If You’re an American, You’re a Racist … But That’s Cool
I’ve always been a happy racist. Like, I don’t lose sleep over it. And no, I don’t care if someone calls me that at a party. I’m cool with being racist (and you can be, too). Keep in mind this is coming from the winner of my high school’s Multicultural Appreciation Award from the Indian Association of Davis. I was then, and I remain, a happy racist. I appreciate folks from all different races. For reasons beyond my control, I was raised to be racist. It’s how I see the world. The process took hold long before I had any understanding of the world or the chance to defend myself. It just happens like that when you’re raised in the States. It comes with our freedom and our history of violence. Racism is an American birthright. We’re all racists here.
If you’re an American reading this, I hate to piss in your Cheerios but … you are a racist. And even though I don’t know you specifically, just knowing you’re a racist doesn’t give me a negative impression of you. I still like you just fine. If we were to meet I wouldn’t hold it against you that you’re a racist. You were raised with a racist story. You were taught a racist map and told a racist history. And within a racist worldview, there are only two types of people: racists and bigots.
I guess I should be clear about what I mean by racist before you get your feelings hurt. It’s not an insult. (And no, I’m not trolling you.) Here’s how I define racism and bigotry.
A racist is a person who sees and catalogs people by a coded system of race-based groups and mentally places people in one of the indeterminate number of agreed-upon racial designations. No moral or value judgments are required, only the act of sorting.
Racism (much like Catholicism) is a way to arrange and apply meaning in the world. It is a story one tells oneself. For some, it can be a way to add value or provenance to a person or group of people. Or, it can become a power-based narrative used to justify an opinion or action.
A bigot is a person who sees and catalogs people by a system of groups — race-based is one example. The bigot maintains low opinions and expectations of members of certain groups; often these supremacist views develop into antipathy and can cause harm or neglect. Sometimes such views result in violence or death.
Bigotry (much like The Inquisition, an act born from a Catholic view of the world) is an action/inaction based on coded groups of people, and is a mindset that is always at the ready, perpetually willing to judge the morality and rights of others. Bigotry condones the punishment of others, deemed as less valuable, with violence and death. It is guided by and protected by feelings of supremacy and expectations of impunity. It is the malicious actions of a bigot or a system devised by bigots.
Racists and bigots. The rest is academic. And when I say that, I’m not being anti-intellectual. Race is a critically important subject of study, and none of this should be read as an attack on academia or academic discussion. Critical understanding provides dimension and context. However, outside of academia one doesn’t always need all of the same jargon to understand racism. There is a very simple way to phrase it:
If you use race as a way to see the world, you’re either a racist or a bigot.
My friend’s mother is German. She was born in Germany, spent her first thirty years there, and she still has a Green Card to this day, maintaining her German citizenship. She’s fully German. And she’s not a racist. I’ve known her since I was a schoolboy and I’ve heard her tell stories for decades now. Never once has she ever included any racial descriptors in her stories. Ever. She will talk about someone’s language, or their culture, or their talent with a certain type of ethnic food; she sees and even occasionally mentions ethnicity but she doesn’t see race. There are no black people, white people, Asian people. She doesn’t see it. To her the world population is a multi-colored joyful miasma of people, and all drawn with a 264 pack of Crayola crayons.
My mother is American. She was born in Iowa and spent her formative years on the east coast, mainly in Pennsylvania. And she’s a racist. I’ve known her my whole life. I’ve heard her tell stories for decades now and while she doesn’t always include race in stories, it is a detail that she’ll borrow from our ongoing cultural conversation on race. She’ll use the detail to color the story and add assumptions and address parallel narratives to tell a simple story about an ugly exchange at a gas station. To her, the world population is categorized into subgroups of race. She appreciates them equally, but she sees an Asian baby, a white baby, a black baby.
Now let’s clear away all the undergrowth of academic arguments and meta-arguments. Racism is a simple social construct. To better explain, here’s a quotation from Harvard’s critical race theorists and their take on race.
Critical race theorists reject the idea that “race” has a natural referent. Instead, it is a product of social processes of power. People do not have a race, writes Kendall Thomas; they are “race-d.” Unveiling the legal, social, and cultural operations by which people are assigned and invested with races is one central project of critical race theory. They urge re-cognizing race not as an inherent characteristic of people but instead a product of social practices. Because unconscious as well as intentional practices construct racial status, stereotypes, and practices, legal reforms must address unconscious practices as well as intentional ones.
At one level, race is a way to understand people and the history of peoples. At that level it has great value. And this is partly why seeing the world as comprised of people from different racial backgrounds is a commonly held view. And it’s not one I expect people to easily or quickly drop. It’s a familiar story of what is and what has been. In many ways, racism provides a sense of place in the world narrative.
