Racism without race (part four)

Governments create and enforce laws that limit and prohibit discrimination based upon culture, gender, age, and other factors. Bigotry and prejudice are not so easily controlled by law. Laws are passed against communication which calls for violence against groups of people on the basis of their culture or other status. As free speech does not permit anyone to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although shouting “Movie!” at a bonfire is not as harmful and therefore not illegal), so free speech does not permit anyone to advocate hurt or harm to other individuals or groups of people. On the other hand, communication that expresses disapproval of certain cultures or other minority groups without calling for violence can and should be permitted as free speech. Bigotry is more easily recognized as harmful thinking when it is openly expressed in the marketplace of ideals than when it is driven “underground.” As past expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be shown to be illogical and silly under contemporary standards, so present and future expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be revealed for their failings in the same manner. Censoring present expressions and editing former statements that left their mark in history does not advance the process of justice and fairness. Open and honest conversations on such topics, conducted without malice or anger (as difficult as that goal might be to achieve), accomplish far more than restricting freedom of speech, altering the historic record, and demanding that every past and present communication meet certain arbitrary standards of justice and fairness.

Voluntarily and involuntarily, millions of people have migrated over the centuries, carrying their cultures with them. Sometimes people maintained their own cultures secretly while pretending in public to blend into the majority culture. Sometimes majority and minority cultures shaped one another, often in subtle ways. Migration will continue to happen, as people seek better lives for themselves and their families. They seek safety from enemies, better jobs, more access to food and to clean water, freedoms offered by certain governments, and many other good things that are lacking in their homeland. Governments exist to protect their citizens; opening the borders to all immigrants is not a responsible option for any government. But monitoring and regulating immigration, establishing and enforcing laws regarding immigration, is a responsibility of every government. Such laws are less the result of bigotry and prejudice than they are the result of the government’s duty to protect and defend its citizens.

Seeking equality does not mean making everyone the same. Culturalism can continue to convey pride in each person’s heritage. We can celebrate the differences that make each culture unique—differences in language, in food, in clothing, in music, and in many of the other elements of life and civilization. Saying “my way is good” does not have to be the same as saying, “My way is better than your way.” Saying “my way is good” can lead to saying, “Your way is also good.”

The bigger problem includes descendants of migrants who have not achieved equality—economically, politically, and socially—with the majority culture. Education of the entire population about diverse cultures is of some benefit, but education alone will not create equality. In the United States, we can use cultural holidays—including Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Juneteenth—not as paid holidays nor as reasons to drink beer, but as times to learn about other cultures. Summer street fairs, cultural gatherings in parks and museums, broadcast specials about various cultures on television and the Internet—all of these contribute to a solution against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, but they cannot solve these problems on their own.

Our goal is to lift all ships, not to sink some ships for the benefit of others. Statistically and historically, white privilege has existed and does exist in the United States. Attempts to counter white privilege over the last sixty years include laws against discrimination, desegregation of schools, busing of students to distant schools, and “affirmative action”—legally setting quotas of minority representation in student bodies, work places, and other arenas of public participation. All of these practices have been controversial. They seem to work in some situations, but they seem to worsen bigotry and prejudice in others. Better answers include guaranteeing high quality public education in every school and every neighborhood, enforcing laws against discrimination without setting quotas for hiring, and providing opportunities for the poor (regardless of cultural background) to have equal opportunity for advancement through job training and community-strengthening programs.

 The problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In some ways, hiding these problems under the label “racism” only makes them stronger and harder to fight. To affirm that all people are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” allows us to study our society, to identify inequalities, and to address them effectively. “Black Lives Matter” can be more than a slogan: it can be genuine work to make life in America fair for all Americans without disintegrating into class warfare, into the determination that, “to give this person more, that person must receive less.” By strict definitions, racism does not exist. Yet by greater awareness of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which do exist—Americans can continue working toward the goal of equality for all people, a goal upon which our country was established from its very beginning. J.

