Last week someone on Facebook called me a racist. In fact he said his new nickname for me was “racist dave”. I would probably be deeply offended by this if not for the fact that just a few posts earlier I had called him a racist. I re-read the entire thread and decided then and there that my next blog post would be about racism.
Why not? Like almost everyone I have witnessed and/or been a victim of some sort of discrimination, be it racial or religious. I consider myself to be extremely open-minded and non-judgmental, so writing about racism should be easy, right?
I started by reading the original exchange out loud to my sister, who very quickly picked up on something I hadn’t. My statement was only non-racist because of my point. However, if you missed my point then the statement would in fact appear racist. The person to whom the comment was directed missed my point. It is entirely possible he missed my point because of the racial angle, however the angle was unavoidable to make my point.
The discussion, which can be found here, began with the breaking news of the shootings at Ft. Hood. A friend of mine, whom in her previous work in mental health had interviewed Timothy McVeigh for the government in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, posted on Facebook looking to see what information anyone might have. I replied with what little I had heard,and another person immediately replied that it looked like a sleeper cell to him. I suggested not jumping to conclusions.
Then the name came in. Nidal Hassan, or as the other poster whom I will simply call PC put it “Nidal Hassan. hmm.” This lead to a back and forth on assumptions based on his name. At one point I tried to draw a parallel between PC’s assumptions and the treatment of Asian Americans during WW II. This is where things got ‘complicated’.
See, PC happens to be of Chinese descent, and has a Chinese last name. Since PC was failing to note that an Arabic name does not make one a Muslim, which in turn does not make one a jihadist I decided to drive the point home by pointing out that he may not have liked the way he would have been treated in America during WW II because of his last name. My point, which I mistakenly assumed to be self-explanatory, was that to many he would have just been the hated “yellow man” so regularly portrayed in political cartoons and ostracized. I already knew by his last name that he was not, in fact, Japanese.
His reaction was immediate and angry. Clearly I was a racist, according to PC. My assumption that he was Japanese showed that I could not tell the difference between one Asian and another. In fact, I can. My whole point was that one could just as easily make a choice not to differentiate, as he had in the case of Hassan. I thought my point obvious. However, my sister made me see that while it was obvious to me it may not have been obvious to PC. She pointed out that when one has been a victim of discrimination, as she and I have both been for our Judaism, it is easy to assume that a comment that miscategorizes you is racist, even if the miscategorization is the point.
OK. Lesson learned. I decided that in writing about racism I would discuss the issue of multiple perspectives. I would look at how difficult it could be to differentiate between the appearance of racism and actual racism. All I had to do was clearly define the various forms of racism.
It turns out that we have come up with so many different ‘types’ of racism you need a scorecard to keep track of them all. In researching for my article I came across writings about innate racism, blatant racism, subtle racism, institutional racism, reverse racism, pathological racism, learned racism, and on and on. What’s more, every attempt to define one of these terms wound up borrowing from or being practically the same as another. I realized that if I tried to write about the different types of racism I would wind up with a dissertation, not a blog post. I also realized it would be a lousy dissertation at best.
My next idea was to go back to the roots of my conversation with PC. I would write about racism from much the same perspective as the Supreme Court wrote about pornography, the “I know it when I see it” argument. Of course since I had just learned that how you see it depends on your own racial history I would need to include examples of perspective. All I would need to accomplish that was to put myself in the shoes of a black man, an Indian, a Pakistani, a Sunni, a Shiite, a Palestinian, a Tutsi, a Hutu, a….. oh, crap.
Did you know that technically speaking, there is no such thing as a Hutu or a Tutsi? Seriously, these tribes were created by the colonists in order to foment internal discord and keep the Rwandans from turning on the occupiers. No one foresaw that these labels would stick to such a degree that eventually these two ‘tribes’ would become involved in one of the largest genocides of the modern age.
Then again, all racism is manufactured, regardless of the type. One person, or group of people, are somehow slighted by another group, or require some ‘other’ to blame for their circumstances, or need to distract the masses from a real enemy, or channel a fear born out of personal trauma, or justify a behavior – and thus racism is born. In the end any and all racism requires rationalization of the irrational, or at the very least the projection of the behavior of a select few onto all of those that share some characteristics with those few.
So now I realize that trying to write about actual racism is a lost cause for all but the best and brightest. Read President Obama’s books, or his speech on racism (most likely written by Jon Favreau) and you can begin the process. In the end racism appears to me to be all about inequality, perceived or actual, and thus I can not really write about it. To put myself into the shoes of anyone other than myself on the subject could be perceived to be – could actually be – racist. To write about it purely from my own perspective would be interesting to some, and perhaps open a few eyes to the antisemitism that is still prevalent in America, but it will not open any new doors to anyone who has not witnessed it. I certainly wouldn’t try to convince anyone that the election of President Obama is in and of itself an end to a certain sort of racism. If racism is all about perception then individual events, no matter how large, can not mark a beginning or an end.
So what is left? I suppose that by avoiding denial of racism, pointing it out, convincing people to try to understand that existence itself is a subjective experience and we can not hope to fully understand what does or doesn’t motivate an individual let alone a group, I can hope to make a difference. By “knowing it when we see it” and not being afraid to say so – like pointing out that many who call Obama a socialist/communist/Nazi without knowing the meaning of those terms are on some level really just avoiding using the N word, we can make a difference. But try to write about what it is specifically and then define how as a group we solve a problem that is a result of seeing ourselves as groups? Oy.