Racism as Symptom – Part 3

Near the end of Racism as Symptom Part 2, I asked the question, how will we know when racism no longer exists? I mentioned that the goal I often sense is proportional representation, and I am inclined to expand my reflection on this point.

Proportional representation is probably either a down-the-road goal, as in eventually all communities will be fairly represented in centers of power, or a goal of desperation, as in something needs to change and it feels like someone who looks like me is more likely to have my best interests in mind than someone who does not. Both of these flavors of the same goal, if truly dependent upon the concept of race, ultimately deny the diversity of experiences and perspectives within racial groups. However, something needs to change.

The latest incident in what feels like a rash of racially driven tragedy taken up by news and social media, the massacre in Charleston, illustrates my assertion that race does not necessarily indicate representation. I am reasonably sure that Dylann Roof does not represent me. Based on his actions and the details that have come out about his possible motives and beliefs, we have very different views on race, control, human nature, and, certainly, appropriate methods of making change. I was never taught, for instance, that skin color dictated quality or that groups of people behaved in specific ways or should only be given certain opportunities because of the race predominantly represented. Unfortunately, to a degree, these beliefs are intuitive when one’s perspective is limited to a view from a distance.

But perhaps I have been too narrow in my assumptions about our visions of what a world without racism would look like. To be clear, when I use the term racism, I am not referring to classism or ethnocentrism, which involve strong economic and cultural or ethnic factors. Though racism as it is often used seems to have absorbed these other forms of prejudice, diluting its meaning and complicating my addressing it here, classism and ethnocentrism are perspectives that can and do exist within races and, so, disqualify themselves. Racism, which to me is the nastiest of the three, describes a belief that one’s race specifies biologically-rooted qualities that delimit one’s moral, intellectual, and social capabilities. This is the way that race was generally understood during the period I described in Racism as Symptom Part 1, which we have regrettably inherited to some extent, and how I will attempt to continue to use it here.

Perhaps when we imagine a world without racism, we imagine a world without ignorance. When civil and immigration laws existed to protect the “superior race” from being tainted by the “inferior races”—including, again, Italians, Jews, ex-slaves, and others—they reflected commonly-held beliefs that have been largely debunked. Where hate stemming from difficult histories still smolders subterraneously or where education lacks modern sensibilities or lacks altogether, it is not difficult to imagine ignorance lurking there—especially because ignorance exists in all of us to varying degrees. This is an angle I will take up in other posts.

When I imagine a world without racism, I imagine a world without averages. To speak of an American experience, by its lack of qualification, is more an oversimplification than to speak of, for example, an Asian-American experience, which is itself an unseemly generalization. In terms of shared experience and ideology, borders offer much the same limitations of guarantee as race. And yet it is easy, perhaps common, to think of the US as offering a particular brand of experience. I suppose it does—on average. However, it is our insistence on thinking in terms of average that I find increasingly problematic, especially when it comes to solving social problems.

I am interested in ethnography and other related forms qualitative research. For the qualitative researchers I know and have read from, there is some interest in generalizing what one has learned to other situations, but often the priority is understanding the specific social or individual phenomenon at hand. These researchers are (or should be) very careful about transplanting their findings into other social situations. This is mainly because a single case will likely share some characteristics with other cases but will inevitably not share all. For this reason, individual cases have very little explanatory power over other individual cases.

To think of the average or typical [insert race] American is to imagine a single case that is an amalgamation or blend of many supposedly similar cases. The limitation is that the average case is still a single case. That single case—the norm—becomes a construct by which other cases are often interpreted. This is a kind of attribution I would not be able to make as a researcher. It is the issue I take with statistics that highlight one of many possible explanations for situations that provide any room for multiple interpretation, as in the cases of people getting jobs, obtaining loans, or getting into universities. It is impossible, if left to conjecture, to know whether an individual’s outcome in whatever scenario being examined is due to race, religion, gender, class, ethnicity, a whim, a misunderstanding, or a misplaced job application. It is simply not enough to consider one’s color in understanding success or failure, which is why even the term ‘white privilege’ is misleading.

My task so far in this blog series has not been to deny that prejudice exists. Rather, I mean to understand whether or not thinking in terms of race is useful and to understand what would happen to racism if our concept of race disappeared. In my view, race is an ever-weakening construct that, like the idea of the average, has limited explanatory power. From now on I will turn to other explanations. In the next few posts, I plan to return to the LARP battle, consider issues of communities of practice, and introduce my take on cultural inclusion as a possible solution to rampant prejudice.

2 Responses to “Racism as Symptom – Part 3

  • i have really enjoyed your perspective via this series so far bro. You are challenging my (and others) thinking on this important topic. I like your description of the average still only being representative of a single experience. The ideas you are presenting for this new way of approaching race is a great idea for us on an individual basis. The question remains as to how we translate this new line of thinking into the broader mainstream of our society so as to break down some of the very really systemic barriers that have been built up based many times on race. Most times how I personally perceive race (my own and others) is a lot less harmful than how I am perceived because of my apparent race or culture.

