Is Everyone Racist?

racism -- is everyone racist

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Intro to a controversial question: Is everyone racist?

This article from The Onion recently provoked some good thoughts among some of my conservative brethren and really got me thinking about why it is that conservative arguments on various issues are so often dismissed as racist on some level.

The issue of who is racist and to what degree is in a “post-explosive” state at this point. Conservatives are so used to being called racists that many of them have been intimidated into silence, and liberals have taken for granted so deeply the racism of conservatives that liberals are now more or less permanently “on alert” for those opinions and worldviews at all times, ready to pounce and judge as soon as they are expressed by conservatives.

The movie Crash said Yes, and I agree

So is everyone racist? Or is it just conservatives? Are you racist? Am I? Perhaps no film has offered a better answer to this question than the 2005 Best Picture winner Crash, which uncovers racism in pretty much everybody, and does it in such an egalitarian way it’s fairly easy to watch without taking it personally. It also depicts how easily we deceive ourselves on the matter. Roger Ebert points out,

The movie presumes that most people feel prejudice and resentment against members of other groups, and observes the consequences of those feelings. One thing that happens, again and again, is that peoples’ assumptions prevent them from seeing the actual person standing before them. An Iranian (Shaun Toub) is thought to be an Arab, although Iranians are Persian. Both the Iranian and the white wife of the district attorney (Sandra Bullock) believe a Mexican-American locksmith (Michael Pena) is a gang member and a crook, but he is a family man. A black cop (Don Cheadle) is having an affair with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), but never gets it straight which country she’s from. A cop (Matt Dillon) thinks a light-skinned black woman (Thandie Newton) is white. When a white producer tells a black TV director (Terrence Dashon Howard) that a black character “doesn’t sound black enough,” it never occurs to him that the director doesn’t “sound black,” either. For that matter, neither do two young black men (Larenz Tate and Ludacris), who dress and act like college students, but have a surprise for us.

I believe the short answer is yes, everyone is racist. Or, at the very least, every person has racist tendencies. Right or wrong, we all tend to base our opinion of groups on our experiences with individuals who are members of those groups. We all have to be educated out of doing that (after having been, most likely, educated into it to begin with). Even after receiving this education, we all must occasionally remind ourselves it’s not right.

Why is racism so hard to see in ourselves?

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about racism (and other prejudices) is how it can be so clearly seen in others, yet so difficult to detect in ourselves. To understand this we must look not to politics or academia, but to ancient wisdom. As a Christian, the best explanation I can think of comes from an encounter Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day.

John 9:39-41 39Jesus said,a “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

There are some things that are buried so deep in our presumptive frameworks, lost so far behind our presumptions of basic rightness, that it is extremely difficult to see them. Here Jesus tells the religious leaders that it is their sense of being so deeply right that assures that they are, and will remain, deeply wrong. A person is never so lost as they are in that moment just before they realize they are lost. Academia, through social research, has confirmed much about what this ancient wisdom tells us.

A Racism Parable

Racism is a presumption that my race is better than yours. Our presumptions exist not as things in themselves that we can observe and manipulate, but as a filter by which we see everything else.

Imagine if when you were born someone came and placed tinted contacts in your eyes that you could not see, feel, or detect in any way. You would grow up assuming the world looked however it appeared to you. When others questioned you, you would simply, and naturally, assume they were crazy, or wrong, or mistaken. If a wise person tried to point out these contacts, you would think that was absurd, and probably be offended at the suggestion. Indeed, they would appear crazy to you. The only way you would come to realize your contacts would be from listening openly and non-defensively to what others are saying, but this would require a great deal of you, since the way things look to others would conflict with your own direct experience. You would have to question, and even come to doubt, your own direct experience.

Conservative and liberal pitfalls with regard to racism

That is why, for the most part, conservatives are still denying that they are wearing contacts at all, that these perceptual filters are actually a real thing, and not the product of liberal academic attempts to indoctrinate them. This suspicion among conservatives, actually, is understandable, given that many liberals who routinely hear conservative opinions as racist have not actually come to understand their own filters yet. Possibly some have on a theoretical level, which is better than not at all, but still a long way from authentic or transformative. When these people go around calling out racism in others, it has a ring of hypocrisy and inauthenticity to it, which conservatives pick up on immediately. Liberals who do this are not speaking out of direct experience, but simply towing the party line.

