Saturday, February 9, 2013

Casual Racism in America


As a rule of thumb I believe most people actively misunderstand what racism is.  I believe that is because they misunderstand what discrimination is.  Discrimination is the act of determining the value of one thing as opposed to another based on criteria set by the person or by the social group they adhere to. Whenever you decide that you would rather have orange juice opposed to cranberry juice this is an act of discrimination no matter the reason you decide.  We do it with all things, we make choices based on what we desire and need in that moment, or what we historically have had success with.

Discrimination is a form of discernment.  In some dictionaries it is listed as the ability to make distinctions. Psychologically it is the ability to respond differently to different forms of stimulus. The core of this is that it is the process of treating something differently than you would treat something similar.  In essence every time you make a decision that leads you to choosing one thing over something else you are actively discriminating against the other thing.  Whether it is positive or negative is strictly up to you. 

Now that we have discussed discrimination lets apply it to racism, sexism or any other ism you can think of.  In the case of racism you are deciding that one race is preferable to another.  It's not about recognizing or acknowledging race, it's about using it as a qualifier for who the entire person is in a positive or negative way.  Note that it can go both ways.  If I am asked if so and so is a certain race, it is not racist to answer.  It isn't racist to make that the only way a single person is described.  It's dehumanizing, but it is not racist unless this signifier has a positive or negative value to the person using it. When you determine that you prefer a person of a certain race over a person of another race for no other reason, or as a part of a set of reasons, that is racism.  When you decide that you like Chuck because he brings you presents and not Billy because he doesn't, that's a form of discernment that is based strictly on other designations besides the physically constructed attribute of race. Clearly Chuck is more considerate of who you are and Billy is not.  But are you going to then treat everyone named Billy badly because of it?  You shouldn't.  But in cases of racial discrimination everyone who is of a certain race somehow must answer for the supposed crimes or well intentions of everyone else in that racial group.

It gets confusing because people will make generalizations connecting an unlikable attribute to a race turning a personal preference into a racial distinction when it is not. They usually sound like this.  "I don't like Black people because they are loud." "I don't like White people because they lie."  "I don't like Asians because they drive badly."  "I don't like Mexicans because they won't speak in English."  "I don't hate Black people I just prefer White people." Yes while this may in fact be your preference, it is a racist preference. "It's not that I dislike (Insert race here) they just make me uncomfortable." Still racist. Even if you have a supporting story. This works with entire countries of people as well. "Canadians suck." "The French blow." You get the picture.

If the only way you can describe people is by the color of their skin you have made a discerning choice to acknowledge this physical attribute to the point that you cannot describe them beyond that.  This isn't really anyone's fault.  We are exposed to a constant stream of education when interacting with people on a strictly racial basis.  This is called media.  Television, movies, advertisment, music.  There is a reason why it took George Lucas 21 years to make Red Tails, the story about the Tuskegee Airmen.  Even though they are American heroes they were black first and the words black and hero have a low amount of association in media. In general audiences aren't conditioned to accept this. It calls into question whether the movie will be accepted by a mostly white America and an American culture exposed world who have been conditioned to believe that black means criminal in the most negative and perhaps athlete or musician in the most positive.

The key is in being able to actually confront this reality within yourself and determine how to best combat this. Like all things the first step is acknowledging that this is happening.  No one is innocent.  There is no such thing as not seeing race.  Which is why it's so funny when Stephen Colbert says it.  We are citizens of a country whose actions have always somewhat hinged on race.  Since the founding fathers came here and determined that true Americans were one special kind of white and everyone else was either an issue to be eradicated or property to be owned. All of us, myself included are racists in some form or fashion.  We all have some preference whether we admit it or not.  I'll start; my preference is to not have a core of friends who are all one 'race' or ethnicity.

When someone asks me about someone I know and they mention race as the first thing to describe them it takes me a moment to actually remember that this person is of this 'racial' group.  This is because I have identified them as many other things so race becomes a none functional descriptor. Their race has not made them compassionate, intelligent, or funny.  Their personality, their perspective, and their humanity have done that.  When race is the only descriptor I question the ability of the person to understand that human beings are separate from what they are 'racially' known as which is a constructed instance.  In essence a fantasy casing that allows a person to not acknowledge who they are underneath. It is the laziest form of human interaction.

But this casing rears its ugly head a lot more than I think I'm comfortable with in this day and age. All the sunshine and hugs aside the fact is there are still a lot of people operating under assumptions about others based on race. The differing definitions on casual racism being part and parcel to this. How funny are racist jokes supposed to be?  I'm not wondering about this.  I'm honestly wondering if we are socially mature enough to understand the difference between ironic racial joking and masked judgment based on racial stereotyping.

