Redefining Racism, or Why an Exception Proves There’s a Rule

It’s taken me probably a lot longer than it should have, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in people—people on the internet, people I know personally, strangers I meet, even friends and family—where it’s beginning to feel as though these people believe that words like “racism,” “sexism,” or “xenophobia” have only one definition. We’re overdue in re-examining these words, and our relationship to them, because we have a long way to go before these things are eradicated from our lives.

A lot of people seem to believe that “racism” means “a complete and utter hatred of everyone of a specific race.” While that is a correct definition of racism, it’s also, in my experience, the least common form. When I call someone out for saying something racist, I’m usually met with a response like, “I can’t be racist, I’m friends with so-and-so,” or “No, man, Denzel Washington is my favorite actor,” or “I voted for Obama!” The biggest problem with this line of thinking is that you’re technically admitting that you are racist, the second you open your mouth to say it. In order for you to be citing exceptions to the rule, there has to be a rule to begin with. And if your “exceptions” are examples of times that you weren’t racist, that means that the vast majority of the time, you are. It’s the same issue with alcoholics who can’t see their own problem: “I can’t be an alcoholic, I didn’t drink yesterday,” or “I stopped drinking for a week once, no problem,” or “I can quit anytime I want.” The very fact that you have to prove that, sometimes, you aren’t drinking too much, means that most of the time, you probably are.

Sexism is very often the same. “I don’t hate women, I married one!” That doesn’t mean you respect women, it just means you respect at least one woman (and in many marriages, that isn’t even true). “I don’t hate women, I just don’t think they should be in charge. They have periods, and they get all emotional!” The fact that this came out of your mouth is evidence that your thinking is sexist.

Now, many people, understandably, get very defensive when they are accused of being racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise. There’s a stigma in our society that makes us believe that anyone who exhibits any of these traits is therefore a “bad person.” Bad people do exist. The loud, obnoxious, out-and-out haters of others definitely exist. But not everyone who believes falsehoods is a bad person. Most of the time, it just means they don’t know any better. And “not knowing any better” isn’t a crime. And the wonderful news is: it can be corrected! The only trouble comes when people try to deny its existence.

I say we socially redefine these words. Racism doesn’t mean, “A complete hatred of everyone of a certain race.” What it does mean is “a conscious or unconscious bias that leads one to have thoughts or opinions about a race, as a whole.” Here’s a simple test: Answer the following question. What do you think about black people?

If you answered the question, you’re harboring a bit of racism. It is impossible to have thoughts about an entire race, or gender, or sexual orientation, and not be harboring some implicit bias. Even if your answer was, “I think most black people are just trying to get on with their lives,” I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that’s racism.

Don’t feel bad. Every person alive has implicit bias. Even babies are known to show signs of bias towards certain people, certain races, certain genders, based around who they’ve grown up around and who they spend time with. It’s not personal—it’s our nature. The only way to fight against that nature is exposure. Babies no longer show race bias if they spend time with people of other races. They don’t show gender bias if they spend time around all genders.

Chances are, if you grew up in a town that had a majority of one specific race, then you’ve got a bit of racial bias. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, because it’s not your fault. I don’t think you hate anybody. I’m sure you’d treat a kindly stranger with respect and kindness, as long as it’s within your nature to do so. Most people, even the people who may be calling you out for saying something racist, know that you aren’t a bad person. They wouldn’t be talking to you if they did.

Stop defending yourself. Stop fighting the people who are calling you out. It’s going to be easier for you, and everyone else, if you accept that you don’t have all the answers. That maybe you were raised in an environment where you didn’t have exposure to different types of people.

Before you say anything, yes, this applies to me as well. I was raised in the Midwestern United States, in Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin. At each of my schools, there was literally only one black student. It was the 90s, and most people weren’t coming out of the closet. I was a nervous child, and I barely knew how to speak to girls. I had bias in every direction, but I didn’t think I did. I didn’t hate anyone. I was well meaning. I treated everyone equally. But I also didn’t understand that every person—every person—is totally and completely unique.

I said things like “I don’t have anything against gay people, I just don’t want to have to see it.” I said things like, “I don’t think I could ever be attracted to a black girl. I never have been, it might just be part of my genes.” I made jokes about women being worse at driving. About Asians being great at math. I repeated jokes I’d heard black comedians making in their stand-up specials, fully believing that purple kool-aid and fried chicken was the sole diet of black America. I thought maybe if minorities would just work a little harder, they might not be so poor.

I didn’t know any better. I was a child. I didn’t know my beliefs weren’t based in reality. And I also, again, didn’t hate anyone. Will Smith was my hero. I watched anime. I liked girls, even if I couldn’t speak to them. I did their homework because I thought it was nice, and because I thought they couldn’t be as smart as me because they had smaller brains. I had an openly gay friend in grade school, and we spent time together, but I didn’t want him to touch me.

I’m not proud of any of this. I look back at these memories, and every one of them makes me cringe. I just didn’t have the exposure. I didn’t understand that it was possible to be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, all of these things, even though I didn’t hate anyone. I’m sure I still have some implicit bias. But I work hard not to. I work hard to understand the history of the United States, the history of the world, and know that certain institutions have lasted longer than any of us have been alive. Certain forms of racism have existed longer than we could possibly know, and all we’re doing is enforcing laws and following rules that were passed down to us because we don’t know they were passed for racist reasons. We think we know best—when we don’t even know where we came from. We aren’t exposed to it. We aren’t taught the full truth.

The next time someone tells you you’re being racist, and when your impulse is to deny it, to come up with a long list of exceptions, to fight, try something else. Stay quiet. Think, “is it possible that I’m wrong? Is it possible that I’m saying things I don’t even necessarily believe, because it’s all I’ve ever known?” You might be surprised. Sometimes, maybe you won’t be. But I’m sure, at some point or another, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll learn something about someone else. And we’ll all get to grow closer together as a species.

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