Why I’m an Embracist

When I lived in New York in my twenties my hairstylist was Chinese. My boss was Jewish, my gynecologist was black, my favorite restaurant was Japanese and my office buddy was Korean. I went salsa dancing in Spanish Harlem and I sipped vodka at the Russian Baths in deep Brooklyn. For prom I wore a langa (traditional Indian two-piece dress), which was lent to me by the Indian family I had known since birth, who introduced me to Indian food and taught me East Indian dancing. As a pre-teen I played basketball in a Japanese basketball league and as a child I listened to the album ‘Thriller’ non-stop. By some genetic fluke worthy of milkman rumors, my full blood sister has skin the color of chestnut while mine is a light shade of manila envelope. The world probably sees me as a white woman, but I see myself as Jewish, and mostly I see myself as an individual — privileged in some ways and misfortunate in others.

lil’ me, on the left, go #32!

On a day-to-day basis, I think more about the benefits of living in a multi-racial society than the downsides. That’s not to say I live a judgment-free life, just that those judgments tend not to get in the way of my overriding curiosity and appreciation for different ethnic lifestyles. And I don’t think I’m alone.

On the other hand, my Facebook feed presents a very different story. “Donald Trump is a racist”, “The cops are racist”, “All Lives Matter is racist”, “Oscars are racist”, “Brexit is racist”. It’s as if the whole world is being reflected through a high contrast filter.

‘Racist’ has become a catchall phrase that covers everything from Hitler to someone who can’t pronounce an ethnic last name properly. But calling Trump a racist is a gross oversimplification. Trump is a scheming troglodyte who has taken an underlying xenophobic response to globalization and turned it into frothing-at-the-mouth histrionics for political gain. All Lives Matter isn’t racist, it’s a phrase that some people use thinking they’re being inclusive, only to be told otherwise.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter struggles to unite because on a linguistic level, the phrase seems to imply that other lives don’t matter, even if that’s not its intent. Our brains fill in the unspoken in default ways. Like how ‘gluten-free’ bacon implies that all other bacon has gluten. The fact that there’s an us in Black Lives Matter, automatically denotes there’s a them, so that even if it is a beacon of light, it is creating a harsh shadow–not that this is a bad thing, just that it is a thing.

Some say we’re uncomfortable talking about race in this country, but we talk about race all the time. The problem is, the talking we’re doing does nothing but divide us further.

Maybe that’s because the language we use to talk about race is actually quite divisive. We categorize people into two camps: racist and not — two extremes — no doubt reinforced by the media’s propensity for using incendiary language and commentary. And we go about as if those two terms are somehow finite and exhaustive.

Not that ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’ aren’t important categories, they can be useful at times. However because they’re the only categories we have, they create a false dichotomy. People, individually, are rarely either one or the other.

Leaving that alone for a second, perhaps we should consider a third category — a neologism that better reflects the attitudes of people who both recognize historical injustice and share an affinity for the multitude of races we’re exposed to as city dwellers. What we need is a word that describes race in terms of appreciation.

Words like tolerant and accepting are sometimes used with respect to our differences, but these words feel inadequate. Tolerance is for people who annoy us but we ultimately put up with, usually because we have no choice. Accepting implies something we do begrudgingly.

Another reason these words are problematic is that we have trouble proclaiming neutral attitudes towards anything, let alone race. We prefer if the thumb is either pointing up or down. Which is why we need a word that says we not only tolerate our differences, we embrace them. If feminism is pro-women, then how do I say I’m pro-race. I’m pro-racial diversity — that I think Black Lives more than Matter, Black Lives are Awesome. Because in cosmopolitan life, most of us live and breathe an appreciation for racial diversity whether we have a word for it or not.

And since our vernacular is full of words like racism, xenophobia, prejudice, bigotry, Jim Crowism, racial bias, profiling, and Supremacism — isn’t it time we invent their antonym? A word that would encompasses the belief that all races within a society are equally cherished. A word like Polyracial. Race-positive. Or, my favorite: Embracism

Since we have words and phrases like animal lover and wine aficionado, sex-positive and democratic, bisexual, and bi-coastal. Can we not have a word like omni-racial, ambi-racial, or race-affirmative. Otherwise, how does one who likes the ‘beautiful mosaic’ categorize themselves?

