Tuesday, April 27, 2010



I want to take some time to mention what I'm planning to write over the next few days. I think it's especially important to lay out my intentions this time because I am about to venture into very difficult territory.

Whenever I set out on a new intellectual endeavor, I always think of my mentor: Friedrich Nietzsche. In this instance, I think about the title to one of his aphorism collections: Uncontemporary Observations. Nietzsche did not care whether he wrote about subjects that ruffled traditional feathers. He purposely contradicted the expectations of the "the present" and "contemporary" society. His ideas at times recapitulated themes from distant history. At other times, they foretold the future. In either case, he was not "contemporary." To the contrary, he purposely defied "contemporary."

Writers face constant pressure to be contemporary. After all, you can't be successful if you don't write to meet present expectations. Yet no one ever evolves without taking daring chances; and writers are no exception. By accident, I find myself in early 21st Century America: A strange, confusing, conflicted, changing civilization. There are certain subjects that we simply do not talk about, or at least we do not voice certain sentiments about them in public. It is irrelevant what we privately think about these "taboo" subjects. We just never voice what we really believe. Sometimes our beliefs are not even conscious.

Race is among those subjects. Personally, race is an obsession of mine. It frequently inspires my writing because it is so maddeningly relevant. Yet there are certain things we simply do not say about it, no matter how often we think them.

Race has played a pivotal role in American civilization from our earliest history. Through race, we have seen just how low American civilization can fall. Through race, we see our principles challenged. All our grand rhetoric about equality, dignity and fairness falls flat when applied to the American experience with race. It is no surprise that much of my satire involves racial realities in the United States. After all, when we honestly view race in America, we see several different Nations living in one. And they aren't all equal, no matter what the law says.

But I struggle with my own conflicts about race. In my writing and in my public expressions, I vociferously advocate equality. I believe that everyone in this country--no matter their origins--should have equal legal opportunities and a fair shot at success. I truly believe that. It is only just. We cannot claim to live in a just society if some people do not have the same chances for success simply because of their ancestry in a certain country or a certain continent.

Yet even in saying this I feel myself a hypocrite. In fact, I come close to a confession when I say that I am a racist. But we all are. Americans simply do not understand that racism comes in many shades. Some are overt, but most are extraordinarily subtle. Everyone in the United States is a racist in their own fashion; you do not have to be David Duke to be a racist. Rather, every American--including declared liberals--harbors deep-rooted cultural expectations about the "ways" of different ethnic groups. Every American believes on some level that people in other ethnic groups are "different" and "act differently" than they do "because that's the way they are." They do not necessarily mean it in a malicious way; but it is ever-present. And it is racism.

We are racists the moment we say: "Two guys and a black guy entered the room." I was raised with these distinctions. I also grew up in a distinct cultural background (southeastern Connecticut; and as the biological product of hardworking Northern European Protestant descendants). Both by nature and by operation of economic forces, that cultural background was racially exclusive. For the longest time, I never thought I was racist. How could I be? After all, I always learned that it was "bad to be a racist" and that I wasn't a racist because I did not publicly say bad things about people in other ethnic groups. But my own family--the same family that taught me these abstract lessons about race with the best possible intentions--cultivated a set of cultural values in me that made me completely dissociate myself from other races. Those values also made me intuitively judgmental toward anyone who did not share them. And on a subconscious level, I began to believe that my values were normal, while others were not. That was racist.

Racism is everywhere in the United States. It is on everyone's mind all the time. And it is intensely private. When white people eat at a restaurant and a black beggar enters the restaurant, I challenge everyone sitting there to say that they do not harbor certain negative assumptions about black people: "Why doesn't he work? Why do they beg? Why are they all so poor? They're all like that..." they think. They might be ferocious liberals and believe in equality. But in that cultural situation, I challenge them all to say that they do not make immediate judgments about black people in their own private minds. And it is not their fault: It is simply a function of their own cultural backgrounds reacting to another cultural background.