Then there are those liberals who have genuinely come to see their filters and have grappled with their own prejudices and fears. Though this is undoubtedly a good thing, something curious always happens as we take spiritual steps forward. With each good and necessary step forward, pride and arrogance are always right behind. As soon as I come to see my prejudices and biases for what they are, I can then immediately become arrogant, sensing I am now so advanced, so much further ahead of others. Since this pride and arrogance come from the same set of perceptual filters as racism, and are just as difficult to see, this great leap forward has now produced its own problem.

Then, of course, there are those conservatives who have also done their spiritual work, who have managed to see their own filters and now live in a different way on the issue of racism. It is indeed entirely possible for a person to do this essential work and still remain conservative, but if it does not change the person’s view of public policy on racial issues in some specific way, the work has almost certainly not been done. When deep work is done in our lives, it always reorients us back to the world in a different way than how we were before.

The central problem with conservatives regarding the issue of race is often that they simply have never stopped responding defensively to the notion that they’re wearing these contacts. Many conservatives have just continued to deny and deny, often suggesting that those who know from deep experience how personal and universal this issue is are making it up for political or personal reasons. Liberals then often respond with further outrage and charges of racism. A person who has genuinely done their work on this issue can spot one who hasn’t in a second, just like a conservative can spot a hypocritical liberal on this issue in a second. But of course when a person truly is a racist, it almost never helps matters to call him a racist. Very few racist people believe they are racists — they just believe deeply in whatever reality their contacts/filters allow them to see.

Thus liberals often make a great mistake in pointing out racism as aggressively as they do, for the conservative response will often be to focus on the brazenness and arrogance of the liberal, rather than on the real issue, which is whether there is any grain of truth in what they have said. Jesus got it right. The more one proclaims how guilt-free they are in this racial system (including those who are minorities, who have their filters, just like anybody else), the more one reveals the depth of one’s complicity in that system, and one’s “guilt remains.” No one gets off the hook, for the very sense that one is free of racial perceptual filters and biases comes directly from those very perceptual filters and biases.

A model for dealing maturely with the race issue

So to deal with this issue maturely, the process might be approximately as follows:

  • A person first stops arguing, blaming,and defending, and begins listening, which means they must stop using the wrongdoing of others (hypocrisy, forcefulness, pushiness, radicalness, etc.) as an excuse to avoid this deep grappling.
  • As they come to see, in their own experience, the reality of their own prejudices and the universality of racism, they are on guard against feelings of superiority that lie in wait behind that particular door.
  • Realizing that this is a journey that must be confirmed individually in each person’s experience, they reject being pushy with their new views, and are gentle with those who are in a different place.
  • They advocate for social justice as they now have come to understand it, careful to always continue to do the deep work of letting go of fear of those in a different place, or resentment of them, understanding that, in the words of Jesus, they simply “know not what they do.”

This is a possible model. I don’t pretend it’s easy and, in order to really follow it, would require each person to be deeply committed to personal growth. Could it be that is the only way ahead for us on the issue of race?

Some shortcomings with this post

This post will read as far more cut and dried than it is, for in the real world there will be deep complexities here. What about, for example, when a person who is doing their work on racism is debating someone who is in a different place, and they are arguing about a particular candidate? Simply by one party pointing out that a candidate’s views on race are unenlightened (which one may well feel morally obligated to do), the other party may feel criticized by association due to their support for that candidate.

Another problem is that the journey doesn’t happen overnight. A person may begin shedding their naive notions about being racism-free long before they determine how their understanding of policy should now follow from that change. Also, not all policies on race may need to change. A fiscal conservative, for example, may well have enlightened ideas about race, but oppose certain programs or policies because of purely financial reasons, although here I must mention the ease with which we can deceive ourselves about why we hold the views we hold. Far too many conservatives use “the free market” as justification for their views on race without having seriously done their work on the issue.

I do not claim to know all the answers or how we are to deal with every issue. I only know that the universal awareness of prejudice and racism is exactly that — universal — and that this is verifiable by every human being from any political persuasion who is willing to listen and set aside ego. I also know that we cannot automatically know whether a person has done their work on this issue simply by knowing how they vote.

This is my best articulation of a really tricky issue. I don’t pretend there is no other way to explain race, but I think it does deal in a straightforward way with the universality of racism, and areas where both conservatives and liberals often find themselves getting tripped up. I would love to hear your thoughts on my post, including cautions, different perspectives, specific objections, or whatever you would like to contribute to my work here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Joy Arbor

    You’re such a sweetie, Dave. Here I am wondering whether I’m just being a boor and a bore here as I go on at length, and you ask for more! The resource that has been most important for me has been the training and subsequent study of Compassionate Listening. Here is the Compassionate Listening Project’s link to their trainings, which speaks to what they’re about: http://www.compassionatelistening.org/trainings/about They have no particular religious orientation, but Compassionate Listening comes, for them, from Quaker peacemaker Gene Knudsen Hoffman, and they are also inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh.

