Am I Racist? Part 2: What is Racism?

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Need to read Part 1?


There is this meme I like. It’s straight out of a scary movie. It is a picture of an open field on a deeply foggy day. The field is covered with a soggy grass with a single barely visible tree in its center. While there are a couple different versions of this meme, the caption typically reads "The longer you stare at this picture... The more zombies appear..."

That's when you notice that creeping through this fog there are several zombies. Well, at least, I saw several at first. True to its caption, the longer I stare, the more zombies I see. At one point I thought the image was a gif or a small clip. Surely, these zombies aren't dead. But no. It's a jpg file. A picture of the country blind to the issue of race.

By now, I bet, you’re wondering what this has to do with whether or not you are racist. Racism is very much like the zombies in the meme. The more attention you pay, the more of a critical eye that you look at things in the world, the more racism you will inevitably notice. And for those of us that live with racism and have no opportunity to disengage, it is very much like living in an episode of "The Walking Dead."

Let’s recap Part 1 before moving forward.

Am I Racist? Part 1

In the first part of this series, we defined racism, as both ideological and systematic.

  • Ideologically, "racism is the belief that a particular race is (or certain races are) superior or inferior to another race or races."
  • Systemically, "racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities."

In short, racism is the belief that a race is superior to another race (or races) and/or the structural institution designed to create and maintain the racist ideology. At the end of Part 1, we departed with the question:
How does racism, as defined above, affect my ever day life?

Hopefully, you’ve had the chance to wrestle with this question at least a little bit before moving forward. If not, please take a few minutes to consider the question.

Considering the Question

When considering how racism affects your life, it is important to isolate an individual interaction or situation that you have recently dealt with. For example, I went to the Cubs game this past Monday with two friends. I wore one of my favorite black t-shirts, which says "I’m a math teacher, of course I have problems," some salmon slim fit khaki shorts, and some gray Jordan Eclipse off-court shoes. This is what I would describe as an innocuous black man fit. I describe it in this manner because I have noticed that people, and white people in particular, tend to treat me differently when I wear something like this fit.

On my way to the game on Monday, I had a doctor's appointment in an office I had never been. When I got to the building, which turned out to be a large hospital complex with several buildings, I approached the front desk. There was an white man and woman working the front desk. After what seemed like a minute of standing in front of the white man, he white man continued with what he was doing; however, the white woman looked me in the eye, smiled, and asked how she could help me. I told her that I had never been to this particular site and was looking for my doctor's office.

While discussing with her, she mentioned that she "absolutely adored" my t-shirt and thought it was funny. At this point, having heard that I was a math teacher, the man chimed in to help. It was apparent to me not only that he'd been silent because he didn't want to deal with me and that he also knew exactly how to help me find the doctor's office. He gave me directions; I thanked them and was on my way.

I mention this situation as a seemingly run of the mill trip to the doctor’s office; however, I wondered whether or not race played a role in my interaction. In considering this, I thought of three things to consider:

  • Consider what happened - How was this interaction different from other interactions?
  • Consider race as a factor - What are the possible factors, including race, that could change my perspective of the interaction?
  • Consider the roles of each factor - How can these factors be accounted for in this particular interaction?

If I answer all three questions and find that I am left with race as a number one factor, then I believe it is safe to say that race played a role in the interaction. In answering the questions, I concluded that:

Consider What Happened - I had seen a few white people interact with both of the people at the desk and their interactions did not seem suspicious or rude in any way.

Consider Race a Factor - I am not a white man and maybe the man became busy without answering the phone or having anything in front of him that he seemed to be working on.

Consider the Roles of Each Factor - This man’s disposition towards me changed once the woman read and commented on my shirt. It seemed to me that he decided that I wasn’t ignorant or threatening in any way so he could help.

When considering the question and the three considerations, remember racism will pop up like the zombies in the meme; the more you consider, the more racism you may see. While this is true, racism and the racist label should only be applied to situations, interactions, systems, and/or yourself.

The goal of this series is not to outline how to pick a racist out of a crowd. The goal of this series to discuss how to determine whether we ourselves are complicit in racism and there for carrying ourselves in a racist manner.

What is a racist?

A person that operates as a racist, therefore, is a person who subscribes to the ideology and/or system of racism either consciously or subconsciously. More directly, one might say "I am operating as a racist, if I subscribe to the ideology and/or system of racism either consciously or subconsciously. Let's address this with an example quote that is overwhelmingly and blatantly racist so as to make the ideological and systemic identifiers the more obvious.
Cliven Bundy, quite possibly the worst Bundy since Ted (with Al being a close second lol), said:

I want to tell you one more thing that I know about the Negro... ...They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.

The ideological belief put forth in this quote is that African Americans, which Bundy calls the Negro, are intrinsically, habitually, and culturally identifiable and described by these characteristics/actions.

The systemic belief put forth in this quote is an inherent dependence on this structure and the inability to escape the structure. Hence, this quote points out the structures of oppression affecting the African American community while simultaneously blaming the victims.

The problem with this quote, ideologically I believe, is more than the belief that an entire race can be described by a conglomeration of the descriptors or actions of subset of its members. This much is obvious.

What may or may not be obvious is that a racist not only subscribes to a racist ideology and philosophy, but also seeks to reconcile their conception of a single member of a particular race with a theoretical racial archetype, i. e. a racist tries to force a person to conform to the stereotypes of their group. For example, a racist has trouble believing a person of a particular race is a doctor or not a thug. We all have seen examples of this in the media:

  • Former Tennis Player James Blake
  • Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • Unarmed Street Peddler Amadou Diallo

Systemically, Bundy wonders openly whether African Americans are better off in one system of racism versus another. Even though there exists a group of people who will disagree, it is arguably well-known that slavery was the substructure system of racism in the U. S.

Summary

In applying the three considerations to the Bundy quote, we can see that this interaction is different (1 Consider What Happened) from others that we have seen because the racist ideology is stated plainly for all to see making it easier to call out. Race is a factor (2 Consider Race a Factor) because Bundy definitively made his comment about an entire race of people, although this could have been watered down with phrases such as "inner city" and "ghetto." Lastly, I'm sure there are other factors at play (3 Consider the Roles of Each Factor), but due to the blatant racist ideology, they are entirely masked.

Again, the longer you search for racism within yourself, the more you should come up with. This does not mean you are a bad person or vastly different from any other American. This means you, and I, have the responsibility to search and root out racism in ourselves. But again, what is your perspective?

Continue to Part 3.