Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.

Microaggressions

This month I attended a workshop at work about microaggressions. I chose this workshop over others for two reasons: I knew that the presenters would lead a good workshop (they always do), and I wanted to learn more about what microaggressions are and how I can avoid doing them.

Microaggressions are the way we communicate—usually with spoken words, but also with gestures, facial expressions, and body language—our disdain or dismissal of other people because they are different from us. Deliberate insults and purposeful dismissals are not microaggressions—they are full aggression, easily recognized and easier to address. Microaggressions are usually unintended; they are the result of insensitivity rather than overt prejudice or bigotry. They are unplanned slights toward other people because of their race, language, gender and sexual preferences, age, economic status, religion, political beliefs, and the like.

Saying, “she’s pretty smart for a woman” is a microaggression. Assuming that the white middle-aged male is the head of his department is a microaggression. Choosing which customer to attend first based on skin color is a microaggression. I felt that the workshop gave too much attention to microaggression toward people of different sexual preferences or gender confusion—but my label “gender confusion” would probably be considered microaggression. On the other hand, we all hurt the feelings of other people without intending to be hurtful; sometimes we might even intend to be helpful.

One example was given by two people attending the workshop. A patron had approached the two of them gushing over a book about diets and weight loss. The patron had found the book very helpful, and she thought these two workers would also benefit from it. They were polite while she was near them; after she left, they turned to each other and asked, “Did she just say we are fat?”

I attended the workshop to learn how to avoid troubling other people. I also learned that I am sometimes the victim of microaggressions. An example that came to mind during the workshop was the wailing and gnashing of teeth in my department the day after the national election. Nobody went so far as  to claim that they were cheated or to organize a protest, but the conversations definitely reflected an assumption that everyone within earshot wanted Hillary Clinton to win, and that no one in the room considered her the greater of two evils on the ballot. A common expression was, “It was a terrible mistake, but we need to be calm and to live with it for the next four years.” I kept silent at work that day. I did not remind my coworkers that not everybody in the room supported Clinton. I did not even offer those words as an example of microaggression at the workshop, because I suspected that I represented a minority also within that group of people. Reticence to address a topic or a perceived insult is one of the signals that microaggression is in play.

An even clearer example of microaggression happened to me shortly after the workshop. One of my coworkers told me that a third coworker had needed to go home early that day because of a kidney stone. While he was telling me this, a fourth coworker approached us. The coworker speaking to me proceeded to share with the two of us an email from the coworker who was now at home. This coworker (who is an atheist) disparaged the poor design of the human body (making kidney stones possible) as evidence of the absence of a wise Creator. The fourth coworker responded, “I consider myself a spiritual person, but that’s pretty solid evidence,” or something to that effect. Both these coworkers know that I am a Christian, that my relationship with God is a very important part of my identity. Yet I saw no way to address their casual dismissal of faith—if I were to deliver a lecture on the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, it would not have been effective or well received at that time. Yet I had no short answer to show these two coworkers how disrespectful their conversation was toward me.

Sometimes you can’t win. Jews and atheists might feel dismissed by “Merry Christmas” greetings, while Christians feel slighted by “Happy Holidays” greetings. In the end, we do the best we can to respect one another’s identities and values. Meanwhile, we obviously need to find better ways of informing others of their insensitive microaggressions that trouble us. J.