I'm completely rewriting this on December 6, 2014 (and will make occasional edits in the future). I probably started the page sometime in the early Aughts; it was originally called "my thoughts on discrimination, demographics, and stereotypes," but today I have decided to (somewhat) repurpose it, so that it is more specifically about racism, rather than being about discrimination against any and all demographics (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) I still want it to be clear that I am against any kind of discrimination or stereotypes, but... well, earlier this year, I started a page about sexism, because 2014 shaped up to be a pretty big year for sexist shit to happen, and for people to protest sexism. But then... it also became a pretty big year for racist shit to happen, and for people to protest that. (Note: when I say "big year for shit to happen," I really mean "big year for the sort of horrible incidents that happen every year- every day- to actually make national headlines for a change, so that people seem to give more of a damn than usual, and start paying closer attention to the glaringly obvious systemic patterns of these incidents.") So I started thinking, "Damn, I've got that whole big page about my thoughts on sexism, and just an old page written by Younger Me about discrimination in general. Kinda makes it seem like racism is less important to me than sexism." ...And, you know, it's not. I don't know how much I can say about it, but I do want to try. I'll probably end up saying less than I really should.
I should probably start by saying that I am white. And I am going to make mistakes in my efforts to be an ally, and to understand the ways racism works and the reasons for it. I'll always be grateful to be called out (or called in, if you prefer) when I make mistakes, so that I may correct my thinking and try not to make the same mistakes in the future. (I'm sure one of these days, I'll reread everything I wrote here and be amazed at the level of ignorance I possessed at the time that I wrote most of it, and so do a huge rewrite.) But for now, please just be aware that I'm trying my best.
I originally included external links here, but later moved them to a separate page. I highly encourage you to go there and check out some of those links, to read other people's thoughts on racism. Seriously, I'm sure the links will provide you with better insights than I possibly can. Especially the ones that were written by people of color. Meanwhile... there will still be links throughout this page (most of them to Wikipedia articles, to define certain terms).
So, what does "racism" even mean?
Most of us who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century have this idea of "racism" as being a belief held by individuals, that one race is inherently superior or inferior. So, if we honestly believe that all races are fundamentally equal and should be treated as such, then we're not racist. And I think that's true... but I also think it's important to distinguish between "racist" and "racism." In my opinion (and I could be wrong about this), "racist" still means the same thing we were taught to believe that it means, and it's unfair to call someone a racist if they don't fit that definition. But "racism" means something else. It's not about what any one individual believes, or what they say or do. (I mean, it can be about that, but that's just one definition.) Now, in the 21st century, it is becoming more common for people like me, who often benefit from white privilege without even realizing it, to begin to understand another definition of "racism." A definition that's about the system itself. And it does no good for those of us who have privilege to talk about racism if we're just using the old, familiar, individual definition. Because more often than not, when people of color talk about racism, about oppression and marginalization, they're talking about the systemic definition. Even if they're applying it to individual cases, those are things that simply wouldn't be happening without the systemic racism that exists in America (and the world). It's a self-perpetuating cycle with all sorts of components, such as classism, the school-to-prison pipeline, and... countless other things that make it much harder than many white people want to believe it is, for people of color to make advancements in terms of education, finance, fair treatment by the justice system, accurate representation in the news and other media, etc. There's still a great deal I don't fully understand, and probably never will, but I'm learning, bit by bit. With that in mind, I want to try to explain how my understanding has changed over time. (Which means some of the things I say in the following sections may not perfectly reflect my present understanding.)
