Posted by: Jim | June 17, 2004

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Our Ongoing Fight With Racism

Most people think they are not a racist. I think I’m not a racist. I also think that all people–to a degree–still have the roots of racism in their blood. I believe this because the roots of racism come from “tribalism” which, I believe, was a genetically favorable trait. Somewhere along the way our genes learned that if you see some primate from another tribe, they were dangerous. In those days, this was true. After all, your tribe competed with them for food, and would even steal food from their camp, etc.

Those days are long gone, and racism is no longer genetically useful … yet its influence on our behavior lives on.

On this topic, however, I’m somewhat of an optimist. I truly believe that the problem of racism in the U.S. is improving. It is by no means gone, but it is improving. While there are still many covert signals that send racist messages to our children, any overt messages are becoming highly unacceptible. A covert message is less powerful than an overt one, and so I believe today’s children will grow up with a slightly less racist nature than their parents, and their children will get even fewer of these signals, etc.

But there’s one thing that’s sticking in my craw. Let me give three examples:

1. I’m at a neighbor’s party, we’re all sitting around chatting. One older black lady (charming as can be) is sitting at our table. At some point in the conversation we are being goofy and rattling off as many “Jim’s” as we can. Jim Croche, Jim Jarmusch, Jim McNeil, and *poof* out it came from my mouth. I said “Jim Crowe.” The black lady acted as if nothing happened (to her credit–because nothing HAD happened). All of my white friends at the table, however, looked at me like I’d swallowed a live kitten.

2. I’m eating dinner with some friends at a nice restaurant in Sedona, Arizona. Somewhere in the conversation, I made a semi-loud joke saying “fight the powah!” It was completely a non-racial reference, but the term has roots with black people. A black woman at another table gave me a look that made me feel uncomfortable for using the phrase.

3. I’m eating lunch with some friends (why do my faux pas always happen when eating. Hmm … food for thought), and one of my friends and I got into a very detailed conversation about black people in America. Neither one of us are racists, and none of our statements were racist. We were just talking about geo-political differences, and how I believed that white people had a huge financial head start over black people in America because … well … we assumed we owned most of the black people that lived here 150 years ago. During that time, white people have handed down their wealth while black people have had to build it from scratch, etc. So it what we were saying shouldn’t have been offensive. But a third friend at our table asked for us to change the topic because there was a little black girl at the table next to us. OK, fine.

I wasn’t offended by my friend who asked us to change the topic because I understand what the status quo is. The status quo is “shhhhh … don’t talk about it.” And this is the thing that is sticking in my craw.

Do we continue to make improvements in our racial tendencies by inhibiting any speech that “might possibly” be miscontrued as racist? Do we pretend that black people have the same color skin as we do? In all three of these cases, words were spoken that were not intended to be racially offensive, but people either took them out of context and assumed them to be racist, or assumed that other people could take them out of context.

Should we assume that people are racists? Or should we assume that people are not racists? I think that the very best signal that we can send to our children is that people are, in general, not racist. We should teach children to judge a man not by words that can be taken out of context, but by the content of his character. (Apologies to MLK.)

So let’s talk about it. Talking about things can sometimes make them better. Let’s not make Jim Crowe a taboo phrase because it could be taken out of context. Jim Crowe laws sucked, okay? Doesn’t everyone know that? And please oh please, can white people appropriate phrases that originated in black culture into their vocabularies? Doesn’t that sound like a step in the right direction?

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