Perceptions and Racism

Earlier this week, my dear blogging friend MrMary posted on The Outlier Collective. Focusing on racism in America, I thought his words truly spoke to what many people of color (and specifically black people) feel everyday. Go ahead and read it if you want, I’ll wait.

To be looked at as somehow “inferior”, or more likely to cause trouble simply because of your skin color/ethnicity. For some of us, this will never happen…for others, it happens every week. Despite the fact that the year is 2013 and our species is the most influential and intelligent on the planet, for some reason we cannot rise above various -isms, racism definitely included. Why?

Possible Explanations
Is it a remnant of Homo Sapiens ancient past, where differences in looks could mean differences of greater importance? Your tribe meets with a separate tribe: They are a slightly different color, or have unfamiliar body ornaments, or cut their hair in odd ways. Are they dangerous? Eager to trade? Could they be prospective allies, or will they simply try to butcher your people? Once upon a time, *this* was what typical human life was like. But if racism is a remnant of it, couldn’t we be expected to use the rational parts of our minds to overcome these “instincts”?

Or could it be that people are in love with the idea of being superior? I have met men who spoke gleefully of being “superior” to all women…personally knew an old white man who would openly wonder why native Europeans were “superior” to all others…Women who claimed that they were genetically “superior” to all men…Christians who have tried to inform me of how “superior” they are to every other faith, including mine. The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point: That some citizens of our country seem to get off on being inherently “better” than those who are different. They enjoy using overt generalizations, denial of individual experiences, pseudoscience, and blatant/willful ignorance of facts to push forward their ideas, not caring to look at other data or admit they could be wrong. Is there something in the human brain that makes us want to be better? And is racism the “giving in” to this obviously irrational side? I don’t know, but if anyone has other theories or hard data, go ahead and comment!

Unclear Perspectives
Another thing I want to touch on is something I mentioned in my comment on The Outlier Collective: Could the accusation of “racist” be inaccurately used? Let me use some examples from my own life…

-Last week, I was putting videogame cases out on the shelves of the store I work at. I am very sensitive about my “bubble” of personal space, and a customer unexpectedly came up next to me so close that our shoulders were touching. I shifted quickly, and dropped some of the games. I apologized to the (black) customer, but he just looked down at me angrily and said “What are you, racist?” and walked away. I was hurt, because I didn’t know his skin color when I automatically moved away from our close contact…but he assumed I moved BECAUSE of his blackness.

-Two years ago, I had to ban a (black) guy from our store because of his actions. He would come in and make inappropriate comments to my female staff about their bodies, ask them out on a weekly basis, and tried to pull their hair. He also made a habit of trying to trade in videogames that had *just* released and were still shrink wrapped…sometimes multiple copies of the same game. Either that, or incredibly filthy/smelly console controllers. When we’d tell him these were not things we wished to buy from him, he’d become angry and insulting. The sixth time he came in, I told him he was no longer welcome in our store due to how he acted. He blew up at me, called me a bitch/racist numerous times, claimed he did nothing wrong and shouted down the mall’s hallway that “everyone who works here is a racist”. In this case, I’m unsure if he actually believed I was being racist or if he just hated being called out on his sexism and dishonesty.

-In 7th grade, I stumbled while walking down the hallway, and accidentally stepped on an older (black) girl’s foot. I quickly apologized to her and asked if she was alright…but she shot me a look of pure venom and said “Fucking racist cracker”, before turning back to her friends and walking away. This encounter shocked me, because I’d never been called a racist OR a “cracker” before. It made me feel bad for being white, and confused by the amount of anger I’d just received for such a small accident.

I have more examples, but my blog is not for woe-is-me’s. I bring them up to showcase the idea that, under certain circumstances, the accusation of “racist!” may not truly be applicable. Was I a racist in any of these situations? I don’t believe so, but apparently the others involved thought I was. I have wondered though, what exactly I could have done  differently in each instance to avoid being called such…or if there was nothing I could do, and I’d be called a racist simply because I happen to be white. It’s strange, but I don’t know if I even have a right to “complain” about these examples, because as a white woman I may reap other benefits that I’m blind to.