Racism without race (part three)

All three problems—bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—occur apart from cultural differences. Age, gender, and economic status also provide opportunities for bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. But when those problems are associated with differences in appearance, language, or other cultural aspects, they tend to be lumped together as racism. Laws can be created and enforced that counter practices of discrimination—and this has been done in many countries, especially during the last sixty years. Bigotry and prejudice are much harder to outlaw. Public education and other means of communication can overcome some tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice; but these problems are connected to human nature at its worst, and human laws are not always able to overturn sinful human nature.

Bigotry stems from pride, from the attitude that, “I am right, and I am good. If you are different from me, you must not be as right, and you must not be as good.” Such bigotry already existed in the ancient world. Egyptians viewed their African and west Asian neighbors with scorn, acting as if, “If you aren’t Egyptian, you are unworthy of respect.” Greeks considered the use of the Greek language as a measure of civilization: people who spoke other languages rather than Greek sounded to Greeks as if they were saying nothing more than, “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar,” and so they were called “barbarians.” Ancient Chinese culture similarly viewed China as the center of the earth and everyone else as living on the barbarian frontier.

If each culture had its own geographic region in which to live under its own government, bigotry and prejudice and discrimination would be smaller problems. For the most part, only travelers would be vulnerable to these problems, and they would be free to return to their own homes. Historic reality indicates that people are always moving. The Bantu people began north of the equator in Africa; generations of migration made them the predominant culture of central and southern Africa. Indo-Europeans began in what now is Ukraine; some traveled south to India, and others traveled west to Europe, generating a plethora of cultures in these places. Xiongnu (Huns) and Turks began in east Asia; to escape the growing power of the Chinese Empire, they traveled west and south, bringing their cultures into south Asia, west Asia, and Europe. Many generations ago, Asians crossed from Siberia into Alaska and, over time, created five hundred distinct nations in the western hemisphere. More recently, Europeans and Africans and Asians have migrated into the western hemisphere. (Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to dwell in the western hemisphere. The European migration was largely voluntary, but the African migration was largely involuntary, caused by the slave trade.) Germanic tribes and Asian tribes crossed borders into the Roman Empire, not wanting to destroy the Roman Empire but wanting to enjoy its benefits. Later, the Norse (or Vikings) settled in the British Isles, northwestern France (Normandy), Sicily, Iceland, Greenland, and even a corner of Canada. Other Norse established a trading post in Europe which became the city Kiev; Moslem traders who met the Norse in Kiev called them the red men or “Rus,” beginning recognition of the civilization called Russia.)

People, and groups of people, move from one place to another. Diverse cultures encounter one another because of this migration. Sometimes they blend, forming a third culture. Sometimes one culture dominates and the other survives as a minority. Occasionally, the majority culture stifles and exterminates the minority culture. When domination of one culture over another or extermination of a culture takes place, the reason usually is bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of the prevailing culture.

If all people were good at heart, each loving their neighbors as they love themselves, cultural conflicts such as bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination would not occur. Culturalism would be beneficial, as each person learns and celebrates his or her own culture; at the same time, each person would be curious enough to learn about his or her neighbors’ cultures. Because human nature includes an evil trait of selfishness and self-centeredness, bigotry often takes the lead on both sides when two cultures encounter one another. Pluralism—when two or more cultures coexist in the same place without strife, without one dominating and the other being stifled—is historically rare. Yet pluralism—coexistence with mutual tolerance and respect, with interest and curiosity regarding one another’s culture—is an ideal. This ideal is worth struggling to achieve in a world in which rapid communication and transportation have made encounters of cultures more common and more likely. J.

Racism without race (part two)

The same textbook that insists that all humans belong to the same race and then uses the term “racism” also presents a complete definition of “nationalism.” Nationalism is a political philosophy of fairly recent origin. It contains the belief that people of the same nation should have their own government. “Nation” is further defined as common language, common religion, common customs, common history and heritage, and (usually) a large enough population in a common area to make self-government practical. During the nineteenth century, nationalism caused several governments on the Italian peninsula to combine, creating the modern nation Italy; nationalism caused dozens of German-speaking people under different governments to combine, creating the modern nation Germany. In the same century, nationalism tore apart the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, creating such nations as Egypt, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia. During the twentieth century, nationalism led to the independence of most European colonies that had been established in Africa and Asia. The most controversial struggle of nationalism in recent times is that of Zionism, granting a separate government to Jewish people. While the Jews share a common religion, history, heritage, and customs, they were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still, by the middle of the twentieth century, a modern nation called Israel had been established in western Asia to which Jews migrated from all over the world.

