a little something extra

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

musings on racism

We've just completed another African-American History Month, and while I try not to limit my active attention to just February, the annual reminder to look more deeply into African-American history and experience is not lost on me. I thought I'd share a little of what's been going through my head.

First, I have a working definition of the word racism that I've never seen in any dictionary. I think that racism includes the standard definition of prejudice about another population of human beings based on race (and yes, race is a social construct without any significant biological basis, let's take that as a given). But I also think that it's racist to believe that one can predict the thoughts, feelings, history or behavior of a person based on his or her race. So it's racist of me to fear black teenaged boys more than white ones. It's also racist of another person to assume that I'm the descendant of slaveowners based on the color of my skin. It's racist to assume one can predict another person's politics, spiritual beliefs or opinons on anything under the sun, based on that person's race.

There are people who say "Everyone in the U.S. is a racist" to mean "Everyone in the U.S. participates in a system of government, economic and social culture which is permeated by institutional racism." I find those to be two very distinct statements. In my opinion, it's only appropriate to call a person a racist based on his or her own individual actions. I freely acknowledge, and actively oppose, the institutional racism in our culture. But to stick the "racist" nametag on every individual currently living in the United States is, in my opinion, inaccurate. As with every debate, the person who defines the terms wins the argument.

There are also people who say "It's impossible for a black person to be a racist." I disagree with this point of view -- and again, that goes back to the definition of racism. It's possible to define racism as strictly a white problem, but I don't agree with that definition. Nor is the whole discussion limited to black and white. In the state where I live now, the Latino/a and Asian-American populations are much larger than the African-American population. Any person from any background is capable of making the mistake of believing he or she can predict another's behavior, beliefs or feelings based on that person's race, and in my lexicon, that's racism.

I'd love to hear y'all's thoughts and feelings about that, about what I've written and/or your own thoughts about the subject of race and racism.


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