Monday, April 16, 2012

Everyone is a Little Bit Racist

With all the controversy surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting and the recent attacks in Oklahoma, the question of racism in America is again under scrutiny. In a society that many have dubbed "post-racial", some are wondering how far we've really come in the mission for equality that began over half a century ago.

All kidding aside, this is a great album with a sobering message.
It seems that, amid our noblest attempts to breakdown racial walls and cultural stereotypes, we as a nation may have in fact created a hyper-racial society. I know that I personally am overly-conscious of the opinions I form of others and how their race may or may not contribute to those opinions. I constantly catch myself evaluating a person, then wondering if I see this person primarily as a person, or primarily as a cultural archetype. Do I see the "Asian" or the "Black" or the "White" before I see the person?

I stopped by my favorite donut shop last week to grab a coffee and a glazed treat on my way to work. As I walked in, another man, in his late thirties, was entering from the adjacent door. The man was seemingly of Southeast Asian descent, possibly Korean or Vietnamese. He arrived at the counter a step ahead of me, and the owner was helping a couple of gentlemen, collecting a mixed dozen from the racks of iced and sprinkled confections. Another employee, an older Caucasian woman, was at the cash register. Though the other gentleman clearly arrived at the counter ahead of me, she looked straight at me and asked for my order. I gestured to the man and clarified that he had arrived first. Without paying the man any attention, she dismissed my submission and said,

"No, he's with those guys over there." He did not seem to be with the other gentlemen, but he was of the same general ethnicity as the men being helped by the owner. I looked at the other man hesitantly then, seeing no malice on his face, I ordered my coffee and donut. As I left the shop, I felt awful for the slight this gentleman had just received. Though it was not my fault, I couldn't help but think that perhaps this attendant was racist, and preferred to serve me, a white man, before this Asian person. I have no proof that this was her intention, but it was immediately the conclusion that came to my mind.

Why is it that, when an uncomfortable situation comes to pass, I quickly consider race as the likely motivator? Why is it that despite the hundreds of other factors that contribute to a persona, I still draw conclusions about a person based on their race? This is the hyper-racial society in which we've been indoctrinated. Even when race may not have played a role, we immediately think about the racial implications.

If I tell you, "Don't think about an elephant."

What is the first thing that comes to mind? Of course it is an elephant. Similarly, when we are told, 

"Don't let racial stereotypes influence your opinions of others." We automatically think about our preconceived notions of various ethnic groups, and the generalizations begin.

Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, was shot by George Zimmerman, a Latino and Caucasian man who claims he was defending himself from what he thought was a threat to his safety. The act of defending oneself with deadly force is legal in the state of Florida, but defining what constitutes a real and rational threat is a difficult task. George Zimmerman may have truly felt threatened by Martin's presence. These feelings of danger, though based on ignorant stereotypes and misled assumptions, may still be valid fears. They do not justify his actions, but to dismiss his gut reaction would be overly simplistic.

My wife is afraid of snakes, and though no snake has ever hurt her, I doubt that anyone would dismiss her aversion toward the reptile, despite the fact that her fear is not based in any sort of logic. If she killed a snake, though it had no intention of causing her harm, would the act be wrong? From her perspective, she was merely doing what she had to do in order to maintain her safety. The illusion of danger can cause a person to take drastic measures. This does not forgive the actions, but merely broadens the question.

Race is everywhere. Despite my ever-mindful awareness of race and it's impact on my impressions of people, I generally catch myself when I make an assumption about a person based on their overt cultural influences. By juxtaposing my racial inference with a more objective look at who a person is, I find that I can form an opinion based on multiple factors that impact a persons character, personality, and true self.

Race is an unavoidable part of the world in which we live. While we might want to disregard the notion that race plays a role in how we all look at each other, that reality does not exist, and to deny it would be naive. Instead, we must look at our preconceived notions of race as an inherent part of who we are, and be ever mindful of those ideas. Left unchecked, the generalizations that we've learned will breed ignorance and intolerance, but when kept in control, we can maintain a civil and rational interaction with the world around us. Everyone is a little racist, in their own mind. It is when those ideas are allowed to manifest and grow unbridled that they cause a myriad of problems for everyone.