One of the most annoying things I've had to confront is the effect casual racism has on building relationships because so many of us are not sure what is acceptable and what is not.  At first glance it would seem like a no brainer.  Of course you as a person of color cannot care for or truly love someone who is a casual racist.  That is unfortunately a lie. If you yourself are not restricted by skin color, religion, or background as crucial factors to love you see potential in every relationship no matter the circumstances. The issue usually stems from the other person being unaware of how much of a problem they actually have.  The worst is the person not believing it is in fact a problem or misunderstanding their own reactions and thoughts.

There are just day to day aggressions that are hard to understand.  Certain populations get it.  Those who experience religious or nationality discrimination. Thoughtless assumptions based on being a Muslim.  The way most Latino populations get generalized as being from Mexico.  Canadians get their fair share of "but you're not American" guff.  It’s all part and parcel to a bigger idea which is part and parcel to our value system. Methods to determining the deserving and the none deserving. Casual discrimination.

I don't believe casual racism is the unmitigated hate of another group of people.  Casual racism, like all forms of casual discrimination, is more subtle.  Usually it is defined as being humorous in nature and not truly an indication of a deeper problem with racism. However it is usually on the same lines as class elitism, religious, ethnic and nationality superiority. If someone constantly makes jokes about bums and poor people you consider them a snob or elitist.  If someone is constantly downing another country they are also considered a snob or elitist.  Yet if it is racially or culturally based they are not a racist because they have not let this propel them into acting violently towards that race.  Or even worse they are allowed because there are considered a member of the racial community they are discriminating against. This is inconsistent because this humor represents the way the person thinks and how their mind functions.

The truth is that they are racist but they cannot stand to bare the stigma that this designation carries in society. As consumers of media we have to be able to recognize when something is being displayed as satiric irony or as truthful masking of discriminating dogma in entertainment and especially in our own lives.

Social media has manifest two things.  Our shameless desire for self-promotion and our still exiting issues with discrimination. While there is shame in being racist there shouldn't be in being honest.  Some people just are and there shouldn't be this get out of being a racist failsafe. Like any other illness of society it should be dealt with and the only way it can be is to acknowledge it. I don't believe discrimination can ever truly be weeded out of the human spirit, but we should be able to deal with it and lessen its effects on the ability of people to prosper and follow their dreams.

The criminal justice system is supposed to rehabilitate criminals not just store them to keep them away from 'good' people. Yet we as Americans have the highest imprisoned population in the world as repeat offenders find it difficult to live life on the outside because they have been so conditioned to being social outcasts. The ignoring of this population just creates a cycle that grows instead of shrinks. We have a tendency to lock up the problem and not deal with it appropriately.  Racism is starting to look like a prison to me as we desperately try to convince ourselves and each other that it doesn't exist and doesn't factor in the outcomes of affected populations. While it is not as detrimental as it once was, it has not dissipated enough that we can declare it has no power here.

The foundation of all forms of discrimination is based on a thought regarding the worthiness or acceptability of another option other than the one the person considers to be the best.  Casual racism is an indication of a belief that a race of people are better or more acceptable than another because of the attributes the discrimination enables. It is the blind acceptance that certain human traits can be defined by race. Thus it makes certain behaviors acceptable and expected and allows the claim that not associating with certain people is a simple preference and not indicative of being racist.  It allows people to use racist jokes, stereotypes and ideologies without guilt and become defensive of consequence if anyone takes it too seriously.  After all it was not serious.  It was only a casual observation that is not indicative to a bigger problem. As they say there is some truth to every 'just kidding'.

A causal racist is not truly the evil person we would like to paint them to be.  They are usually good people who are just painfully oblivious to their bias. They are the people who will see an obvious violently racist situation, condemn it as wrong, but then still lock their doors or clutch their belongings tighter if they see a person of color coming near to them. They don't really disagree with the prejudice, they disagree with the violence.

They are the people who will congratulate interracial couples for their bravery and then quietly admit that they could never do what they have seen done. They have developed a value system that has determined that knowing and caring for a person of a different race and culture is not worth the problems commonly associated with mixed race relationships.  They have determined that this group of people are less in value and not worth truly considering.  This is an act of racism, determining that a certain person cannot attain your affection with race or skin color being the only deterrent. These people tend to assume that being a little racist isn't really a problem because everyone is. It then becomes an accepted condition of human nature.

The issue is that we as humans do not react automatically as a natural reflex of nature in these situations.  We respond the way we have been conditioned to. We have a tendency to accept well-conditioned responses as byproducts of human nature.  Let me clarify, they are.  We follow patterns and notions to their obvious conclusions and we are constantly trying to find ways to streamline our processes.  Our natures require us to complete the pattern because this is how we associate to the world. However it is not human nature to dislike or distrust someone because of their differences from us. That is a conditioned response.

