How to stop being a racist?
September 21, 2005 7:15 AM   Subscribe

How (or: Why) do people begin to stop being racist? How did you begin to learn to appreciate people of different races to your own?

Nobody is born racist. But kids (of all races) often learn it at an early age from the people and images around them.

By the time I was 12, I was a nasty little fascist, ready to chat happily with my all-the-same-race friends about all kinds of ideas about what "we" should do about "them".

However, by the time I was 18, my opinions had changed, and I had friends from several races. It seems I experienced some kind of tipping point, at which I decided I wanted to learn about other races, rather than wanting to hate them.

Possibly, the thing that shifted the balance for me was learning a simple Buddhist meditation technique - the idea of sending "loving-kindness" out to "all sentient beings". But maybe it was something else... perhaps even something I didn't notice at the time.

How did you come to challenge the racism you learned as a child?
posted by cleardawn to Human Relations (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I felt uncomfortable around black people as a small child, and I blame my parents indirectly, since they stuck me in a tiny Jewish private school with an all-white student body from kindergarten through eighth grade. The only black people in the building were the janitors. I just never had the chance, as a kid, to make friends with people who didn't look like me. I know I didn't have any black friends until high school. How did I outgrow this? I don't know. Probably just exposure to the world and growing accustomed to the previously unfamiliar.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:33 AM on September 21, 2005

I was never a racist, but in middle school I listened to Rush Limbaugh (started when I lived with my dad down in texas over the summer, with nothing to to during the day). I became a hard-core lil' conservative (but never a racist).

I just grew out of it, like cleardawn did of his racism. But some people don't grow out of their stupidities.

On the other hand, I remember a TV show about a summer camp for muslim and jewish kids in the 80s or something. The kids became great friends, but, as they grew older they became political and started to hate eachother. Pretty sad.

One good way for people to become less racist is if they took a good social psychology class and learned more about why peopel become racist in the first place.

Another method is to force people to work with those in the group.
posted by delmoi at 7:36 AM on September 21, 2005

I was never full on racist, but like everybody I harbored (and probably still harbor) prejudiced beliefs about people. They lessened the more I got out in the world and meeting different kinds of people and just seeing the common humanity, and realizing that good people come in all colors and nationalities. Of course, so do shitty people, which is why the "go out and meet people," method can backfire, I suppose.
posted by jonmc at 7:44 AM on September 21, 2005

Move to an urban area. I also wasn't full on racist when I was younger growing up in backwoods Pennsylvania, but I definitley was underexposed. When I moved to NYC I became much more open minded.

Although, I bet for some, that being in a large city reinforces their racism if they are mostly exposed to poor black neighborhoods.
posted by surferboy at 7:59 AM on September 21, 2005

Best answer: It took an event to show my stupidity. Back in the day, circa 4th or 5th grade, a friend and I were playing on the playground. A black kid wanted to play, and thinking I was being cool, said something along the lines of, "No, because you're different ah us! (obviously referring to his race)" My friend responded, "What does it matter if he's different???" That was kind of the first time I rememeber somebody actually standing up against racism in my life. I mean, I heard about it all the time, but talk can be cheap and it took my friend's straight-up rejection of what I said to make me stop and think what an ass I was.
posted by jmd82 at 8:10 AM on September 21, 2005

I think just getting to know and interact with folks who were "different" than me helped me.

I don't recall being too racist as a child, but I was brought up by a father who would occasionally yell at the TV about "those fucking niggers" or a mom who wasn't racist on the surface but would see a black man in a nice car and say "that's the drug money." So I would occasionally use words like "nigger" or "kike" without really knowing what it meant or the impact it had. I never used them around blacks or jews, just around my friends to be "cool", the same way I might say "fuck." We all did it. Scary stuff now that I think about it. I also grew up in a very white town with maybe one or two black kids in the classroom, until I got to high school and the METCO kids were bussed in.

I went to high school in the eighties just as rap was emerging and suburbanites were starting to hear about it. Break dancing was all the rage. Sometimes the METCO kids would break into dance in the cafeteria. For the first time in my life I saw black folks not as a curiosity but as interesting people with new ideas and culture. It was neat. I didn't make any black friends at the time but I did realize they were no better or worse than anyone else.

