Question & Answer: Race

race-question-answerEvery now and then, the topic of race and racism comes up in discussion. Like religion, politics, and war, race is one of those “taboo” subjects, but also one that gets people talking. Sometimes the topic is introduced when someone haphazardly makes reference to race or ethnicity in an unrelated discussion. Other times it is purposely made the topic of discussion. Either way, people want to know — what is the big deal about race?

In years as a blogger and commenter in the blogosphere, I’ve found that many of the same questions and comments come up about race and racism. Given this I’d like to dedicate some time to answering a few of these common questions about race in the United States and the world. This will be my first question and answer post, using a compilation of questions I’ve been asked or seen asked in discussions about race. Feel free to add your own questions, comments, and answers below:

Question: Why are non-white people so defensive about race?

Answer: What I have found is that how defensive a person perceives others to be about race is proportional to how likely they are to make offensive remarks related to race. That is, the more likely a person is to think and act in ways that could be seen as racist, the more likely they are to view others as being defensive about race.

On another note, it is only natural to be more aware of prejudice that affects us, whatever the issue. While when something does not affect us, we may ignore it or not even notice. Simply put, non-white groups speak up to prejudiced comments and behavior because few others will.

Question: How am I supposed to know if something I said or did could be seen as racist? I don’t have a lot of experience with people outside of my race; I don’t know if something could be offensive.

Answer: You’re not expect to know — it is expected that you’ll make a few slip-ups on racial issues. However, you are expected to learn from these mistakes and recognize that they are mistakes and why; not excuse them away or put the blame those who called attention to it. That is, if you’re mostly tolerant and unbigoted.

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“People of Color” — Meaning What?

people-of-color

“People of Color”, sometimes abbreviated with the acronym PoC,  is a catch-all term for all non-white people or people not of predominantly European ancestry.  More significantly, people of color is often used to allude to a sense of unity and shared experience between non-white persons in majority white, discriminatory societies.

People of Color is a generally acceptable term among people of all backgrounds, but does anyone ever stop to think about its true meaning and implications? The term never caught on with me because, for several reasons, “People of Color” as a description of all non-white people seems not only shallow, but misleading and useless as a concept:

1. “People of Color” describes a unity and shared experience that does not exist

In order to be considered a “person of color”, one simply needs to be perceived as any race/ethnicity but white. Thus, “people of color” is actually a vast and varied group of people, many of which have no true connection to each other. In other words, non-white people are not a monolithic group of people who identify with each other for the mere fact that they are not seen as white.

“People of Color” have diverse backgrounds. An Asian-American man may not see any similarity between himself and a Mexican immigrant. Further, their life experiences likely have been very different. Who can say that their experience and views on race are anything alike? Or that they don’t relate more to people who are not “of color”? Being “of color” doesn’t create a certain destiny.

2. “People of Color” ignores racial complexities

Implicit in the phrase “people of color” is the joint experience of racial discrimination faced by non-white people in majority white societies. But what exactly is the experience of discrimination and who faces it?

Fact: Racism and discrimination have never been equal opportunity. In general, non-white people are affected by discrimination in different ways and to different extents. This is well-documented, but when all non-white people are lumped together under “people of color” this crucial fact goes unnoticed or is determined to be irrelevant.

In addition, racism doesn’t merely consist of whites discriminating against non-whites. Non-white people can and do discriminate against each other. “People of color” depicts a sense of alliance between non-whites which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

3. “People of Color” creates whiteness as a central factor of life

To use the phrase “people of color” you must necessarily see (lack of) whiteness as a determining factor in a person’s life, mindset, and fate. If it weren’t then why would the term be used to differentiate whites from non-whites? Most people who often use the term “People of Color” would disagree with the idea of whiteness as a key factor in life, so why use it?

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Jill Scott is a Bigot or How to Misunderstand Racism

jill-scottBigotry and racism, they’re easy to understand, right?

A bigot is a person who is partial to their own group or way of thinking and intolerant of others. A racist is someone who believes that a person’s race is the primary deciding factor in their character, capabilities, and worth.

Sounds simple, yet it’s not.

Musicians and recent White House guests Jill Scott and Common have come under harsh criticism for comments they made in past interviews and songs. Both artists were personally invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to perform at the White House’s Poetry Night in early May 2011. And both artists have been called racists and bigots for their comments about interracial dating and marriage, particularly those involving black men and white women in the United States.

The criticisms of their comments, while well-meant, offer a perfect opportunity to show how racism and bigotry can be easily and boldly misunderstood when a person lacks proper background knowledge and experience.

First, the comments. Jill Scott comments in the April 2010 issue of Essence Magazine:

My new friend is handsome, African-American, intelligent and seemingly wealthy…I admit when I saw his wedding ring, I privately hoped. But something in me just knew he didn’t marry a sister. Although my guess hit the mark, when my friend told me his wife was indeed Caucasian, I felt my spirit…wince. I didn’t immediately understand it.’

And Common’s comments in an interview with Touch Magazine in 2005:

I don’t think there’s anything the matter with somebody loving somebody from another race but it’s almost like a stereotype that if you’ve got dreadlocks you go out with a white girl. I just feel like, as black men, we do have to be aware that every time we step out with some woman it’s setting an example for our daughters and it’s also representing something for our mothers. If you can’t really love your own, how can you really love others?

