Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Definition of “Racist”: Why More of Us Would Qualify Than You Might Think

No, this is not yet another treatise on Paula Deen: Is she, or isn’t she? By now, we’ve all read the articles about her admitted past use of the N word (definitely just once, by her backtracking count) and her alleged racism, and if we’ve chosen one side of the story, chances are we’re sticking to it.

This one is going to venture a little closer to home.

Deen would likely disagree, but something positive has come out of her current dilemma. While it’s reopened centuries-old wounds in the United States, it’s also brought the crucial subject of racism and its umbrella effect on the entire U.S. populace back to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

During one of the numerous discussions of the hot topic in which I’ve recently participated on Facebook, my brother offered a basic, general definition of “racism” that’s as good as any I’ve heard:

“Any preference or action that is decided by the superficial qualities (e.g., race, skin colour, hair type, eye colour) of a person.”

As racism involves strictly race, I’d leave hair type and eye color out of it (unless it’s specifically as they apply to race), and we’d have a solid argument, one with which The American Heritage College Dictionary, which offers “Discrimination or prejudice based on race,” might concur. Alas, it’s also one that might make many people uncomfortable, especially those who like to dismiss their sexual discrimination based on race as simply a matter of preference. Well, here’s another idea to make them squirm in their hot seats: To borrow from a potentially controversial point made by my brother, “to be human is to be racist” – or to at least have a predilection for it to some degree.

That would include those who wouldn’t dream of uttering the N word in public (or private) but can’t deny having had the word pop into their heads at some point in their mental past, perhaps even more frequently than they’d care to admit. Thinking of a crime is not committing the crime itself, regardless of what Jesus said about committing adultery in your heart. Jesus and self-help psychobabble might declare differently, but we don’t really have any control over the thoughts that pop into our heads. If we did, broken hearts would be more easily healed. We’d just forget our exes ever existed. Poof! Out of mind.

Ultimately, it’s what we do with those private thoughts, how we express them, whether we express them at all, that matters most. But in the context of racism and the N word, it’s still the thought that counts. We can choose to dismiss it as a one-time-only thing (Sorry, my bad) and move on, or stick around and evaluate what led to it in the first place, explore what mental environment allowed for the manifestation of the idea. Thinking the N word without daring to utter it might not make you a burning cross-carrying racist, but it does hint at a certain level of racism within your subconscious.

On a less incendiary note, consider the things people say every day in conversation and in online dating profiles: “I don’t like Asians.” “I’m not into Asian guys.” “I’m not attracted to Asian guys.” They’re casual, offhand comments that I’ve heard too many times over the course of the last 28 months (17 of which I’ve spent based in Bangkok, the rest in Australia), coming from people who were usually white, sometimes Asian, and occasionally black and Latino. Though many would overlook that point of view as relatively harmless, I’ve blasted it over and over and over, both verbally and in writing (here, here and here).

Is it racist? Going by my brother’s definition of “racism,” it would certainly qualify. When many people think of racism, they think only of extreme behavior, at the very least, casual, habitual use of the N word, and at the worst, hate crimes committed by dangerous men running around wearing white sheets, pointy at the top. How dare I link them to such heinousness? After all, if it’s okay for gentlemen to prefer blondes, why can’t they prefer white (or black, or Latino, or Asian), too?

Those same people probably wouldn’t object to taking my brother’s definition of “racist,” adjusted to include only race, substituting “race” with “age,” and calling it ageist, or replacing “race” with “gender” and deeming it “sexist” (in the non-sexual realm, as opposed to “homosexual”/“heterosexual” in the sexual realm). So why wouldn’t “racist” apply when the subject is race?

There are different levels of racism, not all of which are flagrantly offensive, or even necessarily negative. (Affirmative action, for instance, is a legalized form of reverse racism that allows for preferential treatment in the professional and educational sectors based on race.) The sad but inescapable truth is that most of us harbor some degree of racism, whether we want to admit it or not. I recently went out with a guy who made the “I’m not into Asian guys” comment, and when I called him on it and suggested that he consider the racist implications of what he’d said, he responded with, “But I’m out with you. How can I be racist?”

“It’s not just about black and white,” I argued. “Or even an attitude that only white people can have toward only black people.” Black people are eligible, too, whether they won’t date white or black, as are white people who won’t date other white people, or Asians who won’t date other Asians, and so on.

Rather than sticking our heads in the sand and hiding behind the “That’s just my preference” excuse, we need to face the truth about our thoughts and our choices and try to understand what influences them. Black or white (or Asian vs. Western) isn’t the same as brunette over blond, or blue eyes vs. brown eyes.  The former is an argument that literally splintered the United States for four bloody years during the American Civil War and nearly destroyed the union.

It’s a war that continues to be fought in the U.S. and beyond, whether it’s being waged, via caste systems, by light-skinned Latinos (white) on dark-skinned ones (black) in Argentina, white Australians on Aboriginal Australians Down Under, or light-skinned Thais on dark-skinned ones in Bangkok. Preferring one over the other to the point that you’d completely exclude one or the other from your dating or sexual pool shouldn’t be considered as lightly as picking the brown-eyed girl or guy over the blue-eyed one.

While we might not be able to help what we prefer, we all have control over whether we blindly limit ourselves to those preferences or not. And it’s up to us to self-reflect and think about why we harbor those preferences and what we can do to move past them and maintain open minds and open hearts. Not all forms of racism are created equal, but if we won’t even acknowledge its manifestation in the darkest depths of our own souls, how can we hope to transcend it?

It might be too late for Paula Deen to transcend her current PR crisis (which, as Matt Lauer hinted at during his Today show interview with her, appears to be her primary concern), to recover her reputation and her endorsement deals, but it’s not too late for us to learn from her story, regardless of which side of it we choose to take.
Post a Comment