For me the hurdle was dealing with homosexuals. Back then being called gay was the mother of all insults. AIDS was still the gay cancer that you only got for doing something really sick and nasty and, of course, you deserved it. The only gay character on TV was Billy Cristal on Soap and while he came across as a regular guy, someone you liked, everyone else on the show saw him as different and the fact that he was a "fruit" made him the punchline to a lot of the jokes. I hadn't yet figured out that Sydney on Love, Sydney was gay.

Then I got my first job, at a Burger King, and befriended a girl who, like me, was somewhat of an outcast. We became really good friends and I developed a crush on her, then she went away to college and came back after one semester admitting to everyone (and herself) that she was gay. Fortunately, my hatred (or, rather, fear and misunderstanding) of gay people was weaker than my friendship for her, so I somehow managed to accept her, despite the ridicule I got from the entire staff and all my friends. It was tough, a couple of times I even decided I didn't want to be her friend anymore, but eventually I came around. There was nothing wrong with her, she just preferred women to men. I realized that had absolutely no effect on our friendship or who she was as a person.

I grew up a bit more and although homophobia was all around me, at work and in my family, I managed to keep an open mind. I've met tons of gay people since, more than I ever knew existed. Gradually my own homophobia faded to where it's now non-existent, as far as I can tell. It really was exposure combined with an open mind.

Homosexuals seem to be slightly more accepted these days (it's my understanding that Will and Grace was the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement... kidding) but I still see homophobia all around me, including my coworker, sitting in the next office. He's a racist and a homophobe and an ignorant son of a bitch. Twenty years ago I might have agreed with him, that homosexuals were sick and gross, but now I look at him with an anger hundreds of times greater than I ever viewed any other race religion, or sexual orientation. He's an avid cyclist and when I asked him if he was going to do the AIDS Ride he said "no" because he "doesn't support gay people." How do you respond to something like that when you have to work with this person every day? He probably couldn't find Africa on a map if i tried to explain it to him. As much as I'd love to tell him to go fuck himself I know that would only make my work life more difficult.

I still live in that same very white town, but I work in the city in a very diverse workplace. I see lazy black people all the time, but I see just as many lazy white people. I've learned that the percentage of good people to asshats are the same no matter what race, religion, or sexual orientation. It was just easier to notice the asshats when you first focused on the color of the skin or who they held hands with.

I probably still have traces of racism in me, I think most people do to some degree. Sometimes I still see it in me and I'm able to fight it. I don't like political correctness, I don't see racism everywhere. As evil as I think our president is I don't believe he ignored the people in New Orleans just because they were black. But I also know that if I wasn't a white male who has never been at the receiving end of racism I might see it differently. I still refer to blacks and jews as "blacks and jews", which some may claim is racist. I don't care about that. I refer to myself as white, sometimes as a mick or a wop. I can still enjoy a racist or sexist joke, as long as it's creative. It's all good.

But if I ever hear my dad refer to "those fucking niggers" again I'm going to boot his ignorant ass the fuck out of my house.
posted by bondcliff at 8:30 AM on September 21, 2005

No one ever "stops" being racist. Recognition of the inescapability of racism and the ways your personal racism and that of the institutions you are a part of is manifested is what's important.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 8:42 AM on September 21, 2005

Espy, I have to disagree. People can and do change all the time. I don't see why racism would be exempt from change any more than any other behavior or belief. I personally know at least three reformed racists.
posted by Katravax at 8:56 AM on September 21, 2005

Additionally, I don't know that "nobody is born racist." If you are born in say, America, you are born into a society in which crime and poverty are disproportionately present in minority populations. You will spend your entire life struggling against the natural way in which your brain works--creating categories or groups to enable you to evaluate other people. In America, the tendency to associate any Black man with "that group of people who commit crimes" is going to exist in everyone.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 8:59 AM on September 21, 2005

Katravax, certainly overt forms of racism can change and be reformed. I'm refering to latent, inherent racism of a more general kind. Sorry for not making that clear.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 9:01 AM on September 21, 2005

Best answer: I don't have a story about me, but I do about my grandfather. I spent a lot of time in my grandparents' house as a kid and in the early years Papa spent a lot of time hanging out with the other retired guys at a lunch counter down the road. At some point he stopped, which I didn't realize till my grandmother said something about him being around the house all the time and not getting out as much since he stopped going there.

