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.