Friday, December 02, 2005

I'm a Racist: One Cognitive Psychologist's Thoughts on Racism Part I

Yesterday was Blog Against Racism Day, but having been out of the blogging loop for a while, I missed it. Several bloggers participated, and there were many interesting posts. I'll just link to two of them, because I found them particularly interesting. The first is at Heo Cwaeth (the coolest blog name out there, and also a pretty good blog that you should be reading), discussing the relationship between racism and discourse on sexuality. The second is by Amanda at Pandagon (she also has a follow up), in which she talks about stereotypes. I wish I had something insightful to say about Heo Cwaeth's post, but I don't. I do, however, have a lot to say about stereotypes, even if I can't promise that it will be all that insightful either. But before I don the cognitive psychologist cap and start speaking about stereotypes in a cold, scientific way, I want to say a little about my experience with racism, and (dare I say it) as a racist. Because even if you're white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant (I'm only the first of those three), racism is still something that you can, and should, experience personally. If you don't want to read the personal stuff, you can skip this post, and read the next, which is all cog psych. I won't be upset.

OK, where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. I was born and grew up in the South, where, in the 70s and 80s, racism was still very much out in the open, unlike in today's South , where it tends to bubble just under the surface, rearing its ugly head in ways that are often difficult to detect if you don't know what you're looking for, while more overt examples are quickly shunned by almost everyone, including the some of most racist among us. My parents, thankfully, are fairly enlightened souls, and during my early childhood, they never discussed racial differences or stereotypes, so as a young child, I never really thought about race. It simply wasn't a dimension on which I divided people into groups. It can safely be said that until age six, I was not a racist.

But when I started first grade, attending public school for the first time (after going to private preschools and kindergarten), I ran face first into a towering wall of racism. One of the first friends I made at my new school, a boy named Tony, was black. After that, I made several white friends, who frequently made fun of Tony for being black, and constantly referred to him as "nigger," a word that I had never heard before. It wasn't long before I was shunning Tony, not wanting to be associated with someone whom my other friends thought was inferior. What's worse, I began to see him as inferior too, as dirty even. Once I even refused to drink at a water fountain immediately after him, because I didn't want to get "nigger germs" (a phrase one of my friends frequently used). I was internalizing all sorts of classic racial stereotypes, and had become a full fledged member of the racist southern culture, a culture that was clearly evident in my school. White children ate and played with white children, black children ate and played with black children, and there was little if any intermingling between the two groups. I was no different.

In my own defense, I was only six at the time, and had no concept of the implications of my thoughts and actions towards Tony and other black children. But racism has to start at some age, and for me it started, but didn't end, at age six. It wasn't until I was in fourth grade, when a black family moved in next door to us (the first black family in the neighborhood, and the only one for many years -- self segregation was not limited to elementary schools), that my thinking began to change. One of the children in the family was a boy about 3 years younger than me. One day he was out playing in his back yard, when a neighborhood friend and I came out and saw him there. Hurling racial epithets, and teasing him more generally, we got into a verbal altercation with him, and soon began throwing rocks from our gravel driveway at him. His mother finally came out and yelled at us, ending the altercation. She then went to my parents, and told them what had happened. That evening I received one of the longest, and most needed lectures of my life, about how he was a boy just like me, with feelings just like mine, and so on. And I suddenly realized how wrong I had been in my thoughts and actions towards black people. The boy next door and I soon became good friends, and remained so until he moved away when I was a junior in high school (we are still friends, in fact; he and his new wife recently visited me while they were in town).

That story alone could probably serve as a good lesson on how easily negative societal views on race can be perpetuated, even when a child's parents are not themselves (overtly) racist. If a black family had not moved in next door, and my parents had not intervened, I would likely have grown up to be as racist as many in this country still are. But the story doesn't really end there, because I did grow up, and though my explicit attitudes on race changed dramatically during that lecture, racial stereotypes are much more difficult to completely kill than that, even within an individual.

