We are all racists – I hope

A confession here. I am a racist. I hope you are, too. Not because I think being a racist is good or an ideal to aspire to, but, because I don't want to be the only racist in the room.

To see if you are a racist, let me give you a test. Now for you, this will be a hypothetical test; but it was real for me, so please try to imagine it being real.

I was in a hurry, driving down the freeway in the fast lane. In front of me, also in the fast lane, is a BMW. As I get closer to the BMW, I start going through an internal conversation along the lines of Why buy a BMW unless you are going to drive fast – atleast slightly, illegally fast? And why drive in the fast lane if you are going to drive slower than traffic? I get close and see a custom license plate that says USCMBA and my first thought is What a dork. So I pull over to pass on the right – because he is such a jerk as to drive too slow in the fast lane and with a BMW to boot, it is not my fault that I have to pass on the right.

Now, my question here is What is your opinion of a guy driving slow in the fast lane, in a BMW, with a vanity plate that reads USCMBA?

As I go by, I see he is black. Now what is your opinion?

I immediately went into defense – Well he probably has  to dive slow so the racist cops don't pull him over…probably worked his ass off to get through USC which is expensive…his parents worked their asses off, too.

I do want to be clear that this is not all top of my lungs thinking, it is just sort of background noise thinking as I am driving. But I also am aware that my thinking did a 180turn around when I saw that he was black. A racist reaction. True, a chauvinist pig racist reaction. But…still!

When I first meet someone, I notice their sex, age, and color – in that order, but, sort of, all at once. And I start making pre-judged assumptions about that person. I like to think that I am able to add to those assumptions and change those assumptions as I get more information. And, interestingly, because people are always more complicated than my prejudges, getting to know the person almost always results in more change than addition.

So, where is all this going? I don't know, but yesterday was MLK day and I think we have a long way to go. And I think the United States is doing better than most countries. Maybe that is the best we can hope for on MLK Day.


One thought on “We are all racists – I hope

  1. I share your trait of making snap judgments based on factors such as gender, age, and color and of being reminded time and again what poor substitutes those are for even the most simple conversation that can connect me to the person.
    For interesting reflections on racism here are two items I heard today that look at it from different perspectives:
    (That last one is a Podcast of a story by Jerry Mitchell, if you can’t download it, you can at least read about Mitchell here: http://www.abanet.org/irr/hr/fall00/johnson.html)
    My concern with saying we are all racists is that it devalues the word from what I’ve traditionally taken it to mean. If we are all racists, then what is the word to distinguish us from those the Mitchell writes about and those that celebrate the acts of those that Mitchell writes about?
    Our good friends at Wikipedia say that “Although the term racism usually denotes race-based prejudice, violence, dislike, discrimination, or oppression, the term can also have varying and contested definitions. Racialism is a related term, sometimes intended to avoid these negative meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is a belief or ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group or racial groups.”
    I think it is important to find a way for us to name our tendencies to make snap judgments, to stereotype, people and to not shy away from facing that tendency. I also want to practice noticing my tendency and doing what I can to avoid harming others in my words and actions (but not ideas alone – as Prince said: “if a man is guilty for what goes on in his mind, give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.” See http://www.lyrics.com/electric-chair-lyrics-prince.html)
    That said, if I say we are all racists, I wonder if those who make snap judgments and then act in a manner informed only by those judgments and closed to any new inputs will say, “Exactly. Finally everyone understands they are just like me. Now we can get to work.” I don’t want my forms of speech to inadvertently condone those who act in ways that cause great suffering.
    As I write I realize that trying to sum up my tendencies and predilections in a single word I’m perpetuating what may be one of the threads of racism – the idea that something as complex as a person (or idea) can be reduced to a single word.

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