In the United States and Europe, racists are coming out of the woodwork, freely expressing views that were considered taboo only a year ago. Concerns about terrorism and economic security (some valid, some exaggerated) are amplified and directed broadly at people of color, most of whom have nothing to do with terrorism or the availability of jobs. This racism was always there, but it’s more dangerous now that it’s moving into the mainstream (including aspects of our federal government). Some of the dangers, specifically, are harassment and violence against non-whites (including police violence), voter disenfranchisement, and deportation of immigrants (some legal, some undocumented, many if not most vital to our national economy).
Other problems with open racism include social discord and a divisive sense of “us vs. them” pervading our national consciousness. More severe, dystopian outcomes of open racism might include internment camps for Muslims, reversals of civil rights protections, harassment or murder of civil rights activists (including journalists), use of lethal force against peaceful protestors, or even “ethnic cleansing” scenarios (genocide). Big problems, in other words.
I guess one potential benefit of racist attitudes being openly expressed is that it opens the door to conversation, debate, and the potential for attitudes to shift. That’s the purpose of this post: to influence those who might feel racist but are open to non-racist perspectives.
I’ve been reading some Alt-Right blogs and trying to better understand where this racism comes from (I won’t say which ones, because attention and web traffic fuels these hate blogs). From what I’ve read so far, the Alt-Right openly-racist/white-supremacist perspective looks something like this:
- On the nature vs. nurture debate, a strong bias towards nature. Human qualities are “in the blood” and to create a good society you need a “good stock” of people (predominantly Anglo-Saxon, with maybe some Germans and Scandinavians, but definitely no Jews or anybody with brown skin).
- Cultural assimilation is a myth. The openly racist Alt-Right perspective would be more likely to characterize cultural evolution via immigration and other forms of culture mixing/mashing as “dilution” or even “infection.”
- A powerful nostalgia for the past, when things were better (better being defined as more patriarchal, more Anglo-Saxon, more Christian). It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly this U.S. Golden Era occurred, but I get the sense many Alt-Righters believe our country started to go downhill with the 1820’s influx of Irish and Germans, and has been going down ever since.
- A sense of being persecuted, censored, and/or attacked for being white, and/or Christian, and/or conservative, by SJWs (social just warriors), especially in the liberal/Left-leaning fields of academia and the arts (Leftist ideologues and hardcore SJWs do sometimes unfairly attack people, as demonstrated by incidents like this one, but those attacks are more frequently directly at other liberals, such as Bernie Bros vs. Hillary supporters).
- A sense that “heroic masculinity” is somehow fading, and that this is the fault of liberals, SJWs, and feminism.
Those aren’t the only Alt-Right perspectives, but I think that captures at least part of what’s going on in the heads of the openly racist factions.
I don’t expect to convince any hardcore racists to change their minds. To them I’m a naive liberal fool, or even a “white quisling” (race traitor). But sometimes someone will comment on this blog who I suspect might identify with some of the views above, maybe a Trump or Leave voter, but who doesn’t want to be racist. On some level that person might want to get behind the idea of one big human family, but they can’t quite reconcile that concept with their own sense of ethnic or cultural pride, persecution, or identity. I suspect there are a lot of people like that out there.
So if you want to be less racist, how do you go about it?
What Is Racism?
Part of racism can be defined by belief. My ethnic group is better than your ethnic group. In the extreme, your ethnic group is less-than-human, and thereby less deserving of human rights, respect, and compassion.
But the greater part of racism is an emotional decision, a heart choice. Choosing hatred and contempt over love and compassion. This is why brilliant people can still be racist. If you make an emotional choice to see an entire group as lesser, your mind will find reasons to validate that choice. You’ll focus on differences instead of similarities. If you have a brilliant and dextrous mind, you might even find brilliant and dextrous reasons to validate your contempt.
I think that choice is always available. It’s a spiritual decision. It’s a cliche, to say choose love over fear, but in terms of perceptions of people outside of your identity group, that’s what it comes down to. And perceptions are important; ultimately they determine actions, policy, and the character of a society.
How To Be Less Racist
So that’s the crux of it; choose compassion over contempt for those that you perceive as outside of your tribe.
What comes next? I’m not an expert on race relations, but I’ve learned a few things from being an immigrant myself (an American living in Europe for four years), living in a number of different countries, growing up in the Bay Area, attending ethnically diverse public schools in Oakland and Berkeley, having an ethnically diverse social circle, and sending my daughter to a minority-white Oakland public school. I think the “next level” of being non-racist includes finding ways to loosen and soften the mental boundaries that separate you from other human beings, while also learning more about the history and culture of other groups. You can do this via education, exposure, and self-examination. Specifically:
1. Understand immigration and cultural change as permanent features of the human condition.
Human beings always have, and probably always will, move around the planet in search of opportunity and novelty (and often fleeing disaster and war). This results in cross-cultural influence. An acute stressful phase (Hey, you people who just moved here aren’t doing it right!) is followed by either voluntary displacement (We’d rather go somewhere else than live next to you) or some level of cultural mixing (You guys talk funny but I like that song or that food you have), and finally some level of integration (Sure, we’re different in some ways, but we live together, have mixed families, and choose to focus on our similarities and shared goals). It’s worked this way for at least 30,000 years (though back then there was a bit more free space, making voluntary displacement a more realistic option).