In Closing…
The thing I often worry about in talking about racism is how there really is no way for us to talk about it without it being painful. Minorities who contribute to the conversation are often unwillingly put in the role of the teacher…someone who has to relive their memories of racism in order to show them to the white people. This is unfair to make people bring up hurtful experiences, but I don’t know of any other way to talk about this. One should never condone ignorance, but is it really up to people of color to necessarily teach the rest of us?

Equally damaging to productive conversation is that white contributors often feel like they’re being “attacked” for daring to be lighter skinned. This immediately puts us on the defensive, and causes emotional wall-building. Usually our own experiences are deemed insignificant to the overall discussion. For example, I don’t know if the previous section of this post will just be seen as “whiny” since I’m blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Is the pain and embarrassment I felt at being called a “racist cracker” necessarily less than the suffering of someone who is called “the n-word”? Maybe, but how do we measure something like that without invalidating each other?

I guess there will never be a “good” way to talk about racism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try. I’m open to any ideas about how to do so in a way that will lead to real benefit for everyone involved, or to people just using this as an open forum to talk about their own experiences with racism and prejudice. Please use the above menu to review my comments policy if you’re unsure of what I’ll allow through moderation. This is a sensitive topic, and I want to encourage my readers to be forthcoming and honest in how they feel…but please remember that your words will be read by many others.

Have at it, everyone.

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20 thoughts on “Perceptions and Racism

  1. Your experiences of being called a racist are why there is such a hard time moving forward. The racism debate is much like the MRA/Feminism debate. The people on both sides pointing at the abuses of the other side.

    The people fighting racism can point to stuff like Voter ID laws and “Stop and Frisk” and the differences in prison sentencing to claim that racism is alive and well.

    Then there are people that point to the “victim racists” that you encountered. We need to not empower these people to do further harm. You need the authority to ban someone harassing employes and trying to fence stolen goods, even if they are black. Assuming racism and crying foul because you spooked someone makes it look like the people angry about “Stop and Frisk” are doing the same thing.

  2. I don’t normally comment on blogs, but this subject has always been something I feel white people get attacked about more times than actually need to be.

    I am a server, and I remember one of my very first experiences serving a family of a different race than me. In my restaurant we have a person who assigns our tables through a computer. I was seating my table as I walked them back it all started. They started making comments on how they were being sat in the back because of their skin color, when in truth it was because my station was the second to be sat. It got worse from there. At no time did I treat them differently than I do any of my other tables but I was accused of being racist the entire meal.

    I think that is them being more racist than I ever was. Racism can be a person thinking they are being treated a certain way because of the color of their skin even if they aren’t. Sometimes I even feel people want to claim someone was being racist to take away the fact that they are racist themselves.

  3. Hey TarnZss

    Great post! I am going to cut my response into pieces as I am pressed for time.
    Hmmm when I think back to the earlier days of human history especially the tribal hunter gatherer days I wonder if for a tribe in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Asia, Middle east etc would racism be a factor given that a) the population of the earth wasn’t as large and b) the rate of contact between different peoples were not as much as they are today. I do not have data on that so I dunno.

    I wanted to say that is super important for the human psychology that we be given a chance to say sometimes “Woe is me” or that I was really hurt and saddened by that”. We are social animals. We need each other to cry on or let us vent out our shouts of anger. When you deny someone that it builds resentment and bitterness and it will come out at some point. Victims of any social evil (racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ageism etc) quite often want to say: this is wrong, I feel wronged I am hurt and get some sort of agreement or support from the community of which they are part. I think this is a necessary part of healing, this applies not just to racism but all social ills. If a woman who has been raped has her community telling her, “life sucks rise above it”, “being angry isn’t going to do anything” and they do not enforce laws already there to convict and put these rapist behind bars, what happens? It stops you from putting your faith and trust in the system and in others. It makes it that much harder to come together and effectuate major social change. I think by never letting wounds heal they fester. The think the first step for us to move forward as a culture is to make reconciliations with our past. I was really moved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. While it had some flaws and didn’t solve all social ills it did help the transition to a better more function democracy, and it did as some people say rehabilitate the dignity of the victims. Desmond Tutu’s autobiography book No Future without Forgiveness really strikes a deep chord.