I guess I was somewhere between 10 and 12 and one day I asked him why he didn't go there anymore. He said, as best I can remember it, "All day there'd be nigger this, spic that, and as time went on I just got more and more uncomfortable with it and I just decided I didn't want to be around it anymore."

He would have been about 60-65 at that point and his mobility wasn't good because of back injuries he sustainted as a belly-gunner in WW2, so this cut off one of the few social activities he had. He only lived another 8-6 years. With most of his life behind him, nothing to gain and a lot to lose, he listened to a voice in his head that said "this is shitty behavior" and walked away.

It's been 25 years and I still can't talk or type about it without crying.
posted by phearlez at 9:10 AM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I don't think that people are born racist, but I think when one is conditioned at an early age to be a racist, it is very difficult to shake. I once read an article about a white South African woman who had worked all her adult life to end apartheid. As she aged she developed alzheimers, and her children were shocked as she regressed that she began using very racist language. I think that the process of recognizing that conditioning and being concious about how it shapes ones responses is the way to escape racism. Constant vigilance. Sure some people will say it's too self-conscious, but me I think it's a good thing to be a thoughtful person.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:12 AM on September 21, 2005

Response by poster: phearlez, thanks for that. Respect.

Espy Gillespie, I see your point, and I've said similar things myself, but I always feel a bit on edge when I say that, because it's so easy to misinterpret it.

At any given instant, you can either choose to reject racism (your own or someone else's, or institutional racism), or fight it, or you can just say "Oh, it's inescapable" - and do nothing. I take it that isn't what you mean.

When I said 'nobody is born racist', I was referring to a scientific study I read about a few years ago, which demonstrated that pre-speech toddlers do not interact differently with different-race children. Sadly, I can't find the study.

Obviously, as they grow older, they're exposed to the beliefs and society around them. They tend to first become racist, and then, in some cases, to choose to abandon it - but that isn't always the case.
posted by cleardawn at 9:21 AM on September 21, 2005

My family's always been racist. My beloved great-grandmother got "the vapors"--sometimes to the point of fainting--when going out to eat and being seated close to black diners.

My grandparents' generation wasn't quite so bad, but the only relationships they ever had with non-white people were ones where the non-whites were, essentially, servile.

My mom and my dad freely use racial epithets and actively and overtly loathe almost all non-white races, though they excuse themselves by using the "there's (racial epithet) and then there's (skin color) people" rationalization.

Me? I've always known I was different from my peers, going back to my earliest memories. First because I was adopted. Then because my parents divorced. Then because I was very smart. Then because I hit puberty about a year before anyone else. Then because I was tall. Then because I was fat. Then because I was hairy. Then because I was gay.

But all that said, I think the one thing that really made bigotry a non-issue for me was attending a "magnet" school for "gifted" children in the mid-70s. The one, and often only, trait we all shared was that were considered to be extraordinarily smart. We were of different colors, boys and girls, different income levels, religions, and upbringings. We were completely isolated from the general school population...we had our classes in our own wing of the school, our recess time was never during the general population's time, we had the cafeteria to ourselves during lunchtime, even though we barely filled a third of it.

Of course we were extremely ostracized by the "general" population of the school, and we felt like fucking zoo animals. We resented it enormously, for all we loved the education we received. I've never forgotten that feeling, and I think that feeling, more than anything else, prevented me from adopting the racism that's stood for generations in my family.

FWIW, I've never known any white reformed racists, though I've known blacks and latinos who've overcome the indoctrinated fear of whites instilled into them by their families.
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:28 AM on September 21, 2005

I have the same mild knee-jerk prejudice as every other human on earth, even though my family isn't all that racist(my mother is Italian with an old-school racist grandfather, but my father is Mexican). I realized I wasn't really racist when I noticed that I get nervous passing ALL men on the sidewalk, not just Blacks or Latinos or whatever.
Moving to different city makes a big difference, too. I grew up in a town that was mostly white with a large Mexican population, and a tiny handful of Blacks and Asians. If I saw a Black person in the supermarket or whatever, I would never fail to notice "hey, there's a Black person," no matter how hard I tried. Then I moved to Columbus, Ohio, which has lots of Black people and very few Latinos. It went away pretty quick. Oddly enough, I notice Latinos a lot more now, but that's just I miss California.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:41 AM on September 21, 2005

My mother once told me a story about how she realized being racist was wrong. Her own mother had been raised to be racist, but during the Civil Rights movement in the 50s had realized that the times were a-changin'. She couldn't seem to shake her own prejudices, but decided that she didn't want to pass them on to her daughter and made a conscious decision not to make racist remarks around my mother. (I think a major factor in that decision was the fact that my grandfather was a young boy in a Germany torn apart by World War II, who--though he was the "right" color and religion--had seen the extent of man's inhumanity to man and learned to detest it.)

