Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Everyone's A Little Bit Racist

Alright, before you get all mad at me for the title, you need to do two things.  First, watch this awesome clip from Avenue Q.  Second, you need to hear me out on this one.

My first year at UVa, I took an anthropology class called Racism, Nationalism and Multiculturalism with Professor Richard Handler.  In one of our very first classes, Handler based his lecture off a Los Angeles Times article by Michael Shermer titled, "He's a Racist.  So Are You.  So Am I".  The article deals with comedian Michael Richards' racist outburst during a comedy show, when he was being heckled by the audience.  Following this incident, he appeared on various talk shows to apologize and said, "I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this".

Shermer and Professor Handler disagree, instead arguing that, at least unconsciously, everyone is racist.  The reason why is because we are preconditioned and trained to sort things, including people, into categories.  To quote my class notes, "we think of the world in terms of a certain system or set of categories we have been trained to."  To illustrate this, Handler used a non-racially based example; there are only so many movie plots available in American cinema because American movies cannot have an unhappy ending.  In contrast to this, sad endings occur all the time in German cinema.

What this means is not that everyone should start blatantly insulting people of other races.  Rather, it means that trying to be "colorblind", in a way, works contrary to its stated goals.  Trying to be colorblind will not result in equal treatment of all people, because it ignores the system in which people have been socialized.  Rather, the important thing to do is to try to recognize the system and work around it.  To quote Handler again, "Everyone is racist in the sense that we are all taught and know racial and nationalist categories".  Furthermore, he explains that part of knowing who you are in society comes from knowing who you are not.  Saying you are white is also saying you are not black, Asian or Latino.  Like language and other cultural norms, these distinctions are absorbed to the point of becoming unconscious, which leads to outbursts like Richards'.

So how should you start recognizing what's really going on?  First, you need to know that sorting things is normal.  It's how we bring meaning to the world and is hardwired into us.  On the other hand, the categories we sort things into are socially and culturally defined.  In other words, they are arbitrary-- Handler pointed out that someone not socialized in our cultural system, like a Martian, would not naturally divide people along the lines we use to divide ourselves.  Therefore, it is important to recognize what groups exist but also to be aware that they are not natural.  People exist in multiple groups at a time, so while categorizing can help simplify interactions, it should not define them.

In case you are curious as to how racist you are, you can test it here with the Harvard Implicit Association Test.  The test has participants sort good and bad words in conjunction with other dichotomies, such as white/black, fat/thin, or old/young, to determine the inherent preferences we have been socialized with, taking advantage of the fact that people sort words faster when they correspond to preference for that category.  For instance, almost everyone sorts good words to "white" faster than to "black", regardless of their own race.  We also display a strong cultural preference for youth, thinness, and a number of other categories.  Go check it out.  It's an interesting way to start learning a little more about how you work.

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