    Concerning racism, when the articulation of anger, outrage and frustration become more of the focus and cause of argument than the act that caused the reaction to begin with, then we have to admit, I feel that we haven’t really made a clean break from the past. We have swept it under a rug, and the more we deny something the greater the contributions it makes to the collective unrest.

    So with that said let me say that:
    1. That guy who harassed people in your store has no credibility. He lost all of it once he puts his hands on someone without their consent. I feel he got called out and exposed for being an asshole and rather than take responsibility for his actions he chose to hurl insults at you and find bullshit excuses. That was denial at work and I am sorry you had to deal with that
    2. I dunno why stepping on someone’s foot would warrant that response. I ride the trains in NYC everyday and people of all shapes and sizes and nationalities step on my foot. Nothing racist involved. That’s bullshit and nonsense.

    I think that sometimes what some people call racism isn’t really racism but that doesn’t mean that we should go to the extreme like Supreme court chief Justice John Roberts and say that racism doesn’t exist anymore and gut necessary legislation.

  4. @Genderneutral

    I often feel the same way. Both sides have great points and valid arguments…both sides of a topic can be justified and have merit. It seems that, sometimes, Group A believes that acknowledging the reality of Group B’s argument will necessarily make theirs weaker.

    In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Both pieces are needed to see the bigger picture, not just one.

  5. @Mrs DeVoss

    Welcome and thanks for stopping by. Always nice to hear from a new person.

    I’m sorry for your experience, and how it made you feel. It gets me so frustrated that we live in a culture where race relations are such that the most casual or innocent of actions can be construed as being racist…and of course, no explanation will suffice, because minds are usually made up by the time the accusation is made. Is it any wonder we can’t have honest discussions, when everyone is so afraid of saying something that could be taken the wrong way?

  6. Hi, MrMary.

    Yeah, I’m not an anthropologist, and only studied the subject for 1 semester…my possible explanations are really just laymans theories. Then again, I’ve never heard any good hypotheses as to why people are racist to compare my ideas to. If you find any sources you think are better, let me know!

    Thanks for the second part of your comment. The experiences I talk about in being called a racist (and all the others I didn’t mention) have actually been very hurtful. However, since I’m white I’ve been told that I have no reason at all to complain, or that the unseen benefits of my whiteness cancel out any discomfort I feel. (See the quote from one of my teachers in my Related Post.)

    I agree that claims of racism don’t automatically equal racism. There’s an article floating around online that reads “Why do white people get offended by being called racists?” or something similar. Commentors state that it’s because people are ignorant of their racism, that white people are stupid, or that racists just don’t like being called out. Only one commentor pointed out that some white people may not like it for the simple reason that they’re NOT racist. I’ll agree with your other assertion as well: There IS racism, and people are socially blind fools if they can’t see that in daily life.

  7. Hola TarnZ-e Dear

    What is interesting I think, is the fact that many different ethnic groups live in isolation from each other. I never really interacted much with White people until I went to prep school and that was eye opening. Once I got to really interact with a lot of Caucasian and Asian it really changed my perception

    I recently began reading about hyper-segregation. When a group is so segregated that its members have little chance of contact with outsiders, that group is hyper-segregated. I think that having cities set up where we are like in different camps its hard to tackle social ills. I think it breeds distrust and animosity.

    It was hard for me until I graduated prep school to understand why white people could be so hurt by being called racist. At the time I thought words are just words if there is no cop trying to sodomize you with a plunger, or a lynch mob gathering outside your apartment to mutilated burn and hang you then what different did it make.

