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Monday, July 26, 2010

Race and Not Thinking About It: Why That's B.S.

In this day and age, it seems like we (and by "we" I mean mostly white people) make a big deal about not thinking about race. Perhaps we do this out some sort of subconscious regret about the past (white guilt, if you will) or perhaps because we actually believe that we don't think about race. The problem is that we (and here I mean all of us of all races) often do think about race, regardless of where we come from. We can pretend that racism is over, and some of us do a fine job of sticking our heads in the sand and trying to maintain the illusion of a world of Neapolitan ice cream, with all the colors hanging out together in the same place as if there never was a time when they were all in separate boxes. But the reality is that racism never ended and that we still live in a society that thinks in racial terms (for good and for bad) and still allows people to get away with actions that are, by all accounts, about as racist as you can get, at least for a short time.

Why do I bring this up? I recently made the mistake of attempting to have a rational discussion with some politically motivated individuals on YouTube about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco (which is still going on). At one point I made the argument that I am making here (specifically that "everybody makes race a part of everything, even if they say they don't"),
which set a couple of people off, who quickly acted to deny that this actually applied to them. Notice that I didn't say that race plays a part in how we act, just that we all make it a part of everything. Looking back, I probably would phrase it differently to say this: "we all think about race, even if we say we don't." But the interesting thing for me about this discussion was the way these folks reacted. They spend more time trying to deny that they actually thought in racial terms than they did trying to think about whether or not race actually factored into their thought processes, an action that would, most likely, prove my point far better than to have them stick their feet in their mouths. However, instead of simply saying they were wrong or hypocritical, I'd like to illustrate the point by example (specifically, two examples from two individuals).

ReligionOfNice said:

That's the worst case of projection I've heard yet. So when I made friends with the black kid next door because we liked to do the same things that was because of race? I don't think so. I didn't make friends because he was black. I pick this example because there was an obvious racial angle to be played and yet race played zero part in the decision. He was my best friend because he was.
And Txbertie said:

Race is only "a part of everything" to people who make it so. I don't. I try to be sensitive to feelings and wouldn't say things I know might be misunderstood. I certainly wouldn't refer to "them" or "their own kind." There was a time in my life when I could have saved myself a great deal of trouble it I'd treated a black man like a "black man" instead of treating him like a man - but even looking back at that, I could never have done it. The racists could but I couldn't and wouldn't.
There are some subtleties of language here that you'll likely miss without having seen the YouTube video in question, but I won't be talking about those points here, because they aren't relevant to what I'm arguing.

If you read the above comments, two things become perfectly clear: both individuals have come at this from an entirely defensive position and both have immediately reduced their conversion to the discourse of race. It's ironic that both individuals claim that race is not something that they think about (or isn't something that governs their actions), yet they also immediately refer to people by the color of their skin or provide examples in which race clearly plays a role in what they have done in the past. They each assume that I'm talking about action, rather than simply constituent elements, and their words basically make my point for me: if we don't make race a part of everything, then why is it that the color of someone's skin is something that needs to be mentioned in a conversation or plays a role in how we decide to act in our day to day lives?

The other problem I see that they both seem to take what I said to mean that to think about race is somehow racist. But I'm not talking about an issue of subconscious racism. Noticing the color of someone's skin isn't necessarily a racist act (though it can be, depending on who you are and how you react). The reality is that we are all differently colored, ad when you are faced with something different, you're going to notice, much the same way that you might notice a hair style or the color of someone's eyes or the shape of a nose or what have you. We are always thinking in terms of that (i.e. difference). It's inescapable. These two individuals are essentially putting their feet in their mouths by trying to pretend that somehow race never figured into their assessments of the people around them. The first has already reduced his or her friend to skin color and the latter essentially admits to making decisions based on race (a good decision, sure, but the decision was clearly about race). But the denial is still there. Race never figured into their existence, or so they say. The reality? It did, and intimately so. The same has happened for all of us.

The fact of the matter is, we all think about race and think in terms of race. Part of that is because we live in a society that has a dark past in relation to race; all human beings have a connection to that past, because we are a species that is always trying to divide, separate, and compartmentalize. The result of our separatist nature is that many of us take difference to mean something more. We've seen that mentality used to justify the oppression of women too, as if somehow the differences between the sexes actually matter.

But, and this is a huge but, we live in a slightly different America now. Most of us are, at the worst, only subconsciously racist, and at the best, hardly racist at all. Yes, we all think about race, use the discourse of race, and so on, but what makes us good people is our ability to separate the moment of "notice" from the moment of action. Difference only matters if we act upon it, if we turn it into something that deserves more attention beyond a normal and innate curiosity in what is foreign to us. Yet to pretend that one doesn't notice that difference, or that race is not a part of everything we do in some way, is to stick one's head in the sand and sing lullabies about the mythical now that most of us wish we could live in--a myth that Americans are quite adept at creating from nothing. America is not a utopia.

None of what I have written here should be misconstrued as some sort of claim that racism is not alive and well in America (or elsewhere). Racism is rampant in America. Look back over the last year and find all the high profile incidences of racism; what you'll discover is that people do racist things all the time, often under the ridiculous belief that doing so is helping everyone (i.e. Keith Bardwell). While we can have long arguments and discussions about whether subconscious forms of racism exist (I believe they do in certain contexts), the reality is that outward, in-your-face racism is just as present and just as noticeable as it was fifty years ago, though certainly at a lower frequency.

When you take the prevalence of outward racism today into account, I think we can only come to one logical conclusion: we need to stop putting our heads in the sand and pretending that we live in a world where everyone is truly equal; we have to acknowledge that the past is still bleeding into the present, and that if we want a future that is, at the very least, mostly clear of the residue of racism, we have to throw out the bonds of delusion and start standing up for what we all know is right.

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  1. The thing people misinterpret is EMBRACING race and differences with "not thinking" about them. To embrace something, respect it, understand it, or do anything positive at all with it, you have to consciously register it which means yes, you think about it, which means yes, people DO put race into everything that race is naturally a part of. Dismissing race or any other difference between people was and is never the point of civil rights. People are equally as offended when their heritage, beliefs, and customs are dismissed as they are when these things are used against them.

    Here's hoping we never stop putting race into everything in a celebratory and educational way. And here's hoping we stop using race as an excuse for treating each other like shit.

  2. Dave: Exactly, although I think for me there is a bit of a dilemma in what you say, which is that while I agree with you, I'm also uncomfortable with the idea of always making something of it, even if we don't act upon it. But that is because of the history of race, which has brought us to a point where so much that has to do with race is negative, and that even when we try to have rational discussions, we end up reducing people to the discourse of race. I don't think we need to notice "race" so much as notice that people are different. We need to reduce race to the same level that we reduce eye color or hair type. If it becomes as mundane as that, then maybe I'll feel more comfortable. Right now, it's not mundane enough :(