Racism as Symptom – Part 2

Racism is real. The church massacre in South Carolina is a sore and tragic example of it. As I continue discussion on the limitations of the concept of race and the resulting racism, I am compelled to restate that I do not mean to trivialize the stories of those who have experienced racism. As a society, we should be hunting it down and squashing it. However, I contend here that to eliminate racism is to eliminate a specific kind of prejudice that is only a symptom of deeper problems.

To review, I am wondering what would happen to racism if the largely empty but socially legitimized concept of race were to disappear. Brandon Robison, an interested and intellectual secondary History teacher, wrote up his take on the development of the concept of race predating the Roman era, pre-nation states and certainly pre-international mélange—his post is in two parts; the link connects to the second part.

Two observations stand out to me from Brandon’s thoughts. First, he pointed out that the nation state, the drawing of boundaries around imaginaries of homogeneous people groups, was an important conceptual step in human society. Karen Risager, a scholar studying the relationship of language and culture, makes a similar observation concerning the relationship of a language, considered to be a discrete thing, as belonging to a particular group of people. I will consider this issue in Part 3. Second, ethnic groups were forced to coalesce physically and conceptually into racial groups by the power and paradigm of the dominant Europeans. In other words, culture or ethnicity mattered before our concept of race ever existed. This is an obvious but necessary point to make, especially in considering the distance I left between myself and the pad-clad cos-play warriors on the UB campus that day. I figured I was sufficiently removed to enjoy a kind of cultural voyeurism without attracting attention. I was wrong.

The fighting took up about a basketball court of grass, with a sidewalk creating a natural, rectangular perimeter. Other spectators sat or stood apart from the action and seemed as curious and condescending as I felt. A few more, surrounded by backpacks and ground strewn with medieval implements, sat in relaxed conversation with each other; and one of these noticed me. She was heavy-set with an unattractive, bespectacled, and pocked face and an unkemptness and frumpiness that was somehow unsurprising, given the activity at hand. She walked toward me with a smile and a limp. “Would ya like to join us?”

I have come to see that “look” almost as a conventional feature of people I associate with gaming, roleplaying, cos-play, and the culture of cult followings. In this case, we shared a race but, I assumed, little else. And, as I mentioned in Part 1, my sense is that race would have had very little bearing on my response regardless. She could have had any heritage, but because of her culturally-etic trappings—clothing, footwear, haircut, glasses rims, even body type, and proximity to a faux battle—I felt an otherness.

I am not excited about how I profiled this girl. That said, even this response sheds light on how incongruous making decisions based solely on race is. However mislead or prejudiced my first reaction to this girl was in my mind, at least it was based on some information about what was probably in her mind. I had faint indications of her values because of what she was wearing, how she carried herself, how she chose to spend her free time and with whom she preferred to spend it. This is important albeit incomplete information. At the very least it takes considerations from the exterior to the interior. Race does not.

Though often a matter of convenience today, categorizing people by race may have once relied on a reasonably reliable paradigm—reliable in the sense that it seemed to account for the vast majority if not all of the available cases to be considered in whatever social scenario. At one point, if Brandon’s analysis is correct, race indicated something of the mind of the member of that race. In most cases, it would have indicated alien ways of knowing and being because people groups were much more insulated from each other than they generally are now. However, with what Risager calls “flows” of people and ideas today, the same claim about race in the US cannot be reasonably made. This is particularly true in light of critical perspectives on culture and identity. Yet, we continue to make decisions based on the most superficial quality of people possible.

Michael Nixon, a Civil Rights lawyer and blogger, illustrates this point in his reflection on Ben Carson’s current presidential campaign, though perhaps unintentionally. While Ben Carson technically represents the Black race, it is readily apparent that he cannot represent all Black Americans. Both he and President Obama differ widely ideologically and, so, presumably represent very different sectors of Black America, and neither of them represent the average “Black experience”—or American experience, for that matter. In the astronomically unlikely event that Ben Carson wins the White House, someone will have to explain to me why it would be helpful to interpret the victory in terms of race. He advocates for policies that many of my liberal friends, those who are interested in quelling what they consider systematic racial oppression and class reproduction, avidly oppose.

Though an argument could be made in support of describing an average experience—as in, this individual does or does not represent the average experience—I am not here concerned with average, as average indefinitely poses problems of representation and overlooks the experience of the individual. For this reason and in this way, the concept of race creates something like a smoke screen, which is perhaps made self-evident in asking this question: how will we know when racism no longer exists? In other words, what are we aiming toward as a society? My sense is that many hope for some form of proportional racial representation, the social analog of carefully composed marketing photos. However, Ben Carson and, for the sake of inclusion, Rachel Dolezal glaringly illustrate that skin color does not reliably indicate experience, ideology, or cultural practice. With this in mind, I will begin to unpack what I think is the deeper problem and how we might go about addressing it in Part 3. (In the comments, I would like to hear your ideas about what society would look like in the absence of racism. What prejudice would take its place?)

As the girl approached, I made the decision to engage. She asked her question, and I dodged it by asking, “What’s going on here?” which began a unique cultural experience. I decided to suspend my initial feeling of otherness, whether sourced in a sense of superiority or inferiority; I think of this as the “suspension of belief” in my own perception and assessment. Instead, I chose to pursue understanding and to believe that her mind could be fathomable to me—in other words, that what made sense to her could make sense to me.

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