    I’m sure it happens frequently that many whites are labeled as racist when they are not actually racist. Looking at the neighborhoods I grew up in I don’t think you will find much sympathy from many minorities which is troublesome to me because no one should be labeled for something they arent. For many people I know their thinking is the worst thing that can happen when a white person feels offended is that their feelings are hurt. Trayvon martin got killed, Jonathan Ferrell got killed, same as Amadou Diallo and the list continues.

    I think this kind of thinking will continue unless the deeper issues are addressed and their is a reconciliation with the past.

  8. Here’s a very simple if uncomfortable truth for you to mull over:

    In nature, lions will attempt to kill any other carnivore they come across. Hyena’s? Kill’em – Leopards? Kill’em – Even tiny little cheetah’s that are no threat whatsoever to a lion? Kill’em.
    Chimps are similar, and will kill a leopard on site.
    The reason is simple – competition for limited resources. That cheetah is no threat to the lion directly but it will eat the lion’s food. So lions and chimps will kill other carnivores as they are competition, but what about other lions and chimps? The answer is obviously yes, lions do kill each other and so do chimps. If two neighbouring prides of lions collide they don’t need any provocation, if they think they can kill the enemy pride they will go for it.

    So what does this have to do with racism? The important point is that neighbouring chimps don’t need any reason to kill other chimps they see, they don’t need to be wronged in any way, they view the outsiders as a threat and respond the way all social carnivores do to threats – kill it if they can. Which is the definition of hatred. Social carnivores, especially apex predators, are born with a hatred of outsiders.

    What’s an outsider? Well that seems to depend entirely on what the animal in question grows up with. A lion can grow up with a human and be best of friends with that human. So can hyena’s and so can chimps and so can wolves. But if you came across a pack of wild wolves for the first time, you are the outsider – a potentially dangerous outsider, and the only thing that would stop them from killing you would be how afraid of you they are (is it worth the risk?).

    So we come to humans, it’s easy to see that as carnivorous apex predators ourselves, we have this exact same instinct to hate outsiders. Here’s a link from one of my favourite websites that goes into some detail about our tribal nature and how we see different = enemy:

  9. I suspect that some people are insecure and that creates a need to feel superior to others. Other times I think it’s just unconsciously socialized so that it seems like it’s just natural. A lot of people who think they aren’t racist and don’t agree with racism find that they have pockets of racism when they take tests like this from Harvard’s psych dpt: I know a man who is half black and half white – actually he’s best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell – and when he took the test he discovered that he had a preference for whites over blacks. That doesn’t make him a bad person (he’s half black and still holds racism). That’s unconscious bias that you have to work at to overcome.

  10. Discussions of race are so difficult because they become emotionally fraught very quickly. I got involved in one a decade (!!) ago on the blog of Richard Poe, whose thoughts and writings on race are, to put it delicately, controversial. This particular thread was called Who is white?. I get tangled up with a fellow named Unadorned, who insists that there is a “white race” and a “yellow race”. If I may be permitted to quote:

    Of course you’re allowed to be proud of your heritage. I think it’s marvelous for African Americans or Chinese or Italians or Irish or Hindus or Germans or Maoris to take pride in the accomplishments and culture of their ancestors. That’s not my problem.
    What I do have a problem with is taking pride in being “white.” As I’ve said, white is purely a skin thing, since it encompasses too many different races and ethnicities to be useful as a characterization.
    I’m white. What does that mean to me? It means I look in the mirror and see white skin. It means I always buy the lightest shade of foundation at the cosmetics counter. It means that I sunburn in about five minutes. But I would never say I’m proud of being white per se, since that would imply that I’m glad I’m not nonwhite.
    If life had dealt me a different hand and made me swarthy like my Mediterranean father instead of pale like my Northern/Eastern European mother, I’d be equally proud of that. I am very proud of my various heritages.
    To say I’m proud of my whiteness, to my ears, would smack of racism. And believe me, I am not one to throw around that term lightly.

