Noah Brand admits that yes, he has internalized racial baggage. Just like everyone else.This article is a response to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” by Jackie Summers.
It’s a truism in American society that any sentence that begins with “I’m not racist, but…” is going to end with something really, really racist. There’s a reason for that, and a reason the sentence is always constructed that way, and until we address it, we’re going to keep hearing that sentence a lot.
So, yes, I’m racist. And so are you. And if that pisses you off, allow me to elucidate.
Much of the problem, to my mind, comes from the fact that we tend to identify people as racist, making it an adjective, or worse, as a racist, turning the adjective into a noun. By saying “that guy’s a racist” we implicitly wall-off the racism, imprison it in his flesh, and by implication taint every aspect of his being with it. We free ourselves from the idea that “a racist” is something we could ever be, allowing us to remain the stainless heroes of our own stories. After all, we don’t burn crosses on people’s lawns, we don’t use certain epithets, and we don’t consciously think “Gosh, I sure do hate people of ethnicities different from my own!” So long as we don’t do those specific things, we tell ourselves, we’re not “a racist,” and we can construct sentences on that basis.
“I’m not racist, I’m just concerned about property values in the neighborhood.”
“I’m not racist, but I think we should look after our own people first.”
“I’m not racist, I just don’t feel like Obama’s a real American.”
“I’m not racist, but c’mon, we all know what they’re like.”
Make your own list. If you’re having trouble, turn on Fox News, they’ll help you out. We hear these things all the time, and they all stem from the same ugly fallacy: they construct racism as something you are rather than something you do. Or perhaps even better, something you have. Something that got handed to you a little at a time when you were a kid and still learning how the world worked. Something you carry around with you to this day, whether you want to or not, and most importantly, whether you know it or not. The first step to laying down that burden of prejudice is to admit that we’re carrying it. You can’t solve a problem until you look at what it really is, otherwise you’re going to be treating a virus with antibiotics or dumping water on a grease fire.
So as I said, I’m racist. I was raised in a racist society, and I carry around a lot of weird cultural crap from that. Heck, as a result of my parents’ globetrotting jobs during the 1980s, I grew up sampling a wide variety of racist societies. If any non-racist society exists, it has as yet eluded sociologists. Our brains like to assign people to vast, stereotyped categories based on superficial features, and we tend to think in terms of “us” and “the Other.” It is literally easier for our brains to be racist than not to be. A bug report has been filed with the manufacturer, but we haven’t heard anything back yet, so we’re going to have to deal with this ourselves.
Here, I’ll start.
I am as white as it is possible to be. My ancestry is English, Scottish, and Swedish, without even that bullshit 1/32nd Cherokee that white people love to claim. (Why always Cherokee? How come nobody ever claims their great-great-granddaddy was Ohlone or Pima or Nez Perce?) Hell, I have an acquired condition that prevents my skin from forming melanin normally, so I can’t even tan. And you bet I carry around some racial baggage.
Every TV show and movie I saw growing up assured me that people who looked like me were Normal and people who didn’t were Other. Stereotypes were casually tossed around, some consciously, others just taken as read. The people around me reacted differently to different ethnic groups, and every little subtlety of body language and vocal tension helped inform my view of how the world was supposed to work.
Did I ever get explicitly told “Black people are criminals” or “Asians are weird” or “Latinos are a great way to scare poor white people into voting for rich white people”? No, not in those terms. Didn’t have to be, really; the messages got through. If you’d asked me, most of my life, whether I was racist, I’d have said no, vaguely thinking of Klansmen or Neo-Nazis or Pat Buchanan, and feeling confident that I definitely wasn’t those guys.
Now that I’m a little older, I know better. I have a bunch of stereotypes in my head, a huge sense of who is Other, that I have to consciously deal with on a daily basis. It’s not that I think these stereotypes are correct or true, but they’re in there anyway. They’re complicated and weird and tied in to other things in often-unexpected ways.
When I was living with a lover who was black, I could never bring myself to dance with her, for fear of being judged by her superior African-American dance standards. For her part, she shared Dave Chappelle’s claimed inability to eat fried chicken in front of white people, for fear of looking like a stereotype. And I counted as “white people,” naturally. Hell, I found myself surprised by Herman Cain’s presidential campaign, because I’d had an unexamined notion that black guys were never that particular brand of asshole. Imagine my relief when the harassment allegations arose and he settled back comfortably into the stereotype of black men as horny sexual predators.
Are these things stupid, offensive, and provably wrong? Oh my god, yes. They’re so stupid it is actually painful to type, to publicly admit to carrying around this much godawful racial baggage. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once, while taking martial arts, I caught myself being surprised that one of the Asian guys in class was terrible at it. I had to have it pointed out to me that, at the Tex-Mex restaurant where I worked, all the kitchen staff were Latino and none of the waiters were. I hadn’t noticed because that just seemed natural somehow. Believe me, I could go on at some length, but I think my fingers would seize up in protest if I did.
Most of all, whenever I’m interacting with a non-white person, I cannot mentally escape the fact of their Otherness. I’d love to take refuge in that comforting lie one only ever hears from white folks, “I’m color-blind, I don’t even see race,” but I actually am color-blind, and I know the difference. I understand why people say that; being aware of one’s own weird racial hangups creates the responsibility to fight them, to work against them, to try to get the hell over them. It’s way easier to just claim not to have any.
Right now we think of racism as this enormous sin that taints your entire being with evil. That can lead only to denial, as people claim to be without sin and therefore fully qualified to throw stones. I think a more useful model would be to think of racism as a human failing, something that exists within all of us to some extent, like cruelty or selfishness or pettiness. We’ve all felt the impulses to be mean to someone we dislike, to grab what we want without regard for the other fella, to resent others for stupid reasons. We’ve all stumbled and succumbed to those impulses at one time or another, too. But you only become a bad person when you embrace those impulses, when you justify them to yourself as not that bad and stop fighting against them.
“I’m not a cruel person, but I love to see that bastard twisting in the wind like this.”
“I’m not selfish by nature, I just don’t like sharing.”
“I don’t have a petty bone in my body, but I’m not going to apologize until he does first.”
“I’m not racist, I just don’t like going in that neighborhood.”
Fits into that category pretty well, doesn’t it? This is not to minimize racism and the horrors perpetrated in its name. Any of these failings, when embraced, can lead to vast and terrible acts. But by accepting racism as a human failing, we can allow ourselves to engage with it using the mechanisms we all use to try and be a decent person every day, rather than shying away from it as something unimaginable. We can work at unlearning our own bad habits rather than pretending we don’t have them. Most of all, by admitting our own sins to ourselves, we can more thoroughly and more honestly condemn those who embrace racism, who allow it to drive their actions, who lack that little inner voice that says “Hold up, I’m being a jerk here.”
Let’s all admit it, then. I have a lot of racist programming in my head, that I’m still working on getting rid of. How about you?