I’ve thought a lot about the current situation regarding protests for racial justice and my thoughts are all over the place:
- What can I do?
- Am I racist and have I let race rule my thinking?
- Is it time for self-examination in general?
- What are my biases?
- What is racism, anyway?
- No form of racism is good, but there are definitely different degrees of it, aren’t there?
What is it?
Racism is a noun. A thing. Defined by dictionary.com as:
- a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
- a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
- hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
Definition #3 is probably what most people think of when they call some one a racist, “hate and intolerance.”
Definition #2 has to do with the idea of systemic racism, such as Jim Crow laws and redlining, as well as “discrimination.”
And according to definition #1, thinking a group or individual is a certain way, positive or negative, because of their race is racist.
But can’t that also be bias? We all have biases we don’t even think about. How can bias always be bad? Except for racial bias, which can lead to stereotypes and discrimination. (For an interesting discussion about racial bias, go to Speaking of Psychology: Understanding your racial biases)
I accept that I have biases, but I’m not aware of racial biases? Do I have those too? And at what point do biases become racism and descrimination?
George Floyd’s murder and the protests that have followed have sparked serious self-examination and memories of conversations, experiences, and books about racism and discrimination.
One experience stands out in my memory. It has to do with being invisible.
Racism and invisibility
When I was in college forever ago I had the most amazing teacher for an American Lit class. He was a tall, balding, bearded man who wore very thick glasses to aid his low vision. My teacher was legally blind, and used a white cane to help him get around campus.
He was big on class discussion and literary analysis and I wasn’t the most diligent student, but I loved books and could talk about them all day, every day. I loved that class.
In the Spring semester he assigned The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The book is about a black man who has been through something that has made him invisible, not because he is a ghost, but because people refuse to see him.
To my 19 year-old sensibilities, the work was deep and I muddled through it thinking I had a decent understanding of the novel.
But when I got toward the end, the story took a strange turn and I was lost. I couldn’t understand what was going on when the main character took on several different personas all at once.
I decided to visit my teacher during his office hours for some insight.
The question that stumped me was, Who was the main character at the end of the story?
I went back and forth with my teacher in an attempt to analyze the work. He asked me questions meant to develop my understanding, but I was still confused.
It doesn’t matter what you think
Then our discussion got personal. He asked about assumptions we make about people. He used himself as an example: Why would people assume that I need help opening a door? I’m able-bodied, I just can’t see. Why would someone see me coming half-way down the hall and stand there holding the door open for me while everyone stands back and watches me pass?
He seemed irritated by the gesture, which surprised me because that’s something I could see myself doing.
I responded, I think people are just trying to help.
He said, People assume I can’t open a door for myself because I use a walking cane. They don’t know me, but assume they know what I need.
We must have continued to discuss and I must have continued to make my case in the spirit of, Why wouldn’t you just accept people’s thoughtfulness.
Then he gave another example
He elaborated on the idea of making assumptions and then drove his point home by saying, It’s the same as someone assuming you’re a certain way because you’re Mexican.
I hadn’t expected that at all and I must have looked stunned, like he’d just slapped me.
He said: When you came to me wanting to enroll in the class, I really didn’t want to let you enroll. I thought, Who is this Mexican girl thinking she can sign up so far into the semester? This is a 2nd year English class. We’d already read a novel that you totally missed. (Well…you see…what had happened was I wanted to drop an 18th Century British Lit snoozer class and enroll in his American Lit class, but it was so far into the semester I needed special permission to make the switch.)
His first impression of me exemplified his bias, prejudice, and even racism. He had thought of me as a late (true) Mexican (also true) who probably wasn’t very smart (false) and not a very good student (It’s complicated).
But he came to realize he was wrong about me, just like people who assumed he needed and wanted help were wrong about him.
His racial bias caught me off-guard. I would have never guessed I had made such a negative impression on him, but that example helped me understand Ellison’s character and who he was at the end of the book.
Class discussion about conclusion of The Invisible Man
In typical form I was late to the final discussion on The Invisible Man and snagged a seat by a window close to the back of the crowded classroom that seated probably 40 students of all different majors.
He stood behind a podium at the front of the classroom and posed the big question to the class. Who is the main character at this point in the story? Different characters call him by different names and he seems to transform into a different person every time. Is he any of them? Is he all of them?
It was one of those lively class discussions where hands shoot up with students eager to get the right answer.
But none of them did. I had my hand raised too but he didn’t call on me until the rest of the class was out of ideas.
Finally he called on me and asked, Who is he?
I said, It doesn’t matter who he is.
And a girl with perfect hair said, Well then why are we talking about it?
The whole class laughed.
He ignored the outburst and pressed further, Why doesn’t it matter?
I said, Because people didn’t see him. They saw who they wanted him to be. To the people he encountered (not just white people either) he was who and what they thought he was.
The person he wanted to be, his dreams, abilities, aspirations, family, heritage, or plans for the future didn’t matter a bit.
That’s what made him invisible.
Just like my teacher and I were invisible to each other when we first met, it turned out. Our biases caused us to falsely assume things about each other, like character, attitudes, and values.
“Otherness” and me
Not being racist is not enough.
When my biases cause me to assume a person thinks and behaves a certain way because of the color of their skin, heritage, gender, physical difference, language, religion, socio-economic status, level of education, or some other “otherness” they become invisible to me.
If I think, I’m not racist. I’m not the problem, and continue just as I am without examining my own biases and prejudices, then I’m not doing enough to be part of the solution. I can do better.
I wonder if future generations will understand any of the current protests and calls for social and racial justice. Will they think it insane that policy based on bias, racism, and discrimination went on for so long? Will they be grateful for the more just and inclusive framework they enjoy?
I hope so.
On a related note, read Words and actions reflect your personal policy on the blog.