It’s not just a matter of semantics; words have a profound effect on the way we interpret a situation. This phenomenon is most easily observed when there’s money on the line — like when advertisers are deciding what to name a product. But it has also been proven under the discerning lens of science, in the field of cognitive linguistics. Lera Boroditsky an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD has designed experiments which demonstrate that how something is labeled has a direct influence on how people perceive it.

In one study, Boroditsky asked German speakers to describe qualities of a “bridge” — a word that in German is grammatically feminine. They used words like “beautiful”, “fragile”, “peaceful” and “pretty”. However Spanish speakers in the study, whose word for bridge is masculine, used adjectives like “towering”, “sturdy”, “dangerous”, and “strong”. (source: https://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think)

“Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think.” Boroditsky says. “Teaching people new color words, for instance, changes their ability to discriminate colors. And teaching people a new way of talking about time gives them a new way of thinking about it.”

Only recently America witnessed an unprecedented example of how the right words can change a national conversation. In 2008 the gay marriage movement suffered devastating ballot losses in California and Maine. A woman named Thalia Zepatos, who worked for the organization Freedom to Marry, began working with a pollster to survey the population on why they thought gay people wanted to get married. She discovered that most people thought gay people wanted to get married for the legal entitlements and government benefits that marriage provided. That was a problem because in this country we believe two people should get married for love and commitment. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and his team realized that gay marriage had a major PR problem. From that moment on, he began to steer the marriage movement away from messaging about ‘rights and benefits’ and towards personal narratives of gay couples talking about their decades long relationships. Eventually the messaging solidified into ‘love is love’. People who were anti-gay rights, as it turned out, were not anti-love. One by one the country began to pivot; public opinion shifted, and new converts that had once brought down ballot measures were now in favor of gay marriage. Emboldened by polls showing changing attitudes, the courts felt newly comfortable accepting legal challenges to same-sex marriage. It was partly as a result of this messaging coup that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Fighting racism is, in itself, a bizarre strategy to me. Do we kill it? Do we squash it? Break it? Eradicate it? Erase it? Defeat it? Will there ever be enough awareness or empathy to wipe away the little voices inside us that make us skeptical of the other? Treating racism as if it’s something that can be annihilated is a fallacy; our tribalism is not something we will ever cure completely-like a bacterial infection that can be treated with a dose of antibiotics. But still we fight against it as if it’s the zombie plague. And so we find ourselves in an endless battle that morphs with each new generation — because we keep feeding off a perceived dichotomy — an endless drama of ‘good’ (not racist) and ‘evil’ (racist).

Donald Trump, of course, reaps the benefits from the binary attitudes that are pumped through the 24–7 news cycle. Trump doesn’t ‘tell it like it is’, Trump regurgitates the divisiveness because it’s salacious, even more so when he holds his mouth to the megaphone. Black Lives Matter is doing much to bring awareness to the need for racial justice but in trying to achieve equality, seems to employ the same good and evil rhetoric with regards to the Palestinians (‘not-racist’) and Israelis (‘racist’) that undermines their own platforms.

As long as we have no way of expressing our positive attitudes towards race, we won’t perceive those attitudes in the first place. Instead, polarizing language about race is like dry brush, easily ignited, fed more oxygen by more polarizing language. Maybe the question is not ‘who’s racist and who’s not?’, it’s who’s an embracist and who’s a hypocrite, holding a taco while screaming ‘build the wall’ at the top of their lungs. I know the cops we’re calling ‘racist’ are still driving home while listening to 2pac or Otis Redding. I know they’re rooting for their home team with their favorite black and hispanic athletes. I don’t know how we reconcile these things. I don’t want to shame people into better behavior, I want to educate, encourage, and show them how it’s done. Call me an embracist.