I don't really recall when I first became aware of the existence of racism, or even when I first became aware of the existence of other races. But I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, seeing various races on TV and in movies, if not so much in real life. (I was born in Boston in 1975, but my family moved to my mom's hometown of New Sweden, Maine, when I was about four years old. It's a town of about seven hundred people, most of whom are of- as you might guess- Swedish descent.) My parents are not racist (or at least I never had any reason to think they might be), so luckily I was never subjected to any of the indoctrination that, I expect, must account for much of the racism in this country. Besides which, even if much of the most famous work to achieve equality was done before I was born, the decades of my youth were still defined to some extent by messages in the media trying to further those goals. There has, I suspect, never been a preachier time in the history of American television than the 1980s (not just in terms of racial and sexual equality, but generally trying to teach kids not to suck). So maybe that helped me develop my lack of prejudice, but I like to think that I would feel the way I do about race regardless of how I was raised, either by my parents or by my television. Because it's a simple matter of logic. All that a rational person has to do is look around them and see that whatever traits they care to name (high or low intelligence, good or bad behavior, etc.) are present in people of all races. The idea that you can make assumptions about what kind of person someone is based on their skin color is demonstrably ludicrous. So I have never been able to quite wrap my head around the concept of racism.
Here's what I assume: in the distant past, I mean many centuries and even millennia ago, people didn't know much about the world, and it's human nature, often times, to fear the unknown. So perhaps there was some justification for fear or wariness, psychologically speaking, when people first discovered the existence of other races. Reason for whites to fear blacks, and blacks to fear whites. (And all other races to fear each other.) But that fear couldn't have lasted too long, at least on the part of white Europeans, because they had technological and military superiority over Africans. And that allowed for the taking of slaves. Although to be fair, cultures all over the world had been making slaves of their own races long before different races met each other. Europeans had white slaves, and Africans had black slaves (some of whom they sold to Europeans). So slavery, as horrible and utterly unacceptable a thing as it is, is not inherently about race. Even now, there is such a thing as "white slavery," a term that is used in this country because our own history causes us to assume that the word "slavery" implies "black." That is an inaccurate assumption, on a global historical scale, but it works for the purposes of this page, on which I'll be focusing on race relations in the United States of America. Suffice to say, regardless of the color of slaves, slavery is an abomination.
But slavery was abolished in this country in 1863. Since then, non-white Americans (particularly African-Americans) have come a long way towards equality, but it has been a painfully slow process, and it is far (far far far) from over. In this day and age, there is much talk about whether or not we live in a post-racial society (we don't). But it's really, really hard for me to understand how it's even possible that we don't. Seriously, how the actual fuck is it even possible that racism still exists? As hard as it is for me to grasp the fact that people were ever capable of such ludicrous attitudes, I can accept it as a part of the stupidity of people in history, because people believed a lot of really stupid things, historically. And so that's where I think we should hear about racism: in history books, or in movies, TV shows, and novels that are set in historical eras. Every damn time I hear about racist shit happening in the present, I am amazed that this still happens. (Maybe it's because I've been so isolated, never really living in a big city.) But fine, racism exists, so I try to understand how. And I can only imagine it's because some people were raised- that is, indoctrinated- to think that way. But I still can't understand it, because as I said... all you have to do is look around to see that what you were taught about other races is wrong. Do some black people (or other races) conform to the stereotypes you were taught about them? Yes. But nowhere near all of them do. And plenty of white people possess the same negative traits that racists typically ascribe to other races. So whatever reasons you may have for hating other races... really aren't reasons at all. And it baffles me that anyone thinks it makes sense. (Although it must also be noted that not all stereotypes are objectively "negative." Sometimes that just means a trait that certain people subjectively dislike, and for some fucked up reason take their own opinion to be an objective truth.)
Here's an analogy I came up with the other day: Imagine you never saw the sky, because you spent your childhood locked in a house with no windows. But your parents always told you the sky is orange. When you grow up, you finally leave the house and see the sky for the first time. Perhaps it is sunset, and you say "Yup, that's orange, all right." But then it turns black. In the morning it turns pink. Then blue. In fact, most of the time that you look at the sky, it's blue. Some overcast days, it might be white or gray. But you spend the rest of your life insisting that it is actually orange, and any other color it ever appears to be is a pretense, not its true color. And because you can occasionally point to an orange sky, you honestly believe that proves your parents were right, and that anyone who claims the sky is ever truly any other color must be a moron or a liar.
