Racism is a far more complicated word than many people realize. It's something that goes beyond black and white, both figuratively and literally, and it encompasses a broad range of practices and perspectives. At its core, racism is an act of subjugation--a method of developing a sense of superiority for one person or group of people over another that is ascribed with inferiority. At its worst, racism leads to acts of violence and tangible discrimination but it exists in far fairer shades as well. Racist jokes and purportedly innocuous comments about other races are often deemed socially acceptable despite their hurtful potential.
Oftentimes, what renders such behavior as accepted is intent. A joke with a racial theme told among friends of varying ethnicities might be less acerbic than one told among a homogeneous group different than the subject of the jibe. One can make racially insensitive comments but not necessarily be considered a racist, themselves. It's difficult to discern just where that line is but the fact that it exists at all denotes the malleable, subjective nature of racism.
I have a hard time distinguishing where I draw my personal boundary when it comes to racist behavior in others. As a white male I am afforded a certain immunity to the sting of racism while simultaneously laden with a default position of perhaps being racist merely because of the societal privilege my skin color affords me. As such, I hold myself to a far more stringent set of moral codes, particularly when it comes to racial prejudice, than I do others, especially those of varied ethnic backgrounds.
Of late, I have been forced to reconsider just how much wiggle room I am comfortable with when it comes to the people I choose to engage with. I have witnessed an alarming number of white people grow suddenly bolder and more pointed with their biased views, throwing around freely both racist jokes and blatant barbs against people of other ethnicities. I've long wondered why so many white people seem to be so willfully ignorant and unempathic towards cultural minorities.
Now I think I might have an answer--one that might serve as the starting point towards more ethnically enlightened times ahead.
Unexpected, the genesis of this epiphany came not from white racism but rather racist behavior from a person of color towards Asian-Americans. This person chose to promote mean-spirited, racially-infused humor both in terms of written jokes and, sadly, in video form where they acted out a horrific stereotype of Asian Americans. The latter ultimately proved to be the last straw for me with this person--a man I once admired, ironically, for his adherence to championing better race relations--and it was, in part, because of my personal reaction to it.
Anyone who has been discriminated against knows the sting of that moment. It could be a joke someone writes or says, a behavior they act out, or something more subtle; regardless of the impetus, there's a sick feeling in your stomach and a sudden sense of self-worthlessness. It was these things that I felt not for myself but for my children, my wife, and part of her family--all of whom are part Chinese (my mother-in-law emigrated with her family from China to the United States nearly fifty years ago). Watching my one-time-mentor acting out a Chinese accent and stereotypical Chinese behavior--especially after already writing equally disparaging comments about Chinese people at an earlier point--felt like being kicked in the stomach.
At one point, he ranted about Chinese take out restaurants and their employees and all I could think was, "My wife's grandfather worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant." I thought of my mother-in-law and the similar mockery that she undoubtedly endured as not just a child of immigrant parents but an immigrant herself, both as a child and an adult. These people are now a part of my children's personal histories and thus a part of my own as well.
Without hesitation, I knew that I could no longer allow the person making the comments to be in my life. I was furious but reflective. I thought about the reasons why I took those comments personally and admitted a certain arbitrariness to them; had I married a woman of Hispanic heritage then perhaps those comments would not have hit so close to home.
As much as I hate to say it, I have to admit that there is a certain degree of less-than-desirable behavior that I have to allow in order to maintain a social existence. But it's something that we all have to do. Think of the people who seem to get all up in arms about every little injustice--the ones who find racism, sexism, and practically any other -ism in every aspect of life. How do you feel about that person? The odds are that it's not particularly positive.
Therefore, in order to maintain social sanity, we allow a certain degree of tolerance for behavior that might otherwise conflict with our own stances on those things. We don't cut out people from our lives for having differing political or religious views--even when they make disparaging remarks about the things that we believe in. Somehow, we find a way to overlook these behaviors, chalking them up to quirks or citing the benefits of social heterogeneity.
