Feeling like I had been picking on religion a bit too much, I decided to re-post a series of notes I wrote during Black History Month in February, 2010. This is the 6th and final installment of that series. Next week I will go back to frothing at the mouth about how stupid everyone who disagrees with my outlook on religion is.
This post originally appeared on Facebook on Friday, February 19th, 2010.
Racism is still alive and well, as I established in previous posts. We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to discussions about race and the role that it plays in our society. However, I think we’ve been going about it the wrong way. As I said earlier, it used to be child’s play to identify the racists in our society. They were burning crosses (and apparently still are in Nova Scotia), they were using racist language, they were actively discriminating against black people. Those days are, thankfully, over. Aside from a few incidents that bubble up from time to time, black people don’t face the kinds of brutal treatment they did just decades ago.
But racism’s not done. Like a herpes infection, just because it’s been fought down to sub-symptomatic levels doesn’t mean it can’t come back with a vengeance. As I outlined previously, we can still see some residual effects of racism apparent in the makeup of our economic and political leaders, job discrimination – both as unregulated restrictions by individual employers and in the form of well-intentioned, necessary, but ultimately fundamentally racist programs like Affirmative Action – and our portrayal in popular media. Behaving as though racism is no longer a problem only allows the infection to persist and become more deeply entrenched.
In order to completely eradicate racism, important steps need to be taken. In my mind, these steps fall into three main categories. The first is that black people need to move into prominent positions of power and authority. The second is that we take some ownership of our society, including the negative parts, and realize that racism is everyone’s problem, not just white people’s. Finally, white people need to start talking about race, racism, and their own fears and concerns without fear of reprisal. I will elaborate on each of these in order.
First, I think it’s of primary importance that black people be highly visible in positive, influential places. Stereotypes about what “blackness” is stem not only from old-time racism, but from the perpetuation of those same roles in popular media. BET and other music stations are prime culprits, FOX News is about as guilty as an organization can get before donning a white hood, but we’re doing it to ourselves too. The next step, I believe, is to change the connotative understanding of what it is to be “black”. It’s hard to say “black people are lazy criminals” when you work next to, or for, an intelligent black person. It’s even harder when most of the black people you know are strong and successful in your own field. I’ve tried my best, and continue to try, to enact this in my own field where there aren’t very many black people (although, hilariously, my manager and one of the senior scientists on the 9-person team here are also black).
Part of this movement has to be being competent and intelligent, definitely, but a similarly important component is that we have to be visible. Not just present in photographs, or around at meetings, but we have to wear our blackness on our sleeves, forcing those around us to confront the cognitive dissonance that, ultimately, destroys stereotypes. Barack Obama, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, and Will Smith are three examples that readily come to mind of people who don’t hide their race and are anti-stereotypical and prominent in their respective fields. This step will have the unintended benefit of providing positive role modeling to black kids who otherwise wouldn’t have examples to look to in their own communities.
Second, I think it’s time to drop the adversarial “us versus them” mindset. A lot of things are legitimately the fault of racism, or oppression by a majority group. The more we circle the wagons and cry “racism wolf” every time there’s an issue, we dilute real complaints. It’s similar to comparisons to Nazi-ism. There are real honest-to-spaghetti-monster Nazis out there in the world. Every time we draw a Hitler mustache on a picture of Bush, or give a police officer who tells you to pour out your beer the Fascist salute, we move a serious problem further away from the shock and outrage it deserves, and indirectly make serious threats seem less scary.
More important than that, however, is that we need to start recognizing that we are part of the system just as much as any white person is. We perpetuate our own stereotypes by conforming to racial roles, we ostracize those who behave like an outsider. Instead, we need to embrace the idea that our distinctiveness is part of the larger culture. This goes hand-in-hand with the first point – it’s harder to hate someone who is an active part of your own in-group. I am not, by any means, saying that we stop being different, but instead that we put the difference in context of those things we have in common with other groups of people.
Finally, and this is the only one that I haven’t heard other people say a thousand times before me, we need to let white people come to the table. White people are, understandably, scared and unsure about how to approach the topic of racism. For generations, white people ran this country. Gradually, however, more and more non-white faces began popping up in the landscape. While some reacted with open hostility, the rest were left with the uneasy feeling of watching as their power and influence slowly melted away. For an illustration of this, cruise the Craigslist “Rants and Raves” section for Vancouver. There are some REALLY angry white people on that forum, and the majority of them are saying the same thing: “this is our turf, stop taking away our power.” Of course they’re factually incorrect about whose land this is and who built this country, but the fact remains that being white doesn’t carry as much currency as it used to. Couple that with accusations of racism, bigotry and malicious ignorance every time you make any statement about race, and you are suddenly made to feel guilty and responsible for the existence of a system that you were born into without any idea of how to make it better.
Someone needs to start speaking up on behalf of white people. They are victims of the same system, regardless of the fact that it was largely the responsibility of their ancestors. So what? They hurt too. They are made to feel as though they have sinned, but are given few, if any, workable options of how to ameliorate the situation. I’d imagine that most white people hate racism just as much as black people do, even though they are rarely the victims. Not only that, but white people have legitimate beefs and concerns of their own related to race. Let’s remember that even MLK always made a point of acknowledging the role that white brothers and sisters played in the civil rights movement. Conversely, white people have no MLK or Malcolm or Jesse Jackson. Right now the only people speaking on behalf of white people’s issues are demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and far-right militant movements like the KKK and other White Power groups, which puts even legitimate criticism of the treatment of whites in the same category as white supremacy (not only that, but if they’re the only ones speaking for me, then I’m perhaps inclined to agree with them on a few other things). This is not to say that the races are “equal” in political standing, economic influence, or even how we think of them colloquially. However, if we are going to move forward together it’s important that we all have a voice in the progress.
So, like Al Gore at the end of An Inconvenient Truth I’m trying to lay out a concrete map of how to take ourselves back from the brink of crisis and move into a better, brighter future for all people. First, we need to redefine “black” – pushing it out, in a positive way, into the limelight by having prominent and well-placed black people talk about race. Second, we need to take an active part in the society at large, taking ownership of our important role in shaping the culture. Third, white people need to start talking about race, and non-white people need to start listening and discussing. Done properly, these steps will ensure that we can actually have a “post-racial” world, rather than just sticking our heads in the sand and pretending.
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