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Living in a Racist Society Is Making Us Stupid

We are surrounded by stupid ideas about race — and even stupider ideas about how to talk about it

Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

“It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

undreds of years after establishing a nation based on colonial genocide and chattel slavery, people are kinda-sorta-maybe-possibly waking up to the sad reality that our racial politics are (still) garbage. But as our society increasingly confronts the social realities of race, we are faced with a barrage of confusing developments.

For instance: How could the same country that twice voted for an Ivy League–educated black president end up electing an overt racist who can barely string together two coherent sentences? Why do white liberals who can’t even confront their Trump-supporting friends and family members think they can lead the “resistance”? Why do Democrats who didn’t care about mass deportations or the treatment of Muslims under Obama suddenly care now that a Republican is in charge? Why does the rapper Common think we can all “get over race” by extending a “hand in love,” while black and brown people are being crushed by systemic white supremacy? Why does Don Lemon still have a job? Why does Rachel Dolezal exist?

Everyone has an opinion about race, but 99 percent of the population has never studied it. And even many textbooks that “talk about race” are filled with lies, inaccuracies, and alternative facts. With so much racial ignorance in the world, how will we ever find our way to that glorious mountaintop Martin Luther King Jr. glimpsed right before a white racist killed him?

Most of us make it through the entirety of our lives without structured opportunities to learn about racism from experts on the subject.

Although race is an inherently divisive topic — the cause of continual controversy, Facebook feuds, and endless debate — there is exactly one thing and one thing only that we can probably all agree on regardless of our racial or ethnic identity, gender, age, political beliefs, or shoe size:

We are surrounded by racial stupidity.

From the White House to Waffle House, from the classroom to the internet comments section, from the television to the tiki-torch aisle of your local Pier 1 Imports— we are surrounded and, at times, astounded by the ignorant and dangerous ideas people express about this thing called “race.”

Why are so many people so incredibly confused and misinformed about race? It’s the white supremacy, stupid! One of the main consequences of centuries of racism is that we are all systematically exposed to racial stupidity and racist beliefs that warp our understandings of society, history, and ourselves. In other words, living in a racist society socializes us to be stupid about race.

Not only are we surrounded by stupid ideas about race; we are even surrounded by stupid ideas about how to talk about race. In May 2015, Starbucks launched a doomed campaign called #RaceTogether to encourage baristas and coffee drinkers around the country to “have a conversation” about race. Although many might have mistaken the campaign for a satirical piece in the Onion, Starbucks announced that its employees had the option of arbitrarily writing the hashtag “#RaceTogether” on a random customer’s cup. Aspiring coffee drinkers minding their own damned business would then be obliged to say something to the barista about race. After a steady stream of criticism and mockery on social media by antiracists across the color spectrum (yours truly included), the company eventually backpedaled and canceled the initiative.

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Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

To some, encouraging random people to talk about race sounds like a step in the right direction. Don’t we need more profit-driven corporations to take a stand and say that “race” is a legitimate and important topic of conversation? Well, no, we don’t. Rather than thinking through the best practices that might foster a productive discussion about racism, the company executives thought it best to just sort of tell everyone else to figure it out, without providing any educational resources, training, or guidelines whatsoever. In a letter to employees, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz stated that he conceived of the idea “not to point fingers and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” When asked whether Starbucks employees received diversity training before being instructed to initiate conversations about race, the company replied, “We don’t presume to educate communities on race, only to encourage an open dialogue.” In other words, though Schultz thought race was a really important topic, he had nothing in particular to say about it except that there is no one to blame for racism. But a clueless dialogue “about race” that doesn’t center on racism is not particularly helpful and can even be destructive.

I am not suggesting that racial oppression merely derives from “ignorance.” Rather, racial stupidity has become routinized and is the result of intentional actions.

Ill-conceived campaigns like “Race Together” contribute to the misconception that “race” is a topic that requires no education whatsoever to discuss. But conversations “about race” based entirely on racial ignorance are actually quite harmful. As an antiracist educator, an occasional coffee drinker, and a black woman, I for one do not want to hear random members of the public who have not studied race share their uninformed opinions with or around me in the early morning hours. The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of U.S. citizens have never taken a class on the subject, attended an antiracist workshop, or seriously studied the history, politics, psychology, and sociology of race relations. Classes dedicated to the topics of racism and ethnic studies are not required for most students in public or private institutions. And, as you know from your own experience, many organizations and businesses do not mandate diversity training with specific attention to racial and ethnic bias and discrimination. As a result, most of us make it through the entirety of our lives without structured opportunities to learn about racism from experts on the subject. Is it any wonder that so many people are so damned racially ignorant?

t’s important to understand that individual biases and negative stereotypes (which we all hold) are not the same as systemic racism (a system of power). Though everyone internalizes stereotypes about social groups, we do not all occupy the same position in the racial order. When members of a so-called racial group are able to impose their prejudices in ways that reliably benefit them and disadvantage others, they have managed to successfully institutionalize their racist beliefs and protect their racial privileges. “Institutional racism” consists of racist ideas and practices embedded within social organizations and institutions (for example, policies, laws, families, education). The major insight about systemic and institutional racism is that there is no such thing as “a little bit of racism” or “pockets of racism” or “random incidents of racism” isolated from the rest of society. Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive, and embedded within the core of all of our major institutions. The consequences of systemic racism are vast — from the burgeoning racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and racist immigration policies to microaggressions, racial profiling, racist media imagery, and disparities in health, education, employment, and housing.

It’s also important to be clear about the meaning of racism, particularly systemic racism, because so many people have made up their own definition of what the word means. A common misconception among racists and racial idiots alike is the idea that racism means “making generalizations” or, more specifically, “making generalizations about white people.” In fact, some fools think even mentioning the phrase “white people” is inherently racist. It’s fascinating to watch racists argue against basic logic and inference to defend their racism and/or racism denial. The faulty argument often goes like this:

ANTIRACISTS: “White racism is pervasive, and whites control the vast majority of resources.”

RACISTS : “Generalizations are wrong!”

ALSO RACISTS: “Whites are the superior race because…”

The sad reality is that the very same people who view themselves as the “master race” can’t even master basic logic. Racists want to maintain a monopoly on racial generalizations: They’d love to have their racist cake (by making racist comments and generalizations about racial groups) and eat it too (by insisting that the racial generalizations they dislike, especially critiques of white racism, are “racist”).

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that racial oppression merely derives from “ignorance.” Rather, racial stupidity has become routinized and is the result of intentional actions of European colonists and enslavers who sought to justify their capitalist exploitation of non-Europeans through the myth of white superiority.

To begin the ongoing process of challenging racial domination — and exploring our implication with it — we need to get really clear about the nature of systemic racism. We also need to confront how racial stupidity functions to keep large majorities of the population ignorant about the social, political, historical, and economic realities of racial oppression. Racial stupidity serves to justify and reinforce racism. And if we’re ever going to build a better world, we will need to fearlessly identify and dismantle the many forms of ignorance that keep so many of us in bondage.

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Excerpted from How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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