“Culturalism” is a label I use, though it is not found in the textbook. I created the term to describe people who continue to identify with a common culture, or nation, even though they do not place themselves under a single government in a single geographical area. Many Jews do not live in Israel. Many countries with a single government still do not consist of a single nation. The United States is an example of a pluralistic country with citizens who identify themselves by various cultures: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more. Even with their diverse cultures, all these people live as loyal citizens of the United States of America. Many of them vote, and some run for public office. Others serve in careers that benefit, not only themselves and their families and people of their own culture, but all of their neighbors regardless of culture. Frequently, people of a common culture will identify a holiday that unites their culture within a pluralistic society: Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Oktoberfest. More often then not, Americans of other cultures will participate in these celebrations—sometimes as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and about different cultures, and other times merely as an excuse to drink beer.

Nationalism and culturalism can be good things. In the past, they have created new nations, whether through combination or separation of groups. They help individuals to form an identity within a community of similar individuals. They provide opportunities for people to learn about each other, to celebrate the distinct aspects of their language or religion or history or heritage, and to entertain one another by the diversity of human experience and expressions. They preserve cultural heritages and help them to survive globalism, the linking of cultures which erases borders but which risks turning the entire world into a homogenized McDonald’s/Walmart/Disney franchise.

But nationalism and culturalism become bad things when they are used to develop and reinforce bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Bigotry is the assumption that, because two cultures differ, one must be superior and the other inferior. Prejudice is the assumption that, because an individual belongs to a certain culture, that individual most possess all the traits of that culture (including those traits falsely applied to the culture under bigotry). Discrimination is action based upon bigotry and prejudice, denying opportunities to people of certain cultures such as jobs, freedom to live in certain areas, and even protection under the law of the prevailing government. J.

Racism without race (part one of four)

Biologically, all human beings belong to the same race. Although theorists over the years have tried to identify anywhere from three to twelve races, DNA evidence confirms what mixed families have shown all along—we are all one race. The holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Nonreligious scientists also agree that every Homo sapiens sapiens living today has a common ancestor whom those scientists have nicknamed “Eve.” Various other theories about ancestry have been proposed, ranging from the thought that a small percentage of people alive today have Neanderthal ancestors (based on interpretation of DNA samples) to the thought that a percentage of people alive today have extraterrestrial ancestors (based on various blood types). Even outlier notions of the origin of contemporary humanity, though, concur that all humans today belong to the same family tree and do not come from different races.

The textbook I use to teach World Civilizations to college students mentions the unity of the human race more than once. Only on one occasion (surprisingly) has a student asked in the classroom why the same textbook refers to conflict between different groups of humans as “racism.” If we are all the same race, how can racism exist? The answer to this rather profound question is found in the history of labels and also in the still-common misperception that several human races coexist.

Humans can be sorted into different groups according to numerous differences: skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features, average height, body build, and more. These physical distinctions are hereditary, so a mother and father with dark skin will generally produce children with dark skin, and so on. At the same time, though, differences between the DNA of two siblings (children of the same mother and father) might outnumber differences between the DNA of one of those children and another child whose physical distinctions, as listed above, are entirely different. Again, the existence of mixed families confirms the biological fact that all humans belong to the same race; inherited variations are not marks of different races, but only of different genetic backgrounds within the same race.

But, if we are all of the same race, how can racism exist? Racism is a combination of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, three terms I will soon (tomorrow) define. As a catch-all term, the word “racism” is unfortunate in its persistence, being inaccurate about what it describes. Although bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination can all be identified in ancient history (and can be found in all parts of the world, even in ancient times), the modern concept of racism is closely linked to nationalism and culturalism, both of which I must define first (tomorrow). J.

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.