    One exercise that is really useful is the facts, feelings, and values exercise, where listeners practice pulling out facts, feelings, or values out of what someone is saying. The point is to be able to separate those things out, so that ultimately one can connect with someone’s values or even feelings even when one does not connect at all with the facts or position. I find that that exercise is really great because then I can try to empathize or at least connect with someone who is very different for me by recognizing our common feelings and values that transcend the person’s position. (It’s also a useful exercise to use when reflecting on why something has angered or upset me. What actually happened dispassionately? How do I feel about it? What is the unmet need that my emotion is speaking to? That’s a pretty good set of questions to develop self-knowledge from particular situations.) Now CLP is all about practicing connecting with people from very different positions.

    Another resource that was useful for me was a piece called Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition http://www.jewishdialogue.org/resources/jewish-texts that helped me see how listening in an open-minded way to the other or stranger and obviously to God is really a cornerstone of Jewish thought. Obviously, that might not be as useful for your readers.

    There’s a lot of interest in this topic in different places in academic circles and obviously in dialogue and coexistence groups, which I’m very interested in because of my Israeli-Palestinian interest and work. (This is both a personal and academic topic for me.) I study listening as a scholar as well and have other resources, but they are pretty heady and grounded in particular theories, so I don’t know how useful they are. Academic stuff in my field, at least, tends not to be concerned enough with concrete practices to enable listening across difference or gulfs, a critique I’ve made in print. But dialogue groups have to address the issue of listening, so I would think that some dialogue groups would have resources that might be more inviting to your readers who’d prefer something more grounded in their own traditions.

    I hope this helps.

    • This is awesome, Joy. Thank you so much. Very helpful!

  • Dave,

    Beautiful work here articulating various sides of an obviously sticky wicket. I’ve been working on a play for about three years that’s taken me into the thick of white privilege, skin color, and class issues, and that stumbling in the dark, the waking up to the contact lenses you refer to has been unsettling, disorienting to some degree, and now that a bit more clarity is arriving, I’m so thankful for folks who’ve pointed those lenses out to me. As you say, pride and arrogance follows hard on the heels of realization, but again, awareness at least blunts the force of them. I loved Joy’s comments on us-them as well, and your follow up with the acknowledgment that our rationality is a capacity, not a guarantee. A huge wake up call for me has been that we really don’t change our minds about things because of rational argument, at least not primarily. The hardest point to swallow, I think, for this time in history, is that our direct experience must be challenged and called into question. For so many, if not all of us, our direct experience is the litmus test, and if you report that the world is different than my direct experience…well, good luck with that. But as you say, it’s the crucial move to make if we’re to understand anything other than our perceptions of direct experience. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for the post, and I’ll look forward to reading more. Grace and peace…

    • Thanks, Jeff. So glad you read my post and took a moment to add this fantastic comment. Your experience as a writer yourself just shines through in your comment. I was friends with a Daryl Berryman from grade school up to a few years ago when I lost touch with him. He had a brother named Jeff. I never knew Jeff well so my mental picture of him is a bit askance. No chance you’re him is there?! 🙂

    • By the way, Jeff, last year I finished a book on the topic of how easily we deceive ourselves and how hard the basic truth can be for each person to see. I know it’s going to really help people understand that difficult process you’re talking about, if I can ever get it into print!

      • Nope, don’t have a brother named Daryl, though I’ve met more than one Jeff Berryman besides me running around. And thanks for the heads up on the book. Would love to see it. Hope you get it into print sooner than later. I’ll be paying attention to Joy’s reply to your request of resources from her perspective. Thanks again.

  • Joy Arbor

    Oooh, I think you must have hit a dicey topic. No one’s commenting! Well, I’m game, but not on the liberal/conservative issue — I’m getting to the point where I don’t see those labels as very descriptive or useful, even when trying to talk about politics. Instead, I’m going to bring in academic insight here. While I don’t focus particularly on race, I teach students about us-them thinking. Now this is not just about racism, but about any time we affiliate with a group, but we can sure see how it applies to racism. Here’s a quote from a book I just love (James Waller’s Becoming Evil about how ordinary people turn into perpetrators — what can I say? I have weird taste) about in-group bias, the fourth aspect of us-them thinking:

    “[T]he mere act of dividing people into groups inevitably sets up a bias in group members in favor of the in-group and against the out-group. We evaluate in-group members more positively, credit them more for their successes, hold them less accountable for their failures or negative actions, reward them more, expect more favorable treatment from them, and find them more persuasive than out-group members” (Waller, p. 175).

