Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Race? Final part.

How Can I Tell If My Behavior Was Racist?

  • No! It wasn't me! It was the One-Armed Man! (pause, switches voice to that of a gangster) All right, I confess! I did it, ya hear? And I'm glad! Glad, I tell ya! [Jim Carrey cycling through characters as The Mask. The Mask, 1994]

One of the great confounders of justice is that an innocent person claims innocence and a guilty person claims innocence. In cases of murder, those accused most likely know the truth. In the case of an accused racist, does the perpetrator know?

Do We Recognize When We Are Racist?

I've put together several posts  [1], [2], [3], [4] to bring the reader to this juncture. Essentially, the proposition is this:

#1. Most people have a negative opinion of racism.
#2. Most people who are racist don't see themselves as being racist.
#3. Therefore, if people recognized their racist behavior, they would strive to change their behavior.

Along the way, I've made several essential points.

First, race and racism is not only about black and white and Asian. By its definition, race includes nationality and ethnicity among other divisions.

Second, rather than focus on whether a person is a racist (noun), I believe it is best to focus on whether an action or behavior is racist (adjective). This allows consideration of an individual's actions without necessarily having to focus on motive. A sufficient number of racist actions allows you to determine whether a person is racist.

Third, there are identifiable behaviors that are racist. Some of these might seem non-racist to the perpetrator.

From the 1970s television show, HOT L Baltimore:

A cranky old white man is playing checkers with a young black man.

  • The old man: You cheated.
  • The young man: What?
  • The old man: You cheated because you're black.
  • The young man (angrily): Say what?
  • The old guy: I said you're black. I'm red. You moved the wrong checker!

Was What I Did Racist? 

These Behaviors Are Racist.

#1. Judging a person based on their race rather than as an individual.

Or: Judging people using their race as a negative factor.
Or: Stereotyping a group of people saying they have a flaw in common.

How this expresses itself.

This gets back to the example in the previous post where the store owner declared he would not allow young black men into his shop. There are a lot of stereotypes out there for matching everyone to something bad. When it happens to you, you know it's wrong. When we do it to others, it is equally wrong.

How to fight back against this personality flaw. When encountering a group to whom you may feel prejudice, perform a quick mental check-up to determine the reasons for your emotions and decisions. Recognize the inherent problem in any statement that lumps people together. Treat people as individuals. Don't judge a person until you walk a mile in his shoes.

#1a. Racism by proxy.

Most times, racism is expressed more subtly than: "I'm disgusted by black people." Instead, traits are substituted for people. Between ethnic groups, there are many cultural differences. Quite often, over time, what was seen as bad in another culture becomes widely accepted. Jazz music was once demonized almost as much as hip-hop was twenty years ago.

How this gets expressed.

"I'm disgusted by the thugs who turned the urban landscape into hell." "It's their culture." Inane editorials about clothes, the word "urban" replacing black, condescending concern about black on black violence.

How to fight back against this type of racism. Recognize that your culture is not perfect. Try to distinguish between "not my preference" and that which is truly wrong. Tolerance.

#1b. When insulting someone you insert a racial characteristic or stereotype. 

In response to a questionnaire for a weekly arts newspaper, Carl Paladino, co-chair, New York State Trump for President, provided these responses.

  • 1. What would you most like to happen in 2017? Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. [snip]
  • 2. What would you like to see go away in 2017? Michelle Obama. I'd like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.
"I'm certainly not a racist." [Concluding line of Paladino's defense regarding the above remarks.]

#2. Seeing the same things as flaws when they are done by another race.

This is an extension of a basic human fault. When someone else does the same thing I do, they are wrong. I know my motives that drive me to a particular action. In others, I see only the action.

How this expresses itself:

"All those blacks on welfare. Sure I take ridiculous tax breaks, but they're legal."
"I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anybody help me out? No." Actor Craig Nelson.

Years back, an article written by a white person decried a black poet talking about a white conspiracy to destroy black lives. I'm not going to argue whether the black poet's claim has validity. The writer could easily have picked on a thousand delusions in his own culture's view of history and there are conspiracy theories all over. (And some conspiracies are true!)

How to fight back against this type of racism. Keep your side of the aisle clean: if you think someone has a racist view of history, make sure your view of history isn't racist. The statement "Why don't they take responsibility" inherently points away from where responsibility begins.

#3. Whether I like it or not, I have a fear of certain people.

This is difficult to get around. Some people have been hurt or damaged by a member of another race. This can be a white person mugged by a black person. Similarly, those YouTube videos of a black person being mistreated (or worse) by a white police officer bring out a visceral reaction in many who can imagine themselves in the same situation.

I've been mugged three times. Or, rather, it is a little more complicated than that. One was a traditional mugging, one was an attempted mugging (I told them to back off, I didn't have my wallet, and they backed off), and one was a cold-cock, one member of a passing group surprised me with a punch and ran.

For years, when I passed a group of strangers in the night, my adrenaline raced. Even in those instances where I could see fear was ludicrous I still had the urge to run.

How to fight back against this type of racism. Try your best to separate fear from judgment. Treat each situation as an individual. Keep in mind the individual caused the offense and other members of the same race are not to blame. To the extent that there is institutional racism, fight that.

#4. I'm not racist. I have black friends. But. . .

In a previous post, I pointed out that this narrative is a not a dismissal of racism, but is a feature of a certain type of racism.

How to fight back against this type of racism. The bad people are not "over there." Assume that other people of a certain group are similar to the ones you know: we each have lives, hopes and dreams.

#5. I've read this statistic that says. . .

Or: This awful crime was committed by Willie Horton.

The internet now recognizes who you are and will try to feed you articles that agree with sites where you have previously visited and the searches you have made. Websites will cater to your opinions and your prejudices and reinforce them

How to fight back against this type of racism. Recognize when anecdotes and statistics are feeding into your prejudices. If a website passes along phony data or exaggerated anecdotes, avoid that site. Treat each person as individuals. Do not pass along negativity. If you think you know an anecdote, read up on the full story. Sometimes it is as bad as it looked at first glance, most of the time it was exaggerated for effect.

The Lack of Need for Judgment.

Woody Allen has been accused of some awful things. And you know what? I don't need to judge him. If he was on trial and I was on a jury, yes, I would need to. If he was offering to babysit my son, yes. To be clear: I'm not saying he is guilty or innocent, or that he even that he should live under a cloud of maybe, I'm saying judging him would be wasting my time: he is related to me only as someone who makes films I have seen. Judging celebrities does not need to take up a sizeable part of my brain.

But, aren't there those who are definitely guilty? Lots of them. I can judge them and file it away.

We live in a culture of a pecking order. Someone looks down on me, I need to look down on someone. When the mighty fall, we celebrate. Don't play into it.

An exception to the above is for those who do affect our lives, for example, politicians and authorities. Changing the world for the better is the place to direct our energies.

I began this series with an ambition: to identify types of racism and prescribe ways in which to counteract them in ourselves. Within ourselves is a necessary part to affecting change.

These posts became longer that I thought they would and still I feel as though I've only broached the subject. Nevertheless, I've learned a few things along the way. Thanks to all of you who have taken time to read these posts.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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