This, I think, is exactly what it is to be racist. Perhaps your parents told you black people are predisposed to become criminals, so if you ever see a black person committing a crime, that confirms it. Somehow, the actions of a few must mean that's what they're all like. Despite all evidence to the contrary. Despite many black people being completely law-abiding, and many white people being criminals, themselves. Same goes for any other stereotypes that bigots may hold about people of any race. It's all utterly asinine, moronic bullshit. I genuinely believe that to be racist, one must have some kind of brain defect. I'd like for doctors to study that and find a cure. On the other hand... some people probably know all the stereotypes are bullshit, but remain racist for some equally ludicrous reason, like... they just want to. Because they are assholes. And as I said awhile back in my facebook note Haters Gonna Hate, I suspect either racists are actually members of a less evolved species of human, or else the problem is simply that all humans have a genetic "Us vs. Them" mentality, which is simply overdeveloped in some people. Some people just feel the need for conflict, so they'll invent any dumb-ass reason they can to justify it, or even just to establish "sides" for the conflict. (Hey, if cowboys in white hats are good guys and cowboys in black hats are bad guys, why not determine sides based on skin color? It's like God color-coded humans for the convenience of people who like to hate, but don't like to think.)
Anyway. I digress. I wanted this section to be about history... both the history of race relations in America, and about my personal history of... being aware of all that. But I think I've been straying into my present thoughts, so before I go any further, I'm going to get back on track. Um... looking back now, I think perhaps for me, the first, or at least most visible, example that racism was still a serious problem in this country, was the Rodney King incident in 1991, and the ensuing L.A. riots the following year. I can't imagine I wasn't previously aware that race was still an issue, but I think I probably had a tendency to see it as much less common than it actually was. And again, this was partly because of my living in a small town, and partly because I saw so much diversity on TV and in movies. (There is a great deal of talk about how there's far too little diversity in the media, and while that's absolutely true, there's always been enough diversity in the things I watched for me to see that people of every race are all just people. Which is one of the reasons it's so confusing to me that racism still exists: how can anyone watch TV or movies, see African-Americans or people of other races being portrayed to any extent as being basically the same as white Americans, and still think they're different? Granted, there are plenty of stereotypical depictions as well, but such things generally occur in the kinds of shows or movies that are clearly unrealistic in every aspect of the plot, so why would anyone who is suspending disbelief about that think of unbelievably written characters as being realistic?) In fact, throughout the 1990s there were various things, such as the O.J. Simpsons trial, that kept race relations in the news. In fact, the 1990s saw a great deal of talk about things like racism and sexism, so it's kind of interesting that both issues have resurfaced in a big way, this year.
So... in August 2014, a black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. This became very big news, particularly in social media like facebook. In November, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson (meaning he wouldn't even stand trial). This caused a great deal of outrage in Ferguson and around the country. Naturally, there were lots of people expressing different opinions about the entire situation. Personally, I believe Wilson should stand trial, though I'm really not sure whether what he did was justified or not. I tend to strongly doubt it, but there are lots of ambiguities, conflicting witness testimony and so forth. I'm also not sure whether his action was directly related to race, but I suspect it probably was. And the decision not to indict him was almost certainly based on race. Naturally, the decision led to both protests and rioting/looting. I think it is crucial that a distinction be drawn between these things: Protesting is entirely justified, and perhaps to some extent even rioting. But only against the system that's actually responsible. Many people used the fact that protests were going on to justify their robbing stores and destroying property, none of which had anything to do with Darren Wilson or the grand jury. It's a sad fact that some people (of any race, including whites) will use any excuse to riot and loot. Sometimes people don't even need a real excuse. (For example, the team you root for losing a sporting event is not an excuse to riot.) But it's vitally important not to confuse the rioters with the genuine protesters. The majority of protesters didn't break any laws, and had every right to protest. Not that that would stop the police from treating them like criminals.