America elected Barack Obama. But that does not mean we are not beyond racism. My "uncontemporary observation" on this subject is that EVERYONE IS A RACIST. It is just a question of degree. We may bear no conscious ill-will toward other ethnic groups. Yet when we make even the most subtle assumptions about them, we are racists. Even disadvantaged ethnic groups engage in racism. I challenge any black person to say he harbors no assumptions about white people when placed in a social situation with them: "He's not going to be fair with me. He's not going to treat me right. He's going to condescend to me. He's going to exploit me. He's going to disrespect me. He's going to fire me because I'm black. That's what they all do. White people are mean and will hurt me any chance they get." Racism goes in both directions--all the time.

Overcoming racism is about more than turning to the law for superficial equalization. Overcoming racism is a mammoth cultural endeavor; and we are nowhere near achieving it. Until we truly harbor no assumptions or expectations about "how other ethnic groups act," and until we truly do not think "How typical" when someone from a particular ethnic group acts in a particular way, we are racists. Yet we do these things all the time without even knowing it. We are merely giving expression to the combined weight of our respective cultural heritages. Heritage bears down upon us in America as in no other country on earth. Nowhere on earth have so many disparate cultural traditions been thrown in with one another. And nowhere else has such burning intolerance arisen when those traditions clash.

Let me be clear for the record. I live my life to avoid racism in all things. But I am still as racist as every other American because I cannot honestly say that I do not occasionally make negative assumptions about other ethnic groups in difficult situations. In this sense, we are all racists. When a black youth wearing a doo rag, low pants, a crooked hat and gangster-style sports garb acts rowdy with his friends on a subway train, I intuitively think: "He is up to no good. He's going to cause a scene." I wish I didn't. But I do. I tell myself I shouldn't think it. I challenge any white person from my cultural background to claim the very same thoughts do not flash in his mind in the same situation.

I have no solutions to the racism problem. The best we can do is to forbear as much as we possibly can in our external behavior. We must try to understand one another as best we can for the sake of order and coexistence. It is relatively easy never to "act like a racist" or "say racist things" in public. It is easy not to be David Duke. But it is not so easy to truly drive racist thoughts from our minds in pressing circumstances.

I wish we weren't all racists. I really, really do. But we would all be dishonest if we said we weren't. And I will immediately call anyone a hypocrite who denies his own racism. Racism is not just the overt hatred we hear about in groups like the KKK. Racism is also about unconscious economic segregation. Living in a part of town that no black person can afford is racist, too. Supporting an economic system that perpetuates racial inequalities is racist, too. After all, why do most wealthy white people live in areas that black people cannot afford? Because they won't have to be around black people. When black people are around, it's a "bad neighborhood." Even using the term "bad neighborhood" is racism. It is no coincidence that "bad neighborhoods" are always the poor, black areas. And it is racist to assume the poor, bad areas are always black. Yet people who claim not to be racist use the term "bad neighborhood" all the time.

Consider a white real estate broker who thinks he is not a racist. He says to his client: "You don't want to live above 96th Street. That's a bad neighborhood." Why? Because black people mostly live there. How can that not reflect deeply entrenched, racist assumptions about black people? Think about how often we use terms like "bad neighborhood." They are racist. And most barely comprehend why.

Racism in the United States is exquisitely subtle. It is the inevitable byproduct of placing so many cultural backgrounds in close proximity to one another, along with the natural human propensity to resent those who are different. As such, racism is everywhere. I know it's not popular to say. But that does not mean we cannot honestly grapple with it. Is it terrible? Of course it is. But there are lots of terrible things about American life; and in my view it makes more sense to call a spade a spade than to pretend it's not.

This is my uncontemporary observation for the day.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

i agree, but i also think there's an animal instinct rooted in all of us. when we see something different, the alarm level naturally goes higher. we can't control it, but we can control our behaviors. in that sense racism will never go away until we're all one color.