Even still, there comes a point where we DO find ourselves offended and it was in considering that point that I realized something that might prove to be the key to race relations in our country: personal relevance. Now this is hardly a revelation in the discussion of race and racism but its importance is often overshadowed or shouted down as the discussion begins to heat up. At its core though, I feel like certain types of racism simply cannot exist when there is personal relevance at play.
To me, a racist is someone who holds an entire racial group in disdain and who willfully ignores the illogical and unethical nature of their beliefs and behaviors. This is the classic bigot and is the least likely person on the racism spectrum to change his or her ways. Fortunately, I believe that these people make up the minority (ha!) when it comes to racist individuals.
Far greater in number are what I would deem the racially insensitive. These are people who have racist leanings or who employ racially offensive viewpoints, tendencies, or behaviors without malicious intent. Admittedly, this does not excuse those aforementioned aspects but it does allow for a higher likelihood of change to occur with those things. Simply put, these people aren't aware of the fact that they are racist and, were they to attain that awareness, they would take different actions.
I feel like an inordinate number of white people fall under this latter category if for no reason other than the fact that they've never truly had meaningful interactions with people of other racial backgrounds. They are the ones who have grown up in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods, have mostly white friends, work with mostly white people, and otherwise fail to engage with people of color to any great extent or frequency. In short, they don't have a personal reference point and thus emotional connection to someone of, say, African-American, Hispanic, or Asian heritage.
Here's why that's important: white people often freely engage in communication without considering the emotional impact of the language that they use. Some whites genuinely don't care and would fall into the former category of bigots but there are many who don't realize the pain that their words cause others. When I was in college so many people used the words "gay" and "retarded" in inconsiderate ways to denigrate things other than the folks that those words disparagingly describe. A joke that they didn't find funny was "retarded" and a song that they didn't like was "gay." They flung the words around without ever considering whether or not someone might be hurt by them.
The important detail to consider here is whether or not those people would have stopped using that language if they found out it offended someone. Would they still have used those words if a homosexual was present or someone with a mental handicap? More importantly, if they had someone close in their own lives who would've been offended by that language, would it have given them pause?
This is where that personal relevance comes into play. All too often, racism stems from a place of hypocrisy. It's often, "not my people, not my problem," whether it's whites, blacks, or any other culture. A black man much like my former mentor would have been livid over a white person making a video mimicking black stereotypes but he thought absolutely nothing of doing the same exact thing with Asian ones. The reason is simple: the latter has no relevancy for him while the former does. Because he has no one of Asian descent in his life who matters to him he has no reason to care about whether or not his behavior offended anyone of that culture. I wonder though if he had a family member or close friend who was Chinese then would he have been as quick to make that video or post those jokes.
I feel like that when there's a personal point of reference then it might cause people to consider their words and thus their perspectives more carefully. Self-awareness and general mindfulness help us not merely to understand ourselves better but also to consider ourselves in relation to others and thus the importance of others' feelings and viewpoints. There are plenty of people who think nothing of making racist comments online or even in person among people of their culture but not many of them would have the courage to do so directly to the subjects of those jokes; conveniently, the ones who would be able to do so freely are almost undoubtedly the classic bigot.
And thus we arrive at my overarching point: exposure to and immersion in cultures other than your own are the keys to eliminating racist tendencies, individually, and many forms of racism, societally. I was fortunate to have grown up with and to maintain best friendships with two guys of backgrounds far different than my own. One is half-Chinese and half-Irish and the other is from El Salvador. As a result, I was able to learn about two foreign cultures and thus gain personal points of relevance. When people make offense jokes and comments about Asian and Hispanic people, I don't find them funny or acceptable. I'd like to think that part of it stems from a sense of egalitarian altruism but the truth is that I love and care for people who would be offended by such utterances and so, by proxy, I take offense to them as well.
If more people (white, black, or otherwise) got out of their ethnic enclaves--their social sameness bubbles--and began forming meaningful connections with people of different races then I believe that many racist behaviors would become passe. By associating a face with the race, it might give folks second thoughts about being insensitive and thus lead them along the path towards understanding and thus social self-actualization. Personal relevance is a powerful aspect of racism that should not be overlooked.