And for many years, there have been lots of other incidents around the country of police killing black citizens (some of them children), who were unarmed and breaking no laws. And then the police just get away with it. (Such incidents have become national news in recent months, but far more incidents have gone unreported, at a national level, until fairly recently. It's becoming more common to hear about them since social media is such a big thing, but that doesn't mean the incidents themselves are more common. We just didn't have as much chance to hear about them, before.) There's also been talk of making police wear body cameras, so that it can be clear exactly what happens in such incidents. (I'm in favor of that, but I think the video footage should be automatically uploaded to some impartial agency without direct ties to the police.) However, in July 2014, a black man named Eric Garner was killed by police in Staten Island, New York, and the incident was filmed by a bystander. The film went viral on social media, so there's no ambiguity that it was murder, and again the grand jury decided not to indict anyone (except the person who filmed the killing, though that's ostensibly on an unrelated charge, which could have been trumped up). So, it seems that even having video of police committing criminal acts is meaningless.
This all demonstrates something which many people (including me) would rather not think about: the fact that racism is still very much alive in our country, and is actually hardwired into the system. This isn't just about police being trained to treat black suspects differently than white ones, and the legal system allowing it. It's about racism permeating pretty much every aspect of our society, much of which is referred to as . I don't want to get too much into the concept of white privilege, here and now, but I'll say that some people argue against its very existence, and those people are wrong. White privilege is a very real and dangerous thing that we should all work to eliminate. I cannot overstate that all human beings were created equal, and all should be treated as such by police, courts, the media, and by each other. There is not some "default" race, which marks all other races as... "other." Each and every race, including white, is equally and fundamentally human. All of our cultures, our histories, our experiences, are part of what it means to be human. One group is not more human than any other. But the system in which we live very definitely treats white as the default race, and therefore the one to which all others should strive to conform. And that is just... plain... wrong.
We live in a society where, legally speaking, all of us are equal, and integrated, and theoretically have the same opportunities to acquire good educations, good jobs, etc. We all have the chance to get rich, or famous. We're all entitled to the same rights and *cough* privileges. It's all wonderful in theory. But that's not always how it works in practice, and that is unacceptable. As much as I hate to believe that the system is working the way it was designed to, it's hard to deny. When people of color routinely get treated differently just because of their race, and are potentially even killed by the people whose job it is to protect us all, and The Powers That Be just continue to let it happen time after time... it does become harder to believe that the failure of the system could be so widespread. I know that there are a great many police, judges, and politicians who believe in what the law says. Who believe we're all equal and should be treated as such. But the way the system works- not always, but far too often to be by chance- is in direct contrast to what the laws of our land say. So either the system really is working as designed, or it is broken in such a monumental way that it is probably beyond repair. Either way, it seems like the only option is to basically scrap the system and rebuild it from the ground up.
Is it really that bad, though?
I also want to mention that much of what I said on my page about sexism can also be applied to racism. Since I've already gone into some depth on that page, I'll summarize here. "Not all men" becomes "Not all white people." And so I must say, no one's bloody well accusing all white people of being racist. So there's no need to get defensive when anyone talks about racism.
And yet, I understand if white people like myself find it hard to see racism around us, to the overwhelming degree that people of other races see it. And my explanation of why that is, is the same as my explanation for why it's hard for men to see as much sexism as women see: Because we live simultaneously in two realities. In one, white people have friends of color, possibly even relatives of color. We see people of color out in public, or on TV and in movies, acting pretty much like us (or rather, like themselves, which includes both similarities and differences, both of which are generally good things), and acting like they're not overly concerned about racism, as if they don't encounter it that much. And it's comfortable for us to believe that's an accurate representation of what their lives are like, most of the time. We know racism exists, but since we so rarely see it in action (unless we live or spend time in particularly underprivileged areas, which I never have), we assume it occupies a small corner of reality. Maybe racism should be dealt with more often in our entertainment. Maybe our friends should talk about it with us more openly. On the other hand... I kind of feel like those of us who aren't racist can maybe provide a respite for our black friends. Maybe if far too much of their time is spent dealing with racism from others, it's a nice change of pace for them to hang with us and just be people, and try to forget about the other shit for a little while. After all, "just people" is what they are. (Still, yeah... the problem does need to be more visible. And thanks to social media, at least real world racism is more visible than ever.)