The fact that nations modulate immigration rates and policy isn’t necessarily racist, but harassing immigrants who live in your country legally is. Why not just order from the taco truck instead of protesting it? You might like it.
Every culture on the planet is in a state of perpetual change, and always will be as long as there are human beings. Americans who visit London for the first time might be surprised by the large Indian and Arab presence. They come expecting crumpets and jam and tea served by white people, but in addition to that they get curry and kebabs served by brown people (and also tea served by brown people and curry served by white people). British tea, of course, has always been Indian. British culture is an amalgamation of every nation they have ever colonized or invaded, which is pretty much all of them.
The cultural change happening right now has a lot to do with the immigrants in your immediate community, and how you treat them (or, if you’re the one emigrating, how you adapt and attempt to integrate). It doesn’t always go smoothly, and the acute stressful phase (high immigrant unemployment, crime, and culture clashes) can last for decades (the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels being one example). But racist attitudes towards the vast majority of law-abiding immigrants in these communities doesn’t help anyone.
It’s confusing and stressful to emigrate. You don’t speak the language, traditions and etiquette are unfamiliar, and not everyone is forgiving if you get it wrong. I’ve been there. Children, especially, have no choice in the matter. Adults who emigrate often do so out of economic or political desperation.
My point is that immigration is a reality as much as any other aspect of human existence, and that it’s the primary driver of cultural change. Usually, in the long-term, this works out for the best, with a society being stronger for it. And it’s easier, less stressful, and more profitable to welcome immigrants into your community, and to help them succeed socially and economically.
2. Accept that human goodness and greatness isn’t only genetic, but also comes from education, parenting, practice, role models and mentors, literature, and exposure to great works.
Racists are obsessed with genetic differences between ethnic groups. For them it’s a way to validate their belief that “greatness is in the blood” and that to have a great society you need “good stock” (preferably Anglo-Saxons).
People who actually study genetics understand that genetic differences come down to very specific things, like how much of a particular enzyme a body produces, or how quickly a particular neurotransmitter degrades. Multigenic traits like intelligence or IQ are attributable to both heredity and environment, probably in about equal measure. Are there statistical differences between ethnic groups? For specific traits, yes. Some East Asians have a flush reaction when metabolizing alcohol, and this trait is rare among other ethnic groups. For general traits, it’s notoriously hard to research for the following reasons:
- difficulties in separating genetic from environmental factors
- the bias and expectations of the researchers
- small sample sizes
- unknown/mixed ethnic backgrounds of the subjects (genetic testing often presents ancestry surprises)
- the controversial nature of the research
We just don’t know much about genetic differences between ethnic groups outside of very specific traits, and one has to wonder about the intentions and biases of those that are looking for such differences. What we do know is that variation among individuals outweighs differences between groups. We also know that there is a large environmental factor. Very large, if you consider that learning to read, learning mathematics and science, and learning to think critically do not happen at all without environmental influence.
The policy choice is simple: do we try to maximize everyone’s potential with great education, or do we keep the least privileged children down with race-influenced tracking policies, wild disparities in public school funding, and lower expectations?
3. Get to know as many individuals as possible from ethnic groups other than your own, from a variety of demographics.
If you can, meet and get to know children, adults, old people, working class people, middle class people, and well-off people from outside of your own ethnic group. People in a variety of occupations, with a variety of interests. Ideally, find people in your interest tribe (professional sports, RPG games, beekeeping, etc.) but outside of your own ethnic group. Nothing puts racial stereotypes in the background more quickly than getting into the details (of a hobby, sport, craft, or another person’s life).
The racially mixed public elementary school my daughter attends is a good example. The pre-K and Kindergarten parents tend to socialize more within their own ethnic group. Parents from different ethnic backgrounds and/or social classes greet each other politely, but a little stiffly. But by 3rd grade everything is much looser and more friendly. We’ve seen each more mornings and afternoons than not. The kids have made strong friendships across racial, religious, and class lines. The parents get to know each other, find they have a lot in common (parenting, if nothing else) and relax, make their own friendships. White kids learn about African-American history, African-American kids learn Irish folk songs. All the kids get to meet and interact with a wide variety of adults.
It’s not a perfect rainbow utopia. Many of the African-American boys, especially, will go on to face huge challenges. If they slip up and make bad decisions, it probably won’t get written off as “youthful indiscretion” or “boys being boys” — more likely they’ll face legal consequences. It will be harder for them to get jobs, even if they are fully qualified.
