it racist to look at demographics and state facts that can be gleaned from them? Is it racist to point out that Pine Ridge, the reservation in South Dakota that is famous because of the Leonard Peltier case, is the poorest place in the United States? I suppose it's racist to draw conclusions about all Indians (whoops, can I not use that term, even though many Natives use it?) from the example of Pine Ridge, but some people say we can't even draw conclusions about the residents of Pine Ridge from the example of Pine Ridge. Again, how can we ever fix the problems of minorities in this country if anyone who addresses them is shouted down with charges of racism? I know my history, and I know that the problems faced by minorities are largely "not their fault." However, at some point, someone - black or white or yellow or red - has to talk about what can be done to alleviate those problems and what everyone - not just white people, not just black people - can do to move forward. It's too easy to shout "racism" and ignore anyone who doesn't agree with you.
I write this because of many factors, but Roger's Labor Day post helped spur me on. In that post, he links to a letter from the editor in GQ magazine (yeah, I know) in which the editor writes about having a discussion about race and how the president needs to start one. This ties into Roger's larger theme about how civil discourse has become decidedly less civil, to the point where people at a town hall health care meeting heckled a woman in a wheelchair who was worried about losing her coverage. Yes, a woman in a wheelchair. Later on in the video, two interesting things occurred: One man, who was interviewed about it, said he wasn't at the meeting to listen to anyone's opinions (what, pray tell, are the town hall meetings for, then?) and another person, commenting on the story, claimed that if you're a Republican, you're evil and racist and ugly and you don't like porn. Okay, maybe not that last part, but he basically stereotyped all Republicans as hateful people, which seemed to me as bad as heckling someone at a town hall meeting who doesn't agree with you. That's why we never have frank discussions about race - because it's far too easy to shout, and if we disagree on health insurance, can you imagine the bile that will be unleashed if President Obama started a national discussion about racism?
I'm certainly not condoning racism. I know it's still far too prevalent in this country. When my parents, who are extremely tolerant people, can say things like "Well, that's just the way Hispanics are," I know that plenty of people harbor far uglier thoughts. But it's never fun, no matter how ugly your beliefs are, to be yelled at about them. If we begin a discussion about race, minorities will have to get used to the fact that there are some really, really stupid people out there - and guess what? Some of them are minorities! Yelling at racists won't change their minds; it will simply entrench their opinions more. Some people think, "Well, it's fine that I yell, because I don't want to engage racists in meaningful conversation anyway," but that seems like a silly opinion to have, especially if you want to change minds. If you want to feel morally superior to people, yelling at them is fine. But to change someone's mind, you have to understand why they feel a certain way. Most people don't want to know why someone is racist, they just want them to stop being racist. Similarly, most racists don't want to talk about it, because they think they'll get yelled at. Most racists, I would guess, are "casual" racists, like my parents, who wouldn't dream of discriminating against someone based on their race but think nothing of making generalizations based on race. So they would be appalled that someone thinks they're racist and would immediately get defensive. There's room for leeway on both sides. And, of course, it's very difficult to bring it up with anyone, because even racists are aware of the ugly history of racism. If it's your family, you might be able to bring it up (as I do with my parents, even though I never say they're racists), but it's something you just don't bring up with people, even if they're close friends, unless it gets obvious. I certainly don't blame people for never speaking of it; nobody wants to admit they make racist statements, even if they aren't aggressive racists.
I'm not sure what the solution is. I have a feeling I know why I'm not racist. Part of it is because my family was never one to put pressure on the kids to conform. We had a strong family structure (and my grandparents were racist in the way that people born in the first two decades of the twentieth century were; i.e., they were raised with certain attitudes and never gave them much thought, but they didn't go around burning crosses and lynching people, either), but it was never a case of my grandfather or father sitting me down and explaining what the world was like and if I was a real Burgas I'd think that way too. It's no revelation to say that racism is learned, and I think a lot of it has to do with parents and grandparents making a concerted effort to "indoctrinate" their children. My parents never believed in that. They raised me by example, and generally, their example was a good one (as I wrote, they rarely discussed "adult" topics with me). I learned from their actions that we should treat people as individuals, so even if they thought all Pakistanis, for instance, were raving Muslims lunatics (they didn't), I'd never know, and the only Pakistani I ever met was a wonderful man who made us dinner one night, and damn! it was tasty. Many young people learn to parrot their parents' prejudices, and by the time they start thinking for themselves, it's too late. The other reason I'm not racist, of course, is where I grew up. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood and was exposed early on to a relatively liberal lifestyle (my parents voted for Ronald Reagan, I know, but it's not like they were hardcore Republicans - they just didn't like Carter). And I went to college, where any prejudices I might have had (and I don't recall having any) were blown up fairly quickly. I just never cared about someone's label. Again, maybe early on I wasn't exposed to large groups of a certain stereotype living up to that stereotype, so I didn't get a chance to "learn" that "all" of a certain minority was lazy or drunk or angry or dumb, and by the time I met members of those minorities I was smart enough to realize that one drunk person doesn't mean everyone of that group is drunk.
One thing that seems crucial for combatting racism is thinking about our attitudes toward the world, something I do maybe even too often. Whenever I ask my parents to "prove" what they're generalizing, they sputter a retraction and we all move on. If you ask racists where they get their information, they either retreat further into name-calling or they're forced to realize they don't have accurate information. At least then they're exposed and they might be forced to re-evaluate their thoughts. Many don't, of course, but instead of yelling at them, people should ask them why they believe what they do and try to get them to admit it's all anecdotal, based on one experience they had when they were 12 years old, or it's something "their Daddy always said." People don't think enough these days, and it's frustrating. One thing I appreciate about my father is that he does a lot of research before he makes up his mind. Once he makes up his mind, his opinion tends to calcify into hard certainty even if new evidence comes to light, but at least he does research beforehand. I know that education won't solve all our problems, but it's a start.
I don't mean to be so self-congratulatory in this post, because I'm well aware of my shortcomings. Racism just isn't one of them. And I don't think I'm alone in this. I've never heard my lovely wife express any sort of racist sentiment. Beyond that, I'd like to think most of the people I've met in my life aren't given to generalizing based on race, but, like I mentioned above, it's very difficult to tell. But I do reject the idea that "everyone's a little bit racist." You might think that would make it easier to discuss racism. I think it puts people on edge and less trusting. If I ever meet Roger (although then I'd have to go to Albany, and who wants that?), I'd like to think we could meet without either of us thinking to ourselves, "Well, this guy is white/black, so he has some attitudes about things that are common to his race." That seems awfully shallow.
Or maybe I am just deluding myself. Maybe I'm a raving racist and I just don't know it. That would be weird.