    The whole thread is worth reading for some, um, unorthodox opinions on the subject. 😀

  11. @MrMary

    Huh. It was pretty different for me growing up. I went to a Jewish-run preschool, but you didn’t have to be Jewish to attend. In fact, that’s where I met my first girl friend Rashme…who was Hindu and had a small shrine in her house. I lived in a nice quiet neighborhood that had a lot of Germanic/Slavic families, but there were also black and Indian families. I remember the first time I met a black kid…my grandmother simply said “People can be different colors, the same way other animals can be different colors”. Since I had a goldfish, an albino ferret, a big black dog, and a small black/white dog, it made sense to me. In fact, I remember being upset that people couldn’t be *more* colors, lol.

    I’ve never lived in a city or visit many though, so I’m willing to take your word that they’re hyper segregated. That’s really sad…I loved meeting different looking people when I was younger. Still do, in a way.

    In a way, you’re right…words ARE just words, and whites have never been treated the same as minorities in this country. I personally don’t look for any real “sympathy” for being called racist…I just think it’s wrong and unfair. It can be used as slander/libel against not only an individual but also a company, and I know that at least *some* minorities wouldn’t question it, and just avoid them from now on. As a white person, I’ve become so afraid of being labeled a racist/stereotyper that I have almost lost product to thieves, just because I was trying to convince myself they weren’t *really* trying to steal from me…the black teens just using their own bag to carry games in. Five minutes later, I’m running down the street after them while calling the cops because they bolted out with $200 of videogames.

    They got caught by the cops, and we got our product back, but later that week I got a nasty phone call from one of the boys mother’s saying I should have let them take the games because now her son had another mark on his record. I don’t know, MrMary…episodes like this tear me up and make me suspicious when I don’t want to be. I’ve worked at this job for nearly 9 years, and had to chase down 6 thieves in that time. All of them were black…and Gods help me, even though they stealing from me I *still* worried that they’d find a way to call me or my store “racists”. I know that my black customers who’ve been coming for a long time would know they’re lying…but I worry about losing businesses from other families who haven’t shopped with us before.

    It’s all a horrible predicament, sir, and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it.

  12. @Master Beta

    The only problem I see with this is that both us and our closest relatives, the bonobos, are not carnivores…we’re strict omnivores (unless you’re vegetarian like myself). Also, it would seem that it’s a fairly rare occurrence for primates to actually kill each other as much as you say. Not saying it doesn’t happen…it does…but not every time a different group meets.

    I’ll review your link though, as it may provide more insight to this topic.

  13. @Sasha

    Thanks, I’ll take a look at your link. I hate using the term “race” when talking about people myself…terms like “race” or “kind” can sometimes mean “species”, which obviously doesn’t pertain to humans…

  14. @TarnishedSophia

    Well yes that’s true, I should have said meat-eaters instead of carnivores.

    “Also, it would seem that it’s a fairly rare occurrence for primates to actually kill each other as much as you say”

    Not really for the social meat-eating ones. If the groups are evenly matched they’ll face off and probably not fight, but if one lone male chimp finds himself in another group’s territory – he’s a dead chimp if they find him.

  15. I wasn’t aware that we are genetically any more similar to Bonobos than we are to Chimps.

    I’m just trying to point out that racism is just one manifestation of tribalism, and that tribalism is a very natural instinct that we a born with, by pointing out the tribal nature of a lot of other violent animals. We form group identities and see others not in our group as lesser to ourselves. If we didn’t do it based on race we would do it based on something else – and indeed we already do do it based on other things, such as sexuality, nationality, which sports team you support, political beliefs, musical taste and who knows what else.

  16. I suppose I’m just stuck on the fact that, as a species, humans are the most intellectually gifted animals on the planet. I recognize and appreciate that we have instincts, and that some of them are still applicable in modern life. One would still think that we could be smart enough to not give in to bouts of irrational tribalism.

  17. If we are so intellectual, and our instincts so secondary to our reason, then why do people have sex? Get obese? Start fights? Procrastinate? We humans are not nearly as rational as a lot of us like to think. What normally happens is you have a strong feeling towards something or someone – and then you invent a reason why that feeling is correct, and then you believe that you are some shining example of reason and logic.

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