As children, most of us were given a playground definition of racism. Racism meant assuming bad things about someone just because of the color of his/her skin. Think about this definition. Its apparent simplicity actually contains three separate components. First, a racist has “bad intent. ” Second, a racist makes prima facie assumptions. And third, a racist targets an immutable characteristic; in other words, something we cannot change and which we did not choose. Let’s begin with the notion of race as an immutable characteristic.
Race is in our genetic makeup. We did not choose our ancestors. The luck of the draw, the miracle of creation, determined our racial heritage. An integral part of liberal culture is respect for immutable characteristics. We do not deserve either praise or slander for them. We did not earn our race, nor can we be blamed for it. Immutable characteristics are only one part of us. An individual also has ethnicity, culture, religion, morals, political affiliations, opinions, beliefs, feelings and traditions, for example.
None of these other parts of individual identity are completely, exclusively, directly tied to race. Not even ethnicity and culture are absolutely predetermined by race, much less other aspects of our identity. For example, a Caucasian may be born in China, and grow up firmly entrenched in Chinese culture. In fact, every individual — however encumbered by ancestors, family traditions and expectations and cultural setting — is at least capable of creating an independent personal identity.
Multiracial individuals are a perfect illustration; they do not have a multiracial ethnicity or culture, but rather a personal, individualistic approach to how race affects their identity. All of these other aspects of identity are changeable, not immutable. Of course, it may be far easier to change our political affiliation than our religion, but certain aspects of our identity can conceivably be changed. Unlike race, they are not genetically determined. Race is special because we do not choose it. It is the one value you can claim as your own.
We can be held responsible, however, for what we do and believe, for how we dress and what we eat, for whom we love and how we love, for how we worship God and how we treat the government. Race may be a sacrosanct characteristic of individual identity, at least in a liberal society such as ours, but what individuals do and believe is not protected from commentary and criticism. We may be inclined to defer to others’ emotional attachment to ethnicity, culture, tradition, etc. Many people hesitate to outright deplore how individuals from other cultures dance, sing, eat, dress and so on.
Since another part of liberal culture is deference to individual autonomy — free will to choose one’s own conception of the good life — one may sometimes refrain from “judging” one’s own identity morally superior to another. However, liberal culture in no way commands that we grant conceptions of the good life immunity from criticism. All cultural norms — from infanticide, spousal abuse and genital mutilation to arranged marriage, individualism and eating with utensils — are not immune from discussion.
If we were to treat all cultural, political, ideological, intellectual and moral opinions as equally valid just because they were expressions of individual identity, we would have to fear for our society’s stability. Thus far, we have discovered that non-immutable characteristics are not immune from criticism. Let’s look at the second part of our playground definition of racism: prima facie assumptions, or prejudice. Note that prejudice is necessary but not sufficient to fit the full meaning of racism.
Everyone is prejudiced, but not everyone is racist. The real racist is irrational, because he comes to conclusions about racial identity due to false premises or even no premises at all. But what about those individuals who use evidence and personal experience to come to certain conclusions about racial identity Of course, some of these “rational” individuals may use flawed evidence or employ faulty reasoning. For example, someone may say: All the Caucasians I know are drunks. Here is a Caucasian I do not know. He must be a drunk.
While this individual is using evidence, personal experience and reason to come to his conclusion, his logic is faulty. However, other individuals take these ingredients of reason and employ rather convincing logic. For example, Dinesh D’Souza has said something like this: When controlling for class background, blacks still score lower than whites. Class background often affects performance. If class background is not affecting performance, something else must be doing so. I (D’Souza) think hat “something else” is black cultural norms, and I have evidence supporting my claim.
Just as we are able to criticize non-immutable characteristics, then, we may also make statements based on prejudice, as long as we can back these statements up with logic and evidence. Further discussion may challenge or reinforce “prejudices,” but prejudice alone does not indicate racism. Returning back to the first part of the playground definition, “bad intent,” will show how prejudice is not necessarily racism. Many students have charged that D’Souza personally hates blacks and is using his rational arguments to mask an insidious genda that will oppress blacks.
In other words, prejudice is racism when it is backed by “bad intent. ” But what about those assumptions regarding racial identity that are made with “good intent” For example, many individuals desire to protect their ethnicity and culture, which flow to a large degree from their racial identity. To protect the sanctity of culture, these individuals may decide to protect the sanctity of race, as well. Thus, they advocate for individuals to marry and procreate within their own racial kind. This argument against interracial marriage fits two parts of the playground definition of “racist.
It makes prima facie assumptions about race, such as that when individuals of different races fall in love, they necessarily undermine their cultural identities and the identities of their children. It also involves automatically excluding individuals just because of race. But those who advance this argument argue they cannot be racist because they have “good intent. ” Is the playground definition wrong I would argue “bad intent” is actually necessary for true racism; arguments such as the one we just examined are not actually racist — they are something close, but crucially different.
The trickiest aspect of racism, then, is correctly identifying “bad intent. ” Here’s an example. Society has a goal of better academic performance by black youth. Frank Wu advocates affirmative action as a means towards this goal. D’Souza prefers other means. Wu insinuates D’Souza does not want blacks to do better at all. But D’Souza honestly thinks his means is strategically and morally better than Wu’s. Because Wu suspects D’Souza has “bad intent,” he accuses him of racism. Perhaps it has become obvious the term “racist” is often applied to ideas, people and actions, which do not fit the childhood definition, despite its common sense.
Rather, racism has come to include anything that is vaguely interpreted as an attempt to offend members of an ethnic, cultural or racial identity. Hasty conclusions about “bad” and “good” intent lead to even more misunderstandings. Is she questioning the efficacy of the Third World Transition Program She must want to keep minorities down! Did she say interracial marriages are always morally acceptable She can’t understand how I feel! Did they misidentify a speaker They must be racists! These misinterpretations of racism and intent are not only absurd, but dangerous, as they erpetuate tainted dialogue.
The childhood definition lies at the heart of our racial problems as Brown students. As children, we were taught the overused Martin Luther King quote, the color-blindness ideal. But now we are taught the exact opposite — that our differences run deep beneath our skins, and that it is appropriate to treat one another differently because of race. Heightened awareness of our diversity breeds heightened awareness of our sharpest oppositions. If improperly handled, diversity can destroy even our most basic sense of unity.