But I think we’re all better off going to school together, getting to know people outside of our tight identity groups, dealing with that stress and awkwardness of communicating across cultural lines until it just dissolves. Eventually your brain changes, and when you see someone that triggers “other” (different skin/dress/speech/food), curiosity and a desire to learn more about the individual trumps any generalized preconceptions.
4. Read authors of color.
Reading some types of fiction may be associated with increased empathy, especially if reading from a variety of cultural perspectives. It’s one way to get inside of head of the other, whoever other might be for you (person of a different ethnicity, gender, religion, belief system, nationality, etc.).
In terms of African-American authors, two books that influenced me greatly at a young age were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcom X with Alex Haley. The science fiction of Octavia Butler was equally influential.
While it’s too early to say definitively that reading across ethnic lines can mitigate racism, it makes sense that it could. If nothing else, reading great fiction and non-fiction by non-white authors is exciting and mind-expanding.
5. Understand and reconcile your own ethnic/ancestral trauma.
All ethnic groups have residual trauma from historical events. Some from current events, some from events a generation or two back, some from centuries in the past. This trauma is carried forward and passed down to future generations by way of values, beliefs, fears, and even epigenetic markers. African-Americans carry the legacy of slavery. Japanese-Americans were interred in camps. Jews, Slavs, and Romani people faced genocide at the hands of the Nazis. Armenians were murdered or expelled from Turkey en masse. Italian-Americans faced poverty and discrimination. Irish-Americans are still scarred by the Great Famine of 1845-52, which resulted not only in starvation but also the wrenching apart of families. Poles and many others were interred or murdered by Stalin. Much of Europe was occupied and/or bombed during World War II. Those of us with mixed ethnic backgrounds (almost all Americans, if you consider European subgroups) carry combined legacies. In addition to these ethnic histories, we all carry the scars of our personal family history.
Do these events really influence us if we didn’t directly experience them? How can they influence us if we’ve never even met they people who experienced them directly?
Fear, caution, and conservatism can sometimes be adaptive traits. A person who is too trusting, careless, or open can get easily get conned, bamboozled, or worse. But when our world is mostly safe and secure and we still carry these attitudes, we should examine our deep past. Are our culturally-inherited values and perceptions optimized for our current reality, or are we tuned to a different era, when life was harsher and less forgiving?
Of course it can work the other way too. Sometimes our world becomes more dangerous and harsh, but our attitudes and values are stuck in a bucolic past. That doesn’t mean we should resort to xenophobia and hatred. It’s possible (and more important than ever) to remain loving and kind when life gets tough and the world goes crazy.
6. Understand your own ethnic and class benefits, and help level the playing field.
Most white people resist the idea that we “should feel guilty” for slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and other morally repugnant deeds inflicted upon other ethnic groups by our ancestors. After all, we personally did not own slaves, or give smallpox-infected blankets to Indian tribes. So it’s not our problem, right?
Feeling guilty doesn’t really help anybody anyway. What helps all of us is for white people (and other ethnic groups that may have an upper hand in certain situations) to understand that what we perceive as “normal” involves some degree of benefit or privilege due to our ethnicity (and also our age, gender, etc.). A youngish middle-or-upper-class white man expects to receive a response to a job application, be treated respectfully when dealing with public institutions, to be able to interact with police officers without being abused or killed, and so forth. People with brown skin don’t necessarily take these things for granted.
Discrimination against whites also occurs, but in my experience it’s rare. Once I had a hard time getting a lane at a particular bowling alley in Honolulu. After a long wait and a number of native Hawaiian families getting lanes ahead of us, it was suggested to our group that another nearby bowling alley might have more availability. Subtle racism? Maybe. But my overwhelming experience is that when I’ve been in the minority, I’ve been welcomed by communities of color (in churches, at parties, at restaurants, etc.).
So what can you do about the uneven playing field? For American Caucasians, hiring qualified candidates outside of your demographic group is a big step. This doesn’t necessarily need to involve quotas. As this article says, just look around the room, and see who was invited to the party, and try to mix it up.
Doing Something About It
So those are my thoughts. Basic stuff, for anyone who has been thinking about these topics for a long time. But hopefully helpful for some readers.
If you’ve done the “inner work” (making the emotional choice not to be racist, coming to terms with both the baggage and benefits of your own ethnic heritage, learning about perspectives from outside your own ethnic group), what’s next? What can do you to make society more fair and just, and to encourage ethnic harmony?
Maybe that’s a topic that deserves its own post. Some top-level thoughts: expand economic opportunities for young people, protect voting rights, fully fund public education, fight against racial bias in law enforcement and sentencing. Here are some more ideas from a variety of perspectives.
Feel free to share your thoughts and own experiences, and please be polite and respectful as always.