I've had friends of different races confront this in their children as they are being raised.  The concerns are that their children have to some degree at very young ages developed a distrust of people of color they have not frequently interacted with.  The same holds true for children of color with other races. When I first meet a child who is less than a year old, no matter their race they have no preconceived notions of what is good or bad. They simply stare trying to absorb what they see. As the child develops and you begin to teach it to discern from right and wrong they identify with their parents and who their parents' trust. As soon as you introduce the word no or prevent a child from doing something that is bad for them they begin to associate everything from that perspective until they have more to work with. 

Children aren't in a bubble. They see what we see and they associate life according to what you present them and how you respond to certain situations. There are occasions where life prevents certain associations.  But in more cases than not any aversions your children have to race has been supported by your actions. Which in turn is more than likely unresolved issues from your parents instilling these values in you. We forget that less than 60 years ago we still had wide spread segregation. In many communities and areas we still do and our knowledge of other cultures is embarrassingly incomplete considering our role in their economies.

I suppose the issue comes with severity. People have an unconscious thought regarding "acceptable" levels of racism. But it really can't be parsed out like that. You can't acceptably kill someone.  You either kill them or you don't. In many cases the attempt is punished just as harshly as the success. By practice people do not congratulate a person for not sexually abusing a child or comment on their bravery.  Like in all situations there are exclusions but as a general rule of thumb it sounds absurd.  It is expected that this is unacceptable by societal standards. 


Racist laws were repelled because life couldn't work that way. You can't be somewhat right and somewhat wrong when it comes to civil liberties.  It’s why so much gray is entering debates about healthcare, rape, and marriage. People want to determine absolute right and wrong by too many degrees as it suits their needs. They are making a basic argument about the details because we've trained ourselves to be overly discerning when contemplating right and wrong. We believe the jest is in the details as opposed to the big picture. It’s because we have only dealt with our problems as particular instances and not as a whole. We patch the bridge instead of building a new one.  We fix one little spot without examining the cause and effect making only temporary progress.

So that leaves us telling people don't be racist while supporting a system that insists they do. So in the meantime mixed race children are still being forced to define themselves by a narrow margin of one race when they are more. Legal systems still convict people of color at higher rates even though more whites get arrested. Our media still grossly underrepresents or misrepresents people of color and none American cultures. Pay rates are still different, housing is still subpar and education is still poorly funded for areas with higher people of color populations.  With these examples and the insistence that America's racial troubles have subsided confusion regarding race is at an all-time high. Even 'good, proactive' so called none racists still have trouble understanding what is and is not racist. 

This issue presented itself again over the Super Bowl as many people were up in arms about a 'disrespectful racist' commercial by Volkswagen where they had people of multiple visual ethnicities speaking with a standard "Jamaican" accent. The protesters of this were mostly white and they thought they were being racially sensitive by condemning VW when in actuality they just highlighted how big of a problem their protest represents. The issue is that Jamaica is a country with different races like all countries of the world.  Because no one in the commercial appeared to be "Jamaican" in the eyes of the protesters, the assumption was that it was racially insensitive, when in actuality the assumption that all Jamaicans have dark skin and certain features IS racist. The commercial was actually representing cultural diversity that is usually not represented when we pull to mind images of Jamaicans. Being Jamaican is a nationality, not a race. But the imagery compared to the sound was so 'foreign' and uncomfortable to viewers that they were upset by it and in assuming they themselves were not racist they inadvertently proved that they were.

The problem is the casual nature of racism in America.  It stems from an idea that we can't help but to dislike each other because of racial differences and it breeds ideas about children and how they have to choose what to be. It’s in hidden messages we give each other as we either support or begrudgingly accept a situation. If racism called down the same horror and outrage as child abuse or animal neglect we as Americans wouldn't be so casual about it. The issue is people are not forced to feel any substantial amount of shame for their racist thoughts or none violent actions as often as they should be. The problem is twofold.  Its people comfortable being racist and people comfortable being discriminated against. The combination creates a chain of inequity that will continue indefinitely.

The sea of casual racism places a person being discriminated against in an odd damned if you do damned if you don't position. If you decide to confront racism you are propagating the problem by talking about it and if you don't you are propagating the problem by not talking about it.  It has truly become a no win situation because of the nature of victim blaming.  It matters not what the action of the victim is, they will always be the one blamed for the outcome.

Racism in America is in many ways the trick the Devil played on the world.  Most people would like to pretend it doesn't exist so they accept the lie of post raciality.  However if you are not frequently discriminated against it was just a saying you could agree with because you don't have personal proof to counter the assertion.  A surprising amount of people can willfully ignore the obvious signs of it happening to other people.

The good thing is that more and more conversations like this blog are starting to happen.  More people of color are realizing that just saying we are post racial and accepting the brunt of the ugliness is not enough.  And because of it more people not of color find themselves agreeing and following suit. It’s time to point out all the ways we are not. And perhaps the truth will eventually set us all free.






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