Since I've deleted all my old paragraphs on this page, that talked about stereotypes and such, I want to touch on that briefly, in this rewrite. Stereotypes don't come from nothing. I've said before that some people do conform to stereotypes, and that may fuel other people's beliefs in those things. I've also said I don't think all stereotypes are necessarily bad. Some can be good things, some bad, and some neutral. All it really means is having certain expectations based on what demographic a person belongs to (whether a specific race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) The problem as I see it isn't believing that stereotypes are true of some members of a particular group, but in believing they must be true of all members of that group. But it's kind of a double-edged sword, because it's not just about people disliking traits they assume to be true of other groups, but also about thinking there are traits that should be shared by everyone in their own group. I touched on that on the sexism page, as well. I don't think men or boys should be derided for liking things or having feelings normally considered feminine, nor should women or girls be derided for liking things or having feelings normally considered masculine. The same is very certainly true of race. I don't think there is really any such thing as acting or talking in a way that is "black" or "white" or any other color. (I mean, aside from actual different languages or accents, but I mean damn... how is that even an issue? You're not seriously going to hold such things against anyone, are you? Because that'd be pretty stupid.)
Anyway... I just wanted to mention that I hate terms I've heard (mostly in the 90s) like "wigger" or "oreo." People are individuals, and should be allowed to think, feel, act, and speak however they feel comfortable. Especially since we live in a country that has often been called a melting pot, and that's more true now than ever. (Although... while "melting pot" was a concept I learned to like when I was a kid, I've more recently come to see how it can be problematic. I now prefer concepts like multiculturalism or better yet, interculturalism.) We live not just in our own town or city, nor even just our own country. We live in a global community that is united by various media, especially the internet. There was a time when it made sense that people conformed to what they saw and heard around them, in local communities, which tended to consist mostly of people of their own kind. But now what we see and hear around us includes pretty much every culture on Earth (and plenty of fictional cultures). So it makes sense for people to have a wider range of options for defining themselves. We have a common vernacular made up of many different parts, some of which might have originated within one group or another, but all of those parts now belong to all of us. This includes language, slang, history, art, clothes, food, music, whatever you can think of. There is no longer some "right way" for each group to act. I have said we're not a post-racial society, but even so... we are a multicultural society. And that's a good thing. We must celebrate our similarities, but we must also understand that many of the things that were once differences have become similarities. It is not merely society that is a melting pot, it is each and every individual within that society. We are all the products of a wide range of cultural influences, and that is a beautiful thing. ...Speaking of which, as I said on my sexism page, one reason I hate sexism is because I love art and entertainment, and there'd be a lot less of that without female artists. The same goes for artists of every race.
Our world needs to change. Our country needs to change. People have been trying to change things for the better for decades, with limited success (an in many cases, no success). I feel that social media is making the national conversation about race stay active longer than it has in the past, and I hope it continues to do so. I hope the increased prevalence of video being recorded by average citizens will continue to increase awareness and outrage. I hope this leads to greater efforts within the system to change the system. I expect this change to take a long time. I expect many outrageous, unacceptable injustices to be carried out by the system for years to come. But the optimist in me desperately wants to believe that the change which has been going on so slowly for so long will finally accelerate. Meanwhile... I don't really know what I, personally, can do. Beyond sharing links on facebook to articles about both general and specific issues of racism... I feel pretty powerless, and that's frustrating. Nor do I really know what others can do. There are protests, and I believe that is good. There are riots, and I believe that can be (and sometimes is) good. Mostly... I just think everyone, of every race, needs to speak out (or write), needs to really listen (or read). Everyone needs to... not remain silent. Not remain ignorant. We need to pay attention to the harsh realities of our world. We need to make those who do have power know we're outraged by all the injustice, and that we're not going to stand for it anymore. And we need to be willing to back up our talk with action. Talking will always be my preferred tool for change, but... there are other tools. Money, votes, protests, even riots... but whatever tools are used, we need our outrage to be vocal and visible, and not let it be ignored....