“My whole thing is that black women have been so put down – whether it’s due to the oppression of a white government or we [black men] putting our own women down. When dudes say they only gonna focus on white girls, to me, it’s like a slap in a black girl’s face. I still feel like because I’m an artist and I say certain things, I have a responsibility to let people know what I mean.”

Then, the criticism. Conservative blogger and journalist Patrick Courrielche’s response is typical:

“If [Jill Scott’s] words were put in the mouth of a Caucasian, the viewpoint would reek of bigotry.

Should Jill Scott and Common be uninvited to the White House Poetry event? At this point, probably not… But the First Lady should ask that Common and Jill Scott renounce their statements, and use the opportunity to help the black community see that many of their icons are big contributors to the racial divide that they so obviously abhor.”

What is wrong with the response of Patrick Courrielche and others? They assume that black Americans and white Americans are in equal positions in American society. That similar statements made by black and white people somehow have the same basic meaning and origin.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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The Multiracial Movement and Anti-Black Racism

biracial-black-motherThe American multiracial movement is a social and political campaign to encourage recognition of the multi-ethnic background of racially mixed people. A primary focus of the movement is the large-scale acceptance of the mixed heritage of individuals of black and white parentage, or African and European parentage, who have been historically classified simply as “black” due to the legal and later social One Drop Rule.

The multiracial movement claims to be a crusade for racial progress in the United States by promoting the acceptance of and creating communities for mixed race individuals. But is the movement, in its focus on ending the One Drop Rule, encouraging anti-black prejudice? Informal aspects of the movement suggest that it is not as tolerant and beneficial as it claims.

Minimizing black/African heritage

Mixed race advocates and their supporters attempt to reduce the black or African ancestry of people of black and white parentage. Comparisons are made between mixed race individuals and those of “pure” African descent to show the “striking” difference in phenotype. Within the informal movement, a social hierarchy is created amongst mixed people — those with the least African ancestry (as judged by appearance) on top and those with the most on the bottom.

Reverse one drop rule

Some advocates of the multi-racial movement categorize not only those of directly mixed parentage as multiracial, but anyone who share outward traits with mixed individuals. This results in a reverse One Drop Rule — anyone who is suspected of being mixed due to appearance is labeled as such, whether they are or not. This is done to separate mixed individuals from “true” blacks; mixed race people can not be recognized as mixed if there are blacks with a similar appearance.

“White is right” and blame blacks

Supporters of the movement claim that mixed people have been marginalized and denied their true identities. However, these same people view white-identified mixed individuals as inspiration. If the multiracial movement’s goal is to encourage a mixed identity, it should be opposed to mixed people identifying and being seen as white. Since the most vocal supporters are not opposed to this, it suggests that the movement is not so much about supporting mixed heritage, but lessening black heritage.

Multi-racial advocates blame black Americans for past and current lack of mixed race identity in the United States. But these supporters rarely mention the role that white Americans had to play in this; whites historically proposed and upheld the One Drop Rule and continue to view most individuals of black and white ancestry as simply black. Mixed race advocates failure to acknowledge this fact again suggests that the minimization of black identity is a most important goal.

The multiracial movement is a campaign that began with positive intentions, but with methods that hinder its goals. Acknowledgment of the multi-racial parentage of mixed individuals should be just that, and not the disregard and resentment of one part of their heritage.

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All X People Look Alike ™

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All X People Look Alike ™ is the psychological phenomenon whereby most or all members of other ethnic and racial groups appear to look similar. This mindset is fairly common in heterogeneous nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, but can also be found in more homogeneous societies. When displayed in conversation, it is one of the most commonly used racist remarks. This comment has the uncanny effect of making my arms prickle with annoyance, every single time I hear it. Some who make the comment seem to be unaware that it is, in fact, ignorant and racist, but most seem to understand its implications.

But why is this frame of mind racist? In case it’s not clear, it’s because All X People Look Alike™ seeks to discriminate (i.e. distinguish) based on perceived race or ethnicity. In doing so, it disregards the individuality of others and keeps its possessor in ignorance.

Some hypothesize that All X People Look Alike™ results from assuming that people of other races look more similar than those of an individual’s perceived race. But research suggests that this mentality is a bit more complex than that.

they-all-look-alikeDaniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University conducted research designed to test the hypothesis that people can distinguish between individuals of races that are not their own. It’s simply that they choose to place emphasis on racial categories, disregarding individual differences.

Levin tested this theory in a series of experiments involving facial recognition of averaged and real white faces and black faces. He found that participants in his study were better at recognizing faces of members of their own racial groups, than those of others. Yet they could accurately distinguish the subtle differences in faces which were of the same racial group. He explains this phenomenon with the example, “When a white person looks at another white person’s nose, they’re likely to think to themselves, ‘That’s John’s nose.’ When they look at a black person’s nose, they’re likely to think, ‘That’s a black nose.’” White participants were more likely to have difficulty in telling apart faces of other race groups.

The truth is that there is no group of people who all basically look alike. All Asians do not look alike. All white people do not look alike. And most certainly, all black people do not look alike. The same goes for the various ethnic groups — all Mexicans do not look alike, nor do all Finns. If you’re one of those who tend to believe “all [insert racial/ethnic group] look alike”, it would be helpful for you to take a closer look and recognize the nearly infinite range of phenotypes beyond your stereotypical racial categorizations.

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