Let’s begin by saying that the word “Nigger” is an offensive, ugly word, and one I never willingly use. Racism is a topic that I feel deeply about, and am absolutely committed to confronting whenever (and wherever) it rears its ugly head.
So – when Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy makes racist comments, when celebrity chef Paula Deen admits to using that ugly word, or when LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling is accused of making racist remarks – yes, I’m angered; and I will speak up.
But, I’ve done (and said) racist things, too.
In my early 20’s, I worked in a retail store. One day, when I was the only sales clerk on duty, an elderly black man came in to ask for help with a particular item. Right then I was waiting on another customer, a woman, and so ignored him for the moment – in fact, I hardly noticed him. He waited patiently at the counter, since he saw that I was almost done with her.
In the meantime, another person came in – a white male – who walked around the first man and came over to where I was, at the other end of the sales counter. When the woman left, this second man immediately began talking and I allowed my attention to focus on him, rather than turning to the man who had been waiting.
The first man immediately spoke up, saying (and I quote, as it is burned into my memory!), “Hey, I’m a customer too! Or, is it that you don’t like to wait on niggers?”
I was mortified, as you might imagine, and immediately turned to help him.
Was I racist, or acting in a racist way? Well, I didn’t think so. I had long prided myself in being “open minded” and respectful of others, no matter who (or what) they were. But I was being racist because the one who determines whether we are racist (or not) is not us, but those who are impacted by our attitudes and actions. The elderly gentleman was right: I was acting in a racist way, even if unintentionally.
Racism is far from merely being about wingnuts using offensive language or people oblivious to the issue admitting they once spoke in that way. Racism, as the columnist LZ Granderson points out, has changed. Or, to put it another way, the basic mechanisms and patterns of racism have not changed. What has changed is that people have gotten better at hiding their racist attitudes from others and even from themselves. The way we express our racism has changed, but the basic issue still exists, and is a pervasive cancer in our politics and society.
Racism is one aspect of the larger issue of oppression. In a general sense, you can say that oppression is about power, about those (who have power) using a label such as “poor” or “black” or “homosexual” or “woman” as an excuse for denying fair and equal treatment to others. In so doing, they exclude those in that group from having a voice in the public sphere, which (by the way) also serves to preserve and protect their own positions of privilege and influence.
By this definition, anyone who speaks or acts against a minority from a position of power – whether intentionally or not – is racist, but someone without such power or position cannot be. A black person who uses racially-charged terminology when referring to whites may well be bigoted, but they are not racist, because they are not able to use their attitudes as an excuse to deprive whites of anything that whites value.
Granderson makes this same point (in the column I mention above) when he writes that racism is behind “…elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin saying inner-city men are ‘not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work’….”
Granderson then goes on to point out that Ryan “…then feign[ed] shock that people saw a racist element to his statements.“ This underscores a point I made a few paragraphs earlier, which is that those who are in the position of power are not the ones who have a right to judge when they are being racist, or not. Paul Ryan, as a US Congressman who represents himself as striving to represent the people of this country in a responsible and sensitive way, should (ideally) show this by reacting to such an accusation responsibly and sensitively; but, denial is neither a responsible nor a sensitive reaction.
Another columnist, Tricia Rose, makes this same point about racism not being in the eye of the accused when she writes about how Paula Deen, in her “Apology Tour,” was oblivious to the complexities and depths of the issue of racism. “Good people” (like Deen feels herself to be, or wants to be) can learn to avoid offensive and racist language, and yet can still be racist without being aware of it. I agree with Rose that for Ms. Deen, the issue of her long ago use of that hateful word “nigger” is more about how she is impacted by other’s reactions to it now, decades later.
Deen justifies herself by claiming she was ignorant, but she is unaware that her ignorance remains; and in that ignorance, she believes her racism is cured because she has learned to not use that hateful word. That the issue is far deeper than this, and that she still has complicity in it, is something she does not recognize or understand. She is blind to her continued racism, as are Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling; because none of them are willing to confront their ignorance, or learn from it.
So, when I see politicians throughout the South (as well as in Wisconsin and elsewhere) seeking to limit who can vote, I see racism. They justify these moves to restrict the ability of some to vote as “eliminating voter fraud” – even though there is not a scrap of evidence that such fraud exists at all, let alone on a large enough scale to have influenced any major election in the last 50 years or more.
