Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Trouble with Racism

...is that it's become a counter-productive term.

There was a time, say sixty years ago, when plenty of people were still happy to openly admit that they thought of their own "race" as superior to all others. The term "racism" served as a productive way to label and combat those attitudes. Public schools, for example, decided that teaching about the dangers of racism should be part of their curriculum. Being opposed to racism has become a deeply embedded value in our society to the point that to call someone a "racist" is not simply a description of their ideology, but an accusation or insult.

That's a great achievement in many ways, but a major problem in others. I'm glad, on the one hand, that we no longer live in the days when people could hold lynchings in conjunction with picnics and weren't ashamed to take pictures of themselves doing so. I'm worried, though, that by teaching that racism is evil without acknowledging that cultural frictions are natural keeps people from acknowledging and working on living together in harmony.

It's common and normal, after all, to think that food from other cultures smells strange. It's a problem, though, if the biggest factor in your relationship with a neighbor is how much the smell of their food annoys you. It's common for people from different backgrounds (esp. different cultural/historical backgrounds) to be sensitive over different subjects. How do we negotiate those sensitivities and get over the unintentional offense we receive or cause? Minority cultures almost all struggle against definitions of what is normal or acceptable (in clothing, writing, music, hair, whatever) that are based on majority cultural standards. How can we learn not to try to force the wrong standards onto those who don't want to fit?

Our focus on racism has made it difficult to talk to about such cultural issues without putting people on the defensive. "I'm not racist" is the response you're likely to get if you try to raise an issue: which does nothing to resolve whatever friction exists. The word "racism" makes minority individuals excessively defensive, too: because "racism" is a often seen as a choice and racism is as actively evil, the term "racism"makes people from minority groups more likely to interpret tensions with individuals from the majority culture as signs of evil than as natural friction.

So, is it time to try to throw the term "racism" out, or at least put it into a narrower place?

If so...how?


  1. There is a distinction that we forget to make between race and culture. One is controllable and one is not. Cultures change, and some suck, frankly. That doesn't mean that the races of people with those cultures suck, necessarily. Am I a racist for admitting that the culture of poverty sucks and makes poor people slaves to government programs? If you read this and assume that I'm being racist against specific races for talking about the culture of poverty, notice that I have not mentioned any specific races, but you might still be taking offense on their behalf. Doesn't that mean that you are superimposing specific races, and is that not racist?
    "Racism" is a legitimate term. It happens, but we can't expect for our kids to be colorblind until we stop categorizing ourselves for any reason by race. Culture works better because then you can talk about groups of people who have made choices about which groups they want to be in. I alone determine what culture I want to take part in.

  2. I wonder if race is socio-cultural construction. Check out the 1915 National Geographic on the "Races of Europe"--we believed there were scores of "biologically predtermined" races residing on one continent that most people now refer to as "white."

    Nate Caplin


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