By the time I went off to college, I considered myself to be an even more enlightened soul than my parents. I was fervently anti-racism, and attacked it wherever I saw it. However, with the exception of my childhood neighbor, I hadn't really had any black friends, and wasn't really in close contact with many black people on a regular basis. When I finally did make some black friends, my illusory self-image was quickly put to the test. Not many days went by that one of them didn't point out something I did that was insensitive, indicated prejudice, or seemed downright racist. I was shocked each time, and rebelled against it, arguing vehemently that I was not a racist, and that they were simply misperceiving my actions. It goes without saying that such blind defensive behavior is not conducive to maintaining friendships, be they with people who are black, white, or purple for that matter. And when the friendships did end (none of them ended in anger; they generally just dissolved into a complete lack of interaction), my belief that I was not a racist persisted.

Then I got a real shock to my system. I began dating a black woman. You can probably guess what I was thinking when the relationship began. "See, I'm not a racist? Would a racist be dating a black woman? I think not!" But she was blessed with a personality trait that my earlier black friends were not (or at least that they had not exhibited with me; it wasn't their job to educate me, after all): incredibly stubborn persistence. When she observed me doing something that was, to someone who had been the object of racism all of her life, clearly a sign of prejudice or, as we white people who want to put a positive spin on our attitudes and actions call it, "race consciousness," she let me know in no uncertain terms. And as before, I would kick and scream in denial. But she would persist, I would deny, she would persist, and eventually, and uncomfortably, I would realize that she was right. I was a racist. Or better put, I am a racist.

You see, many of the racist attitudes that I had developed as a young child, and that I was sure were long gone by the time I was a young adult, are still in there, affecting my behavior in ways that I, as someone who has never really had to worry about the negative effects of discrimination in my own life, simply didn't notice. I've been lucky, in that I've since had several close relationships with people from various minority groups, who have been kind enough to help me learn how to perceive some of those effects on my behavior, but I'd be deluding myself if I believed that I had learned about all of them. And believe me, that's not a comfortable thing for an "enlightened soul" like myself, a staunch left-winger, to admit, to myself or to anyone else. But if I don't admit it to myself, then I will never be able to learn how to better approach issues of race, and to relate to people from other races. And if I were a betting man, I'd wager that most of the people who are reading this (assuming someone has made it to this point) should be admitting this same thing to themselves, if they haven't already. If we don't all begin to do so, then ridding our society of racism will be completely impossible.

Now I can't offer any good social or political advise on how to rid society of racism, but I can say a little bit about how stereotypes and attitudes toward race work, why they're so persistent, and how they can affect our behavior without us even realizing it. So in my next belated Blog Against Racism Day post, that's what I'll try to do.

[Completely Unrelated Note: Has anyone else who uses blogger ever noticed that the word "blogger" is not in Blogger's spell-check lexicon? How odd is that?]


Theresa said...

Hi Chris,

Really interesting post. I enjoyed reading it!

One questions though -- could you give an example of >>

something that was, to someone who had been the object of racism all of her life, clearly a sign of prejudice.

I don't necessarily need a real example -- you could make something up that would approximate what you're describing. I guess I'm just interested in finding out what someone from another group -- a group that has often been at the receiving end of racism -- would consider a clear sign of prejudice.

Thanks! And, welcome back! :)

Chris said...

Theresa, I am trying to think of an example that won't give away how utterly insensitive I am. One that you may see, but others may not, is "mascotting." Using one or a few people as representative, even when the generalizations are positive or neutral. Another is one that I did a lot, and still have a habit of doing: asking people questions about differences between them and me. This isn't always bad, but when you do it a lot, it shows that you are definitely "race conscious."

HeoCwaeth said...


Thanks for the link, and the generous assessment of my blog.

And believe me, that's not a comfortable thing for an "enlightened soul" like myself, a staunch left-winger, to admit, to myself or to anyone else.

Yeah, I think the assumption we have that one has to be a KKK- member to be racist makes it rough to honestly assess our own attitudes and behaviors. It makes it much harder to admit to it. We're the "good guys," after all. FWIW, I -- a staunch fourth generation feminist --have also been corrected by a 3 year-old girl for telling her to "be a lady," when I would never say that to a boy.

Bertrand Russell Jr. said...

That was fun to read. Your writing made the story seem epic, to me anyways. I was especially impressed by this:

"And if I were a betting man, I'd wager that most of the people who are reading this (assuming someone has made it to this point) should be admitting this same thing to themselves, if they haven't already. If we don't all begin to do so, then ridding our society of racism will be completely impossible."

Very very good work. As for the rest of your site: Wowsers! It's an information junkie's galore! And it's presented so clearly.

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