One day when my mother was 10, her parents hired a black man to put up a fence around their property. My grandmother supplied the man with cold drinks during the day, invited him in to eat lunch with them, paid and tipped him when he was done... and then gathered up all the plates, glasses, and utensils he had used and boiled them. "Look at what you are teaching our daughter!" my grandfather reportedly yelled, and a long argument ensued that left both participants and their observer in tears. My mother resolved she would not let her father down, and is not racist today because of that object lesson in her youth.
posted by Soliloquy at 10:50 AM on September 21, 2005

To "be a racist" and to have a prejudice are two different things. I see being a racist is actually practicing behaviors that favor or deny a person or group over another because of their race. So if I am not given equal consideration (assuming I have the same qualifications) for a job, a house, a car, a school, etc. just because I am Black--then that is racist. Now if you lock your car doors and grab your purse when you see me walking down the street because I am black and you don't even know me, then you are prejudice.
posted by sandra194 at 10:57 AM on September 21, 2005

I always feel a bit on edge...

I understand that, but personally, I feel a lot more on edge when people say they've "overcome" or "cured" their racism, or were never racist to begin with. "Traditional" overt racism is only a very very small part of the problem of modern race relations.

Acting like everything's OK just because you don't use racial epithets is, I think, more harmful than giving the all-pervasive socio-psychological aspect of racism it's due. Racism is inescapable, but that doesn't justify accepting it or simplifying it.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Huh. I've only ever known people of one race. It's called the human race. Beyond that, we're all just differing shades.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2005

For me, raised in pretty homogenous 'burbs, it took a summer of living in Ghana and being pretty much the only white person (and absolutely the only American) people at the school where I worked had ever met to change my subconscious racism/prejudices.

My trip to Africa forced me to experience life as a minority for the first time, and while the people of Ghana were amazingly warm and friendly everywhere I went and I encountered no serious problems, it was jarring to find a world not designed for me, Mr. Rich White Guy, a world where my very presence half a block away brought stares (though usually followed by smiles). I'd try to take public transport (like a van with 10 passengers going to a common destination) instead of a privately hired taxi, and everyone in the van would insist that I'd like to take the taxi better, that it would be cleaner, faster, whatever.

I don't think this was an attempt to get me out of the van because of my race, but a belief on the part of the other passengers that as a white American, I must be wealthy and able to spend relatvely huge sums of money, and their inability to afford a private taxi, something they desired, would be something they'd want me to have "as a guest in their country." They didn't seem to want to make an effort to understand how I didn't really have lots of money to spend, but seeing the same kinds of assumptions made about me as a direct result of my race helped me re-examine my own prejudices, like locking my car door in "bad" (read: ethnically different from me) neighborhoods.

So, then, I guess the best cure for racism is to have it happen to you.
posted by mdonley at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2005

My parents modeled tolerance without ever talking about it, or even thinking about it so far as I could tell. When I was a kid (1970s) the first black family moved to my town, right across the street from us. When my dad saw them unloading a pool table from the moving van he was right over there in ten seconds flat, offering a hand and a cold beer. Dad loved pool.

On the other hand, my brother, ten years older than me, has always had some terrible racist tendencies. I asked my mom about this once, and she is mystified.
posted by LarryC at 1:33 PM on September 21, 2005

My mother's voice. The voice of reason, the Devil's advocate, the "defender of the public" as my father says. The voice that says "now, you don't know that". What used to be so annoying is now quite helpful.

If say I see a black guy riding a girls' bike, I have that quick little discussion in my head: maybe he stole it. mother's voice: maybe he was getting the tires pumped up at the bike shop for his girlfriend.

Funny, because she has her prejudices, but this role she takes (or moreso - my version of this role) has transcended to so many aspects of my bull-headedness, not just the racialist ones. It's been an amazing tool for understanding humans and their behavior better. Best mom in the world.
posted by hellbient at 2:35 PM on September 21, 2005

Best answer: No one ever "stops" being racist. Recognition of the inescapability of racism and the ways your personal racism and that of the institutions you are a part of is manifested is what's important.

