How Racism Works
I thought I’d try something a little different today. I don’t normally post on racism because it’s such a depressing subject, and I’m not sure I have anything to add to the discussion. It’s a horrible problem, and deeply ingrained in the way people think. And by that I pretty much mean all people. A lot of folks like to think that in America racism is a thing of the past, we no longer have coloured water fountains, what’s the problem? The problem is that racism is at its core a set of unconscious attitudes, not just signs on restroom doors.
Restated, the problem is that even if the overt trappings of apartheid society are gone, the attitudes that put them there in the first place are far from gone. How’s that? Well…ever noticed that white women can give birth to black babies, but black women can’t give birth to white ones? Think about the implications of that for a moment. (I stumbled across that little idea here.) And speaking of stumbled upon, the below arrived in my email from some stranger the other day, and it was thought provoking enough I thought I’d pass it along:
How Racism Works
What if John McCain were a former president of the Harvard Law Review?
What if Barack Obama finished fifth from the bottom of his graduating class?
What if McCain were still married to the first woman he said “I do” to?
What if Obama were the candidate who left his first wife after she no longer measured up to his standards?
What if Michelle Obama were a wife who not only became addicted to pain killers, but acquired them illegally through her charitable organization?
What if Cindy McCain graduated from Harvard?
What if Obama were a member of the “Keating 5”?
What if McCain was a charismatic, eloquent speaker?
If these questions reflected reality, do you really believe the election numbers would be as close as they are?
—Kelvin LaFond, letter to the editor at the Fort Worth Star.”
I had a hard time getting my head around this. (The Keating 5 by the way were five Senators in the 80s who pressured regulators to back-off on a major campaign contributor, allowing a small problem to balloon into the Savings and loan crisis that eventually cost the taxpayers over 100 billion dollars.) In any event, my point here is that in a not so subtle way Obama has a much higher bar to cross than McCain. I mean, as Mr LaFond went on to point out, what if Michelle Obama had an unmarried pregnant teenage daughter? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if the above conjectures were true, Obama wouldn’t even be in the race.
Now granted the above reflects some cherry-picking, but I think it still illustrates the basic truth. Despite all our talk of progress, modern America is still very much a white man’s country. In any number of subtle and not so subtle ways white is considered “normal” and anything else with suspicion. Another way to look at this is pointed out in the article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Basically the author points out that white people, especially white males, have all sorts of subtle privileges and advantages that permeate our culture. As she puts it: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” She gives countless examples, such as:
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
Been there, done that myself, even in my limited experience in the professional working world.
My other point is that not only is the problem much more pervasive than many people, especially white people, care to see, this sort of blindness affects our world view in other ways. This sort of subtle but pervasive bias makes it easy to pretend that what happens in non-white countries isn’t important. Its how the USA can overlook the literally millions of people in other parts of the world our foreign policy has killed over the post World War Two decades. It was even expressed overtly during the Vietnam war, some claimed that the appalling civilian toll from our actions didn’t matter because “those people don’t think of death the same way as us.”
Basically anytime one makes broad generalizations about “those people” based on such things as race, religion, gender…one has fallen into a trap where one is seeing the world through one’s own prejudices, instead of the complex reality that exists. In fact one can male a case that the neocon vision of reshaping the Islamic world into our image stems from this underlaying racist assumption that white Christian culture is the “norm.”
Which has led to two bloody and pointless occupations, and may just get us into World War Three as Bush seems intent on turning Pakistan into a nuclear armed fundamentalist Islamic theocracy. More about that on Wednesday, though it’s depressing too.
(The above image is from the original Star Trek TV show, and is so pervasive on the web it might as well be considered iconic. Nonetheless I’m claiming it as Fair Use to be safe, there is simply no conceivable way my use of the image could hurt the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, and it’s a low resolution grey scale copy to boot. Credit: Paramount Pictures. And just in case anyone missed it, note how the loss of a hundred billon dollars was a big historical crisis in the eighties, but that kind of government mismanagement doesn’t even get on the radar the past few years?)