Agreed Upon Dissension
Ok, we’re gonna talk (type) race stuff now.
You know why discussions on any aspect of race rarely go anywhere? There’s really just one reason, and it’s that we can’t seem to agree on what the relevant vocab words mean. Ask your father and your paperboy what racism is, who perpetuates it, and what it looks like in action. On the really real, how easy is it to establish any ground rules for what anything means?
Not Anything anything. You can define anything using logic. The problem is that even the concept of race treats logic like Wile E. Coyote. Check it out: Black people are Black because of how they look, regardless of being from Cameroon, the BX, or Santo Domingo. So… race is looks, right? Jewish folks beg to differ. They resemble White people, but claim their own. Black Americans who 'pass’ (at least one parent is Black but the child looks White) poke holes in that argument, as do Latinos who’ve earned the nickname 'Chino.’ Jewish people keep it matrilineal, but most groups are perfectly happy to count either parent. So… your race is whatever your parents are? That one falls apart in the mix. Quickly. Black + Asian = Blasian. That works. Black + White = still Black? There’s the 'mixed’ thing now, but until recently it was mulatto, which still means Black. Also, aren’t Latinos a nebulous mix of Europeans, indigenous Americans, and African Slaves? People from the Philippines are a similar mix, if you replace the indigenous Americans with Chinese, and indigenous Americans can be traced back to China anyway. Also, none of this matters to an individual because most strangers will judge their race by looks. So… yeah. It’s a collection of stuff made up to gain leverage or keep a community together. Race is about as inherently consequential as astrological signs, but super important in our daily lives. Race is in the eye of the beholder, and also deeply personal. Race is stupid. Still, we tend to like our own, and xenophobia is so convenient (and biological?), that we’re gonna need to get better at talking about it.
Seeing as race has no logic of its own, we all get to put our personal spin on it, and most conversations turn into simultaneous monologues about Very Different Things. In the interest of dialogue, I’ve put together a little primer on the important words when engaging me in a racial dialogue (racialogue). Yours will differ, but I figure if I’m clear on what I mean, and you’re clear on yours, we can make the whole thing a bit more clearer.
1) Race - You can be an expert in the one you claim, and I’ll do the same. I’ll assume my assumptions about the other groups are at least partially wrong, despite my pocket full of anecdotal evidence. Our personal definitions are important, but you can’t sleep on the reactions of jerks, the authorities, and moneypeople (you know who moneypeople are). In other words I can be a caublicanasianraptor all day long in my own house, but the people with a need for hierarchy (all mammals) are gonna put me in whatever group their senses tell them to. I will only believe that you 'don’t see race’ if you’re from the future and here to teach me how to fight the aliens.
2) Racism - Maybe this is a two-word list. All of the other words are permutations and conflations of racism. The conflations are where the real problems start. Isn’t it stupid that the only thing you can do with race is racism? A popular definition for racism is 'hating the other guy because he’s an other’ which sounds more like prejudice. I’ve seen this definition from younger White people more than any other group, and have been told that White families often define racism as something that happens in the mind. I always felt like racism is something you do, not something you think. I get the connection as it does seem plausible that someone who thinks OtherRaceGuy sucks would be into persecuting him too, but that’s a rectangle/square situation at best. Plus, plenty of heinous acts have come from a place of practicality rather than deep-seeded hatred. Other than the thoughtcrime of prejudice, racism can be broken down along a simple spectrum.
a) Institutional Racism. This is the big daddy, and the only one I’m usually interested in discussing. It’s old, benefits a shifting minority (irony) and is nobody’s fault but everybody’s problem. It’s behind the disproportionate jail time for similar offenses. Profiling isn’t racist because the individuals enforcing it are prejudiced, it’s because the institution is racist. People would have a harder time acting on their prejudice if there wasn’t a system in place that rewards such acts. This is what cats mean when they say 'The System.’ This is why it never mattered what race George Zimmerman was. All that matters is there is a system that consistently demonstrates that Black men are under limited protection. Institutional racism is why some Black women feel ugly without straight hair and is behind Asian eyelid surgery. It’s why every bankable movie star is White (or Will/Denzel) and so is Jesus and everyone else from Mesopotamia (at least on screen).
Seriously though, the entire Bible gets whitewashed forever and the only mythical character to be turned Black is Heimdall? What kind of trade is that? At least give us the rest of Asgard. Black Thor would make it all worth it. Can you think of a Black actor playing a Biblical character other than Chris Rock in Dogma?
The most important thing we can do about Institutional Racism is acknowledge that it exists. After that, we tear down the institution by acknowledging that it’s stupid.
b) Personal Racism - All the above stuff but at the whims of and personalized for me because I have some sort of leverage over you. Mostly works in concert with a). This is the harassment/won’t give you a loan/don’t date my daughter stuff. This is the kind of racism spoken about most in abstract, and is defeated constantly by youth sports movies, so I think we’re in good shape here. The trick is that our level of trust is tied to our health, mood, and familiarity.
c) Being a d*ck - AKA being insensitive, offensive, or not PC. It’s the stupidest part, and is the most frequent culprit of the racism conflation problem. This isn’t even actually racism. It helps to use a swear instead of calling it one of the aforementioned AKAs because those words make people leap to RACISM and things would be more clear if we could separate the two. It’s 'edgy, taboo’ comedy abusing the stereotypes of oppressed people. It’s punching down . It’s basically being mean without knowing the depths to which this meanness cuts. Here’s a personal example: As a youth when I heard a White person the throw out the word 'nigger’ it was usually followed by a rock or fist. As an adult, I don’t react well. I also consider 'wigger’ a contraction, and react similarly. The infuriating thing is, it’s pretty easy to not be a d*ck. D*cks usually hide behind freedom of speech (ironic when their subjects are the one who often have limitations on civil liberties) and the idea that they are repurposing, or taking power away from words or stereotypes. That’s nice and all, but it only works when you listen to the people you’re talking about. It takes some kind of agreement before repurposement can get repurposey.
The real annoyance with all this d*ckishness is how it muddles the real discourse about racism. To our credit, this generation has a raging intolerance for intolerance. The problem is, we don’t know what racism is, so we call everything racism. The old lady who grabbed her purse is a racist. The dad who won’t let you date his daughter is racist. The guy at the comedy show who said offensive stuff is a racist. That’s when a potentially healthy conversation about race turns into Strawman Hitlerpalooza. The meanings get mixed and matched, and things mostly boil down to prejudice, or being a d*ck. At that point, we’re back to simultaneous monologues. Race is known as the agreed-upon convention, and it’s hilariously made more conventional by our inability to agree.