March 2014: Featured Post
lifeseek.org is be featuring a thought-provoking essay that is designed to stimulate healthy dialogue and a collective resolve to seek the face of God for answers of some of the most pressing issues of our age. Your participation and feedback is very important to us and we encourage you to leave your comments, facebook or tweet this post after reading.
I perform improv at a theater where I live. The form we do is sometimes called short-form: a member of the improv group steps out and asks the audience for a one-word suggestion from which they’ll give a monologue and then perform scenes from that monologue. Last Friday, I stepped to the front of the stage and asked for a suggestion, and someone from the crowd shouted “monkey”. A palpable pause emerged and a member of my group questioned “racist?” and another “how racist”, jokingly perhaps. I said something to the effect of perhaps not racist but “micro-aggression”, in a humorous, shrug-off sort of way and proceeded to give my monologue.
Later that night, over beers after the show, a member of my group brought up the incident again, stating that he thought it was racist. Another one said “I don’t think it’s necessarily racist” to which I responded “I agree”.
A similar event happened a few months ago. Myself and another black group member began a scene in a car. We ended up getting pulled over by a cop, and the scene played itself out from there. After the show the same philosophy major/member said “Two black guys getting pulled over? I felt like that was a little racist”. I then gestured something to the effect of a Nicholas Cage “you don’t say?” and kept it moving.
Suppose I said I’m actually more offended by those who think it’s racist that I got the suggestion that I got, than I am at the suggestion itself? To my improv cohorts, that would probably be puzzling. But why? Well, why would I be offended by that suggestion? To think that I would be offended by that, is to think that when I think monkey, I think of myself, and Black people.
Supposedly, I should’ve picked up on the correlation between Blacks and monkeys. Experiences like these are pretty common, and they usually arise in instances in which people knee-jerkedly ascribe racism to something. I would like to call this a hypersensitivity to racism, but that entails that what people react to is really real, that they actually perceive racism, and then pick it out with a word.
To further take you where I’m going, suppose I asked someone to come up with tags for a blog about Black people, and the tags they chose were things like “chicken” “welfare” “prison” “monkey” “criminal” “lazy”, etc. What would you think of a person who associated these words with Blacks? Well, when someone says merely mentioning (not using) these words while talking about Blacks is indicative of racism, it makes me think that they’re not very far off from the aforementioned tagger.
People who approach language and racism in this way to me incriminate themselves in that it’s indicative that they think in very narrow, limited and primitive categories. I’m told by a co-worker for instance that because he knows the show Good Times, he understands my people/culture better than I.
You may be repulsed by such rank idiocy, and when one suggests that merely mentioning the tags previously stated in connection to me is racist, I have the same repulsion, because it suggests that I’m actually somehow reducible or connected to those things. So, if you think it’s racist for someone to ask a Black co-worker “Hey we’re thinking of going to KFC for lunch, you want anything?”, you’re the problem, not the person offering lunch.
How do we explain such knee-jerk, short-sighted views of people and racism? Perhaps part of the problem is the disproportionate value placed on something’s being offensive/forbidden, over and against why something is offensive. Perhaps what’s happened is that the powers that be, the reverberations of history into present day and other factors, have set people (read:Whites) back on their heels so much that the fear of offending and being labeled racist (which once given, can be unshakable) leads people into a non cognitive, reactionary view of racism.
The result is that people don’t actually learn what racism is, they just know certain words and phrases to stay away from. What you then end up with is ignorant conformist who are really no less racist than they would otherwise be; they would be in effect something like the person arranging symbols in Searle’s Chinese Room.
An illustrative example of how this may happen comes from a story the same co-worker of mine (the expert on Blacks via Good Times) once told me. One day he was watching TV with his son, and his son said “Look Dad, that Black guy looks like a guerrilla”, to which his father replied “Son, you can’t say that!”. “Why Dad?”, “You just, you just can’t say that, that’s offensive to Black people”.
What his son learned was not what racism is, but what words or ideas to add to the “do not use” lexicon of racism, so that the next time he hears someone use “Black person” and “guerrilla” in the same sentence he can exclaim “that’s racist!” with no real understanding of what that means, or why it may be. I would empathize with the person who may find this to be a slippery example; after all it’s not as though Blacks haven’t historically been tied to apes, monkeys, etc. But present context and intention matters just as much as historical context and intention, and it’s highly doubtful that the 11-year-old had the same derogatory malice aforethought of previous generations.
He was simply describing what he saw and indeed some people, of different ethnicities and genetic make-ups do look a lil like monkeys, and other animals. It’s that sort of nuance that younger generations (and the currently uneducated) ought to be instructed in with regards to racism in this country. This swings both ways too: those who are most likely to be the target of racism ought to be taught how to be shrewd and wise about what counts as racism, so as to not trivialize a legitimate concern they are sure to have.
This creates a whole ‘nother problem in and of itself…(Part 2 to come).
Is ‘racism’ the proper word that describes difference between black and white churches, and why they hardly integrate?
Have you ever experience racism by someone who calls themselves a “Christian” ?
Have you ever experience racism before? If so, tell us about the experience.