Everyone in America has spent the past several days talking about racism. The word has been repeated so many times that it doesn’t even really sound like a word anymore. It almost sounds like what happens when you try to pronounce an acronym. Like we’re trying to say “RSZM” or something.
Everyone is all muddled up with the arguments too, because half the people talking think racism means individual acts of easily defined prejudice such as calling a person of color a racial epithet to their face. The other half are talking about institutional racism, which is when social and government systems are aligned in such a way as to give preferential treatment to people of some races above others.
If you are talking about the first thing, it is very easy to believe that you are not a participant in racism. If you are talking about the second thing, it is very hard to believe you aren’t a participant in racism.
Which feels shitty, by the way. It does not feel good to be a knowing beneficiary of generations of white supremacist doctrine that came at the expense of the lives and humanity of millions of people. Doing something about that shitty feeling is harder and we all have to grapple with that because NOT grappling with it will make us complicit in the harms of institutional racism going forward.
Anyway, I recalled that I wrote about racism in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder and I wanted to share my thoughts from back in that day. I don’t have categorical answers for dealing with the institutional problems of racism but here, at least, I can offer insight into my own personal attempts to rewire my responses to my fellow human beings. Enjoy.
[The] idea that generalizations are never wholly accurate is one of the hardest lessons any of us learns. It is human nature to quantify our surroundings and draw universal conclusions based on limited information. It’s a hunter gatherer survival instinct. Those berries that look that way are poisonous. That creature who looks that way is dangerous. That terrain that looks that way is impassable. That weather pattern that looks that way means trouble, turn back, stay away.
We want to apply that same quantification to people. We want to be able to generalize. But we all have to remind ourselves that there is nothing about humans that is absolute. We, as a species, defy categorization. We embody chaos. You cannot judge people based on anything but individual merit.
And if you’re like me, you have to consciously remember that every single day. You have to struggle with the instinct to pre-judge based on skin color, or eye shape, or gender, or accent, or political affiliation, or job. You have to take a breath every time you meet a person and resist the urge to think you know them based on a flash of sensory input or a two-sentence background dossier.
But struggle we all must. We must. It is the failure to engage in that struggle that leads a man to pull a gun and shoot a boy because he thinks his looks mean something. It is failure to engage in that struggle that leads to raising children who will call their classmates foul epithets that they learned from you. It is failure to engage in that struggle that perpetuates racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other ills that befall society.
None of us will ever be color-blind. It won’t happen. It’s not how we’re wired. The best we can all do is to force ourselves to seek out knowledge about people that goes beyond color, or gender, or orientation. We need to remember, as the great Dr. King dreamed, to judge a person on the content of his character. It’s not easy to do that each and every time. But it’s what we must do, it’s what we must encourage others to do, it’s what we must teach our children to do.
Let’s go forward together with the struggle. It won’t feel good for us but maybe it will help us do good by others.