  1. Interesting post Chris. I think you're getting close to a long-held debate in the modern study of race in America: Is perceiving, noting, and acknowledging racial differences, the same as, or related to racism?

    I'm not sure I agree with "Everyone is a little racist, in their own mind." I suppose it depends how you define the term. But as far as it meaning, the idea that a person's - let's call them "base socio-economic characteristics" are somehow determined by their race, I know plenty of people, including myself - that in their heart of hearts brook no such nonsense. But the subtleties of the definition? That's where it gets more nuanced.

    While I like the imagery of your donut shop example, I'm not sure I see indications of certain racism. Including in your own observations (which I took to be more the point than the counter-person's possible bias). Just being observant of differences and being conscious of the existence of bias isn't the same thing as indicating or confirming the presence of racism. And you thinking there might have been a race factor in play, only serves as a reminder that there might be, not an indicator that there is. If, in your example, the counter person did make the mistake that these people were together because they were of an apparent similar racial makeup, is that racism? Maybe. Or it could just be confusion. Did they walk in at the same time? Or is the donut server's unwillingness to ask the other patron if they were with the other group, racism? Possibly. Or maybe it's just a discomfort with possible language barriers? (which sometimes trips me up - I get a weird, unnecessary embarrassment for both of us). And then is that racism, or (what it feels like to me) a form of social anxiety?

    Don't get me wrong, I am not in the slightest arguing that bias even in subtle, insidious forms, doesn't exist. And that even (sometimes, especially) in it's most benign-appearing modes isn't worth discussing and eradicating. I'm just making the argument that I think that suffering a little bit of white guilt (as I do - hence this obvious disclaimer), and knowing that racial differences exist, is different from actual racism. And maybe more importantly, the way WE LET our perception of racial differences color our thoughts and actions are paramount. It's a choice to BE racist. We can't help noticing differences in people (you tall skinny bastard). I think it's whether we let those observations determine our further thoughts about that person, and worse our actions that determines if we're actually racist. (all tall skinny bastards are gadabouts who must be tsk tsk'd)

    I do want to take specific issue with the Martin/Zimmerman (and snakes) segment for a sec. You say: "These feelings of danger, though based on ignorant stereotypes and misled assumptions, may still be valid fears." Which controverts itself. An ignorant stereotype cannot result in a VALID fear. An actual phobia, might be what you meant. But if your fear is based on something irrational (like the ickiness of snakes - the danger to humans in our part of the world being infinitesimally small) then the fear can only be characterized as also irrational. The FEELING of fear may be real, but it's never "valid," in that it never validates what a reasonable person would call extreme actions - or even thoughts. That implies that we cannot control ourselves (even to the point of running away from the snake) if we're FEEL afraid. As a society (and as a state, Florida [and the 10 other states - including Illinois - that have codified the possibility of excusing irrational actions based on invalid fears, by way of Stand Your Ground laws) we are foolish to overlook the difference between phobias based on stereotype and perception, and actual fear based on real circumstances and likely dangers.

  2. I dont like your definition of racism! Racism to me means deliberately choosing to allow a persons color/ethnic origin to impact what I think. I prefer the term prejudice meaning pre judgment. This also broadens the introspection as you can prejudge thing besides race.

  3. Fair enough, Anonymous. Perhaps "racism" is the action that follows racially charged misconceptions. The fact that, based on the culture in which I was raised I still fight misconceptions about other races, does not make me a racist (this makes me feel better!). This then speaks to my concern about hyper-racial focus - the attention we pay to race actually makes some of us more aware of the racially ignorant misconceptions that we think of, even if those thoughts are not the way we actually feel.

    I appreciate your clarification. Thanks for posting!


  4. Chris, I know it's been awhile since you posted these thoughts, but I just want to thank you for generating open, honest dialog about racial climate and awareness in the United States. I find it very interesting as a black man (American) who has traveled all over the world, that in the United States I feel more confronted (either verbally or non verbally) about my race as an issue in social interaction, than anywhere else.
    Canadians generally marvel that we are still having these issues and conversations seemingly without traction to finally overcome our differences.
    Answers are found in respect of self and others and seeing "VALUE" in each person without judgement. I know that seems over simplifying a complicated issue, but it's a good place to start.