I've heard this SO many times, and I still don't understand this. I DO understand that racist attitudes TEND to run deep. I DO understand that you might think you've stopped being racist without actually stopping (i.e. when under stress, your submerged racist attitudes might pop to the surface). I understand that this might be the norm.

But you -- and other people -- claim that NO ONE ever stops being racist. Are you using hyperbole to make a point? Do you really believe that it is absolutely 100% impossible to rid yourself of racist attitudes? If so, what's your evidence for this? That you've never met anyone who has done it? If so, that's poor evidence.

Or is it that we're defining racist in different ways. My definition is pretty literal. A racist is someone who judges someone (generally negatively) on based on race. If you don't judge based on race, then you're not racist.

I've also heard people say things like, "all people are racist" (evidence?) and -- very confusing -- "black people can't be racist." If a black person judges someone on the basis of race, then (be definition) he's racist. Right?
posted by grumblebee at 2:56 PM on September 21, 2005

I went from being mildly homophobic (a little scared of gay people) to being able to tolerate them (meeting some in college) to liking them (discovering they were often fun people and seeking them out) to idolizing them (wishing I was gay) to not caring about them one way or another (you're gay, you're not gay -- who cares?).

Gay now means zero to me. It doesn't make me like you. It doesn't make me dislike you. It doesn't make me interested in you. Just about the most boring thing you can say about someone, as far as I'm concerned, is "he's gay." (Or "he's straight".)

I guess I can't peer into the deepest corners of my soul, but I would say that I'm (now) totally non-homophobic. I say this because the subject of homosexuality is completely devoid of emotional content for me, good or bad. Judging someone on the basis of his sexual preference is as boring to me as judging him based on the last four digits of his phone number.

I can't honestly say this is true to me about race, but I can well imagine it being true. And it is ALMOST true. I am pretty bored by discussions about black/white. If you tell me someone is black, my gut reaction is "And...?" And I can't think of a bigger snooze than a sitcom that centers around black-people/white-people jokes (or gay-people/straight-people jokes). LORD, how boring! We need sitcoms in which people who like Shostakovich insult people who perfer Khachaturian.
posted by grumblebee at 3:11 PM on September 21, 2005

grumblebee: I think primarily the problem is that we're defining racist in different ways. I agree that "a racist is someone who judges someone...based on race" and even that "if you don't judge based on race, then you're not a racist." The key difference here, I think, is our idea of "judging." Unfortunately, explaining myself will require some cognitive psychology.

Everyone, all humans, perform both automatic and controlled thinking. Automatic thinking is non-conscious and immediate--it's a hold-over from the days when our evolutionary ancestors had to evaluate between fight/flight or food/threat in a split-second. Our automatic thinking is governed by schemas--mental structures that organize our accumulated knowledge about the world.

There are a number of studies suggesting that for whatever reasons (I would say the high visibility of minority crime in popular culture, for starters) people in Western society tend very strongly to form negative schemas about African-American men. This is true regardless of race, but more evident in non-African-Americans. The work done by Keith Payne is a good place to start there. This kind of judgment may or may not be the kind that leads to, say, an African-American family being denied a loan. It is, however, certainly the kind of judgment that got Amadou Diallo shot.

My basic point is that everyone has underlying mental structures that guide your judgment from moment to moment. This is not something you control. For many people, this won't effect the way they act towards minorities in any major way. But very nearly everyone does have the underlying response--the quick shot of adrenaline when meeting a Black man in a dark alley--and that should be recognized and kept in mind.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 3:29 PM on September 21, 2005

Of course, at this point I realize that I am being far more specific and perhaps pedantic than cleardawn wanted when he/she asked the question.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 3:31 PM on September 21, 2005

I've done work on a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction.
posted by I Love Tacos at 3:36 PM on September 21, 2005

I wasn't raised racist. I was raised sheltered. I didn't even realize race was something people thought about.

Listening to 80's rap music - especially Public Enemy, and some of the rougher groups like N.W.A. - actually listening to the lyrics and what those guys were saying about the experiences they were going through - was really an eye-opener for me. It happened that I was turned on to this music by my D&D group/heavy metal band; those guys were all black. I was a white kid with a severe developmental stutter - I pretty much couldn't talk, to a first approximation - and for some reason those guys never seemed to hold it against me. I think I have a better idea of why that was, now. At the time I just thought of them as my real friends.