The real strategy of those who seek to “cure” voter fraud is well known, and not even hidden: it reduces the ability of minorities to vote so that Republican candidates have a better chance to attain (or retain) elected office. In other words, those leading the fight against voter fraud are seeking to use their power to deny others the ability to have a voice in the public sphere by denying them access to the ballot box. That is oppression, and when those who are the targets of their oppression include groups who are defined by their ethnicity or skin color, that is racism. So, as voters, our response is important: shall we go along with the fictions of those seeking to maintain their power at any cost, and thereby allow racism to reign unchecked, and to being defined as racist ourselves? Or, shall we deny those doing so the right to remain in office?
But, we cannot limit racism to the Republican Party. Democrats are just as culpable, as Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out a few weeks ago. The temptation to label blacks as “poor, unemployed and uneducated” has been floating around on both sides of the aisle in Washington for decades, and is an operative assumption when it comes to policy making and campaigning in both parties. All that can be said is that the Democrats – for the most part – seem to be making a more sustained and conscientious effort at trying to give minorities and the unempowered a voice in politics. However, this does not mean Democrats are not racist, it merely means that they are employing a different kind of racism.
What I’m saying is this: racism is not limited to (or defined by) wingnuts who resort to offensive language or even blatantly offensive attitudes. The real (and far more dangerous and despicable) racists are those who seek to exclude specific groups from participation in the political process when those groups are seen as not supporting the political party that is already in power. But, it is not only them, but also (as Harris-Perry argues) those who address the symptoms of inequality and disempowerment – such as poverty, crime and disenfranchisement – without addressing the root causes, which include racism and a political system skewed by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority.
The biggest obstacle to change is that racists assume they are faultless.
For the Republicans, this is seen as a problem with those who don’t support them; and their solution is to exclude these groups from the process. For the Democrats, the problem is seen as the lack of an adequate social and institutional “safety net” – but don’t worry, we know the solution: a few more dollars invested in social services and education will set things right. (Which Republicans don’t buy, and for once they’re right – even if for the wrong reasons.) Both parties dismiss the idea that those who are members of these groups are worth listening to. Both Democrats and Republicans feel they already know THE ANSWER, and so don’t need to learn or change. They are therefore denying themselves and the unempowered the right to be the dignified and valued human beings that they have a God-given right to be.
Does this discussion mean that I am not racist? Does my own self-declared “enlightened” attitude mean I’m above being the target of such accusations?
In addition to simply not wanting to fall into the same delusion of being faultless, there is another reason why I cannot say I am not racist. To understand that reason, we need to digress for just a second…
Our brains are machines that are superb at categorizing things, categories that we have either learned or developed on our own. And, once we categorize something, we react to it based on how we define the category to which we deem it “belongs” – whether it is a threat, or an opportunity; and whether – if it is a threat – we need to fight, or flee.
This ability to classify things is important. Arguably, every realm of human activity or thought depends on our minds’ ability to rapidly and accurately classify things into categories. So, from that point of view, racism is a natural outcome of the way our minds work, and is why we (as a species) have survived and thrived in the face of every challenge that has confronted us.
But that doesn’t mean that racism is right, or inescapable. It merely means that it is where our minds naturally leap, if we let them. It does not mean that the categories we use when classifying things are right, or helpful.
Another capability we have is the ability to learn: we constantly re-evaluate and refine the categories we’ve defined for ourselves. So, not only do we quickly assign things (and people) to categories, but we are constantly (if we allow ourselves to do so) determining whether a category is relevant and helpful in helping us understand and respond-to the world around us. If not, we either drop the category or refine its definition.
Racism is not a constant or static thing, How we see it, and how we express it, constantly evolves and changes. To counteract this, we need to be open to learning, and to admitting that we need to learn. So, I try to not be a racist, but I also recognize that there are whole realms of racism – and oppression – that I am not yet aware of, and it is only by being open to learning more (about myself, and my faith, and others, and the world) that I have any hope of passing the ultimate test, of not being categorized as racist by others.
The difference between me and Paul Ryan or Cliven Bundy or Paula Deen or Donald Sterling is not that they are racist, and I’m not. The difference is that I am open to changing, open to learning how not to be racist, and that I welcome the input of those who seek to educate me in that endeavor. I am no different than any other racist in that I am as human as they are. By recognizing the humanity we share, I recognize that they too are able to change – even if they are unwilling to do so at the moment.
I will always be grateful to that elderly gentleman: he packed a lifetime of learning and pain into just a few words. In doing so, he changed my own life for the better, and – I hope – yours too.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)