    These are biases — that is, they affect the way we interpret new data. So the contact lens analogy is quite apt. Since I teach rhetoric and writing, I always read that last bit slowly to my students, since this debunks the notion that we are incredibly rational people convinced merely by the best argument. Whether we see a person as one of “us” or one of “them” affects our sense of how convincing they are, which affects the way we approach people, research, politics, and so much else. I’m pretty passionate on this subject. A former student of mine characterized me as having “a passion to eradicate us-them thinking.” (He’s a Christian too.) So I’ll stop now.

    • Thanks for commenting, Joy. It added much to my post.

      I love the quote, and am certain this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Two thousand years later we haven’t even begun to grasp this.

      I’d be interested in hearing how exactly you avoid “us vs. them” in your own thinking. Whether or not you find the terms very useful, you certainly are more on the “liberal” side for the most part. I know you have been really frustrated at times by certain opinions, and discouraged, even. So how do you NOT do this? I agree with you, btw, but it’s a very tall order.

      We are not rational beings at all. That’s where libertarianism completely falls apart for me. We are CAPABLE of rationality (at least often so), but that doesn’t mean we actually think rationally most of the time. In order to do so, we must override primitive urges, prejudices, and thought patterns. My book contains a lot of discussion of this idea.

      Thanks again for your comments, and for making me look smarter than I am by choosing to spread some of your intellect on my blog. 🙂

      • Joy Arbor

        Dave, of course I don’t avoid, that is, am not able to avoid, us-them in my own thinking. I try to be aware of it. I’m pretty sensitive to language, so for me working on my own us-them biases starts with recognizing and intervening in my own thought process when I begin to use language that totalizes, like saying things like “[those people] are such idiots [or whatever].” I try to recognize the feeling that’s driving me to say that as I recognize that whatever I’m totalizing is wrong in terms of truth (no one group is all anything) and ethics (this is not loving the stranger or trying to become more virtuous, principled, and wise). But I do this all the time. I tend not to do it about racial and ethnic difference, but I do it about other things. And then of course there’s addressing stuff that’s not verbal at all. For example, trying to figure out whether my impulse to cross the street because a black man is coming comes from my real intuitive assessment of possible danger or a racist sense that a black man represents an increased threat (a stereotype that comes out of white fear and comes out of the history of white justification for slavery, I think, that is already pretty racist). If I’m making that decision in real time, I don’t have the luxury of reflection but I have to make a quick decision, one that probably depends on whether my son is there (because of my first duty to provide for his safety). If I’m alone, though, and don’t feel acutely vulnerable for reasons that make be based on reality, I stay on my course instead of crossing the street to act on my principles rather my fear and smile or nod at the man as we pass each other. (I can recall doing exactly this.) Now I won’t even pretend that this doesn’t get bound up with class issues. If the man were young and had certain markers that suggested gangster behavior or thuggery and a scowling face (even understanding that my perception would be based on my us-them/racist viewpoint), then I probably wouldn’t because I’d consider the degree of risk.

        Probably the single biggest thing that has helped me deal with my own us-them biases is compassionate listening, as taught by the Compassionate Listening Project when I was listening to people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There I learned concrete strategies to help me listen beyond my own biases to find the human feelings and values even in positions that seem personally threatening to me because of my group affiliations. I think as trite as this sounds that (open-minded compassionate) listening is love, or at least the first and most concrete way we open ourselves to the stranger. I listen to viewpoints that I really don’t like much, but it’s my job to listen and not judge as best as I can. In my role as teacher, I often help students articulate arguments and ideas that i personally don’t like and think are mistaken. But it’s important both as a teacher and as an ethical person to try to see their point of view, even if I remain unconvinced.

        Okay, I’m putting my soap box away now. Thanks for the intriguing post, Dave!

        • Another fantastic response. Thank you, Joy. I know in my work in counseling, we spend huge amounts of time on how to listen properly. It takes a great deal of work, and the more invested you are in a position on a particular side it is, the harder active listening becomes, and the harder it gets to not do that pigeonholing we’re talking about. Your post, really, gets to awareness as a key issue. To listen actively and well, a person must learn to become aware of his/her emotions and how they may be skewing what is being said. In the counseling office this becomes easier and easier, but never ceases to be difficult in my personal life where it feels like so much hinges on this particular outcome or that.

          Strategies for listening beyond your biases — do you have websites and other resources that I might be able to post here or elsewhere? I can hardly think of anything more important in today’s social-political-economic climate.