Also, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back is just great music. I recommend it unreservedly.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:20 PM on September 21, 2005

Also, it may be too late for you, but try being a teenager, driving around in some white neighborhoods in your car with some white kids. Then try driving around those same neighborhoods in the same car with some black kids. See if the police treat you any differently.

I guess what I'm getting at is: try to understand the experience of race in America, or wherever you are. Don't listen to the people who tell you that understanding isn't possible. Those people are not thoughtful, and they may well be mistaken.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:25 PM on September 21, 2005

Thanks for the clarification, Espy Gillespie. But...

A. "Everyone, all humans, perform both automatic and controlled thinking."
B. "There are a number of studies suggesting that ... people ... tend very strongly to form negative schemas about African-American men."

1. A does not imply that automatic thinking is immune to change. I can think of several auto structures of my brain that have changed over time. I will grant you that auto structures are, in general, HARDER to change than controlled structures. I will also grant you that SOME auto structures are probably impossible to change. But how could you know whether or not racist attitudes fall into this category or not?

Here is a personal example of an auto structure changing: I stopped believing in God when I was in my teens, but though I called myself an atheist, I still had knee-jerk moments of (weak) belief. These usually appeared when I was stressed. Something terrible would be about to happen, and I would find myself thinking, "Please, please don't let that happen!" It was a prayer to some shadow of a god. And I couldn't help it. This was a sort of atheist's version of meeting a black guy in a dark alley. When the chips were down, my atheism was a flimsy layer over a hidden theistic core. But very very gradually, as the years wore on, this core melted away. It's been completely gone for about 15 years. In other words, even during my worst traumas (and I've had some pretty bad ones), I don't find myself praying (or pleading) for even a fraction of a second. It doesn't enter my mind. Nor does it enter my feelings. It FEELS like, on a fundamental gut level, the universe is godless.

This surprises me, because when I was younger I had supposed -- based on personal experience -- that (at least) a very weak theism was innate and inescapable. Apparantly I was wrong.

In addition to not believing in God, I also don't believe in free will. But I do have a pretty unshakable FEELING of free will (an auto structure). I can't seem to shake what I think of an an illusion. I am tempted to say that it's unshakable. In other words, free will may or may not exist, but people will always FEEL like it exists. However, psychologist Susan Blackmore claims to have escaped the feeling of free will. Maybe she is fooling herself. But after my experience with God, I am inclined to wonder.

Also, the feeling of being-conscious seems inescapable. Yet many scholars (i.e Harold Bloom) have suggested that this is a relatively new feeling in human history. Of course, they may be wrong.

Still, when we try and try to shake some attitute and find that we can't (and when our friends report the same thing), it really SEEMS like these attitudes are writ in stone. But it's important to remember that however profound it seems, our experiences (and the experiences of the people we know) may not be universal.

2. Your schema idea: I've heard this before, and it's an interesting (and possibly true) hypothesis. But I don't think it's been proven (correct me if I'm wrong). It's clear that we do have unconscious impulses ("thoughts" may be going too far). But I don't think their mechanics has been pinned down.

3. Yes, B is true. But why do you set up a causal relationship with A and B? Just because many people think negatively about African Americans, how does it follow that this negative thinking is caused by auto-thinking? And even if it is, how does it follow that this auto-thinking is unchangeable?

4. Even you claim, in B, that people TEND to form negative thoughts about African Americans. If it's a tendency, it's not universal. Which means some people don't succumb. I realize that this might be a tiny minority of people. But it is important to recognize that they exist. Because if they do, they holds out hope for the rest of us (unless these people are freaks of nature). And it also means that if someone claims to not be racist, you can be skeptical, but you can't totally rule out the possibility that they are speaking truthfully and accurately.

As for running into a black man in a dark alley (this example is always brought up) -- YES, I would be afraid. But only if it was a big, menacing black man. And I would be equally afraid if it was a big, menacing white man. When I flash these two possibilities into my mind quickly, they seem equally frightening. I can think of all sorts of black men who wouldn't scare me at all. At what point -- after you keep digging and digging to find the racism -- do you give up and say, "I guess there isn't any?"