  • You asked, what would happen to racism if our concept of race disappeared? This is an interesting road to travel, but perhaps not productive. First, “our concept” implies that there is a definition and general understanding of race with which the majority of people agree. I think that this may not be entirely accurate though. I have found that there are two concepts of race, these being: the scientific, and the sociocultural form. To better explain what I mean by that, “race” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives several definitions to include, “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock”, “a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics”, and in reference to Biology “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”, and “a taxonomic category representing such a group.” I found the last definition especially insightful because Biology breaks race down even further: physiological race, ecological race, geographic race, and chromosomal race. As far as your topic is concerned, I believe the definition most people identify with as race would be the “distinctive physical traits” (outward appearance) of a person. However, we cannot look at this definition without recognizing that it falls under at least two of the four Biological definitions. So in conclusion, I would suppose the first important question to determine is whether you are using the scientific, or the sociocultural definition of race. Then, seeing as one falls under the other, I don’t think there can be a plausible distinct separation. So it stands to reason that the initial question, being what would happen to racism if our concept of race should disappear, requires clarification and perhaps alteration in order to pinpoint a more distinct topic with less room for interpretation. An insightful article: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/
    This next part I thought I might go at from a different angle. From what I have read so far, it seems your general approach is more socio-politically minded, such as the idea that cultural inclusion could be a potential solution to prejudice. I agree that this would be highly beneficial as most prejudices stem from a lack of knowledge of other cultures. However, my question that remains on this is why? That is to say, I want to understand the mentality of the human psyche which makes us prone to reject what we do not understand. I believe that the psychological aspect of racism can certainly not be minimized but must be considered fully in order to have a grasping understanding of its hold on society. As far as whether or not thinking in terms of race is useful, I assume you mean useful to society as a whole? This is the contextual understanding I have taken in my response.
    This might just be an over-simplified statement, being my observations and conclusions of the inferiority concept of racism, but I thought it may be worth mentioning. I concur that it is highly important to acknowledge that race has been and is still a significant defining part of our modern-day society. Having said that, I believe there is too much emphasis still being placed on race today; that is if we truly are the “forward-minded” people we claim to be. All of humanity essentially wants the same thing right? We want something to believe in, something to motivate us, to impassion us, and most importantly, to have a sense of self and value, to be worth investing in, to be significant. I think it is important to recognize this, because the reason we do what we do is infinitely just as important (if not more so) than what we are doing. I believe that these legitimate feelings are what drive humanity. I also believe that these feelings are often times displaced into destructive thought processes, race identification being one. To understand our own mind and motive is the key to understanding inferiority vs. superiority, AKA the concept that one person is in some way more important than another person. Does not racism use this very ideology to identify itself? Race then becomes a form OF identity. Many individuals practice this, finding identity in who they are by the origin of their race. So how do we separate the two? An underlying and necessary discussion that needs to be addressed is that of identity and pride and how race is strongly reflected in both of these.
    One cannot look at racism as a stand-alone concept, because it is connected to every aspect of life, interwoven into the human culture surrounding us today. A better way of understanding this is to see culture as a tapestry. We can’t simply burn the entire carpet to remove picks in the fabric! We must carefully unravel it and pull out the offending threads, then painstakingly weave it back together again. If we try to cut the threads out with scissors, there is a chance of cutting unintended threads, and ruining the entire tapestry. Even if we do succeed in cutting them out, there will be gaps where the threads once were, creating the highly likely potential for tears and holes in the fabric. It has become a fragile piece because the tapestry was not mended correctly. While it is an accurate statement that racism has made us both blind and biased to real equality, how exactly do we remove it without punching holes in the very fabric of humanity? Where do we start?
    When we are children, things are simple, right? He took my toy truck; it makes me sad, angry, and even hurt. As a resulting action I might cry, I might take it back, I might resort to violence as a form of revenge. At this time, we do not understand what has really just happened here. We cannot comprehend the severity of the lesson that is being taught. At a young age I have just seen displays of jealousy, disrespect, and dismissal. There are few things worse than the feeling of being irrelevant and therefore unwanted. Consider this: when the child took the truck, I became inferior. I have been subconsciously told that my want was not as important as his want. Essentially being communicated is that he more important than me. Some might call this a social learning exercise, where dominance is being established between the two children, and as such it is beneficial for them to learn and understand competition because it will help them to be more assertive later in life. However, within the constraints of racism a seed of learned behaviorism has just been planted. I tell myself that I don’t like feeling rejected, and I don’t want to feel that way again. To accomplish this, I need to reciprocate since this seems to be acceptable behavior. Now I am more important than him, better than him, superior to him. I am in survival mentality, and this is where most of us stay the majority of our lives.
    What defines a threat and determines our mentality toward others, is in what we were raised to believe, as well as our unique life experiences that have shaped us. This is the origin of actions, and the gravity of this statement needs serious consideration. While we have little control over our upbringing, there are other things we can control. Fear is a response that derives from feeling threatened. It is a survival mechanism to protect ourselves in times of crisis. So by definition, to feel threatened due to ignorance in something, but then give ourselves over to understanding is one of the truest forms of bravery. How to negate fear-based mentality: embrace differences in cultures instead of the knee-jerk rejection and fear, or discomfort from our “normal” whatever that may be. There is no “normal”, but we need to seek to understand people and have a passion for diversity. It is a thing of beauty, exciting and new and an opportunity to grow in cultural understanding. If we can retrain the brain’s reaction to fear, stepping out instead of retreating in, I think society might have a chance. I hope this helps show a different approach, and good luck with your research on SDA schools and diversity issues!

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