I am NOT suggesting that there isn't a HUGE racism problem. There is. But claiming that it's unstoppable (without strong evidence) doesn't help solve it.
posted by grumblebee at 4:52 PM on September 21, 2005

I've always believed, and my experience has reinforced this belief, that racism is about "otherness."

How "racist" a person is amounts to a measure of how deeply a person values or puts a weight upon otherness. People who are deeply racist value their otherness and prefer to enhance the ways in which others are different from them as a means of defining themselves apart from things they dislike. This comes out as projecting undesirable attributes on the other. People who are truly as "racism free" as they come are the ones who are inclined to discount the otherness and insist that differences aren't a source of important value.

This is why the PC paradox around race exists. It's important to validate that otherness is valid, yet recognizing otherness puts the discussion in an invariably "racist" context.

I've found that exposure to different people in practical life usually illustrates that otherness isn't all that useful. You meet people as friends in the mental places you have in common. Focusing on this happiness instead of focusing on the places where you don't agree or share commonality is only bound to distance you.
posted by Pliskie at 5:10 PM on September 21, 2005

...rather "Focusing on this happiness is more important than focusing on the place where you don't agree or share commonality, which is only bound to distance you.
posted by Pliskie at 5:12 PM on September 21, 2005

Your response is terrific, grumblebee, and I thank you for it. You make a number of excellent points that make me reconsider my own.

It's true that the exact mechanics of schema formation have not been pinned down. There is also the issue of schemas being either rigid or flexible. In your adaptation the man-in-a-dark-alley example, I think we can still see some rigid schemas at work--primarily concerned with gender and physical size. A number of other factors such as clothing and posture, would, I think be schematized and contribute to your (or anyone's) response. I believe, though I will admit it is far from proven, that for most people a negative racial schema will come up in our example. You make some excellent points about the ability to change schema, and I think you're right that the schema could be changed, perhaps by conscious effort on the part of the individual. Alternately, one could just be repeatedly jumped by little old white ladies and rescued by big Black men.

Mainly, I just want to make clear that I don't think racism is unstoppable or in any way imply that attempts to end racism on either a personal or social level are futile. Rather, I want to stress the importance of thoroughly exploring (as you have done admirably, grumblebee) the cognitive aspects of racism. The long-term solution is an elimination of crime/poverty as a function of race. In the short term though, I think we can all work on exploring and, hopefully, modifying our most basic categorization of individuals based on their color.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 6:18 PM on September 21, 2005

Some great responses. Thought I'd chime in for another dimension that I don't see here, particularly because the original question mentions Buddhism. A lot of esoteric spiritual traditions focus on universals and unity which certainly have a positive effect on racism for many people. I say esoteric (inner) there, because exoteric (external) traditions, like Christianity, don't normally achieve the same result in my opinion. Exoteric paths usually separate men and women from divinity and man from other men, so the "us vs. them" attitude is often absorbed by those who practice. I'm not making an argument for any specific tradition, that's a discussion for a whole different question and I even pass on the Buddhist path myself, but since you mention it, many people have transcended overt racism by thrusting themselves further into the mindset that on a spiritual/philosophical level people of all races are actually One. The more one truly feels this way, the more petty such superficial things as racism seem-- and that attitude really does become reflected in such a person's thoughts and actions. I have to add that I agree with Espy in the sense that *entirely* overcoming racism is a problematic idea because the very same esoteric traditions I am describing as a positive weapon against racism also express the idea that racism is a manifestation (albeit temporal and malleable) of duality (here, as the sense of "us vs. them") that is a fact of Nature. But the process and goal (enlightenment, or whatever else you wish to call it) is the same: to push oneself toward a union that transcends these differences. If Buddhism is doing that for you, that's great, and you're one of many that I've known who experience such benefits by adopting a belief system that removes the focus from polar "us vs. them" thinking.
posted by aletheia at 8:57 PM on September 21, 2005

ikkyu2, i too was going to mention It Takes a Nation of Millions..., but it slipped my mind. big influence on this topic.
posted by hellbient at 9:58 PM on September 21, 2005

After a long relationship ended and a few years of being single I realized how rare it is to find true love. At that moment my lifelong homophobia disappeared. Gay or straight no longer mattered... why would I stand in the way of two people who loved each other when I was searching for the same thing?
posted by tut21 at 7:14 AM on September 22, 2005

« Older Switching to the Trades...   |   Toronto wardriving map? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.