Of course, it’s not the best means to categorize human populations. Now that we know more about DNA, we’ve learned that members of certain tribes in South Africa such as the Khoisan of the Kalahari have more genetic diversity between members of their tribe than there is any measurable difference between you and a rural Kazahkstani villager. As far as science is concerned, race is far less important than language, culture, or economic condition. And it goes without saying that poverty is an unrelenting factor in determining a person’s life path, often more so than their race. It should be noted that a racist society imperils economic opportunities for PoC, often doubly burdened by race and poverty. When that PoC is a woman, their burden triples. And if they’re old, it quadruples. This is the increased burden of intersectionality. But focusing only on money for the moment, one trip to Appalachia will show you that poverty, like gravity, is blind.
Availability of money is critical for the health and well-being of any human. And there are many other factors one could substitute that are equally important: education, exposure to travel, fluency with technology, diversity of neighborhood, etc. All of those affect a person more than race.
Why are those factors more important? Because race is entirely fictional. It doesn’t exist. Science can’t find it. There is no such thing as a white person. Or a black person. Or a brown, yellow or a red person. This is all toxic nonsense invented by cruel-hearted profit-obsessed colonists.
There is ethnicity. There is culture. There is language and religion. Those are all real distinctions. But what we call race is bullshit; it’s entirely made-up. The term racism is a misnomer. The real word is power. Racism is about a presumption of proximity to power. This is what people mean when they discuss privilege. Although race isn’t real, racism and privilege are very real. Why? Because power is real.
For millennia, the story goes: an ethnic group gains some power. They flirt with the notion of becoming a kingdom (or a similar division of land). If things went well and the kingdom’s power increased they might take a stab at becoming an empire. Some would make it. Inevitably, so proud of their achievements of blood and treasure, the people of the empire would begin to see themselves as the center of the world, and all others as dogs groveling beneath them — utter barbarians, mud people — when compared to their obvious supremacy of stature as imperial overlords. It’s a story as old as civilization. It’s a tale carved into rocks from here to Papa New Guinea.
Racism, on the other hand, is a recent invention.
Once humans invented big fancy boats during the Age of Exploration, ships that allowed us to sail the seven seas and circumnavigate the globe, we started trading from one culture to another. We benefited from this exchange so much that global trade hastened all cultures and spread every technology it touched. To take advantage of global trade, our ancestors risked danger, deprivations, and death. They sailed off to explore and find new routes to reach each other more quickly. This went on for centuries. Opinions developed, stereotypes and biases entered the picture, people began to label each other.
Early colonial American “job-creators” found they needed a way to distinguish between white laborers and black laborers doing similar work, one man free and the other a slave. British colonial landlords of Virginia borrowed the Spanish term, Negroes, and then used the English equivalent as something to placate the egos of the impoverished Englishmen, Scots and Irishmen working on early plantations and trading company farms. It was an idea new and unique to America. It was a new designation. No longer was a man an itinerant Irishman deprived of food and land, cast out from his home by war and politics, now that same poor laborer was a white man. And even though he might be toiling among tobacco plants next to a field slave, this newly dubbed white man was soon “proven” by the science and religious opinion of his day to be naturally, indisputably, scientifically better than the “heathen” black fellow he labored with shoulder-to-shoulder.
Blacks and whites of the early colonies often lived together in common housing. They often ate and drank together. Being human, of course, they shared beds; in fact, the first mixed child was born a year after African slaves arrived in America. By the middle 1600s mixed marriages had become commonplace according to scholars such as Audrey Smedley, (Professor of Anthropology Emerita, VA Commonwealth University).
Black men servants often married white women servants. Records from one county reveal that one fourth of the children born to European servant girls were mulatto (Breen and Ennis 1980). Historian Anthony Parent (2003) notes that five out of ten black men on the Eastern Shore were married to white women. One servant girl declared to her master that she would rather marry a Negro slave on a neighboring plantation than him with all of his property, and she did (P. Morgan 1998). Given the demographics, servant girls had their choice of men. One white widow of a black farmer had no problem with remarrying, this time to a white man. She later sued this second husband, accusing him of squandering the property she had accumulated with her first husband (E. Morgan 1975, 334). In another case, a black women servant sued successfully for her freedom and then married the white lawyer who represented her in court (P. Morgan, 1998).
This sort of behavior and sense of equality was the norm before laws begun in the 1690s made such conduct illegal under colonial law. These attitudes were so common, consider this little ditty sung by white servants of the day; one of the lyrics was:
“We and the Negroes both alike did fare
Of work and food we had equal share”
This sense of being together at the bottom of the social ladder provided a sense of kinship between African slaves and indentured European servants working off ten-year contracts to buy back their freedom. But all of that changed after an incident when angry servants banded together with slaves as a united army and sacked Jamestown, Virginia, forcing the Governor of Virginia to flee for eight months. Their uprising was called Bacon’s Rebellion.
This violent movement scared the rich and powerful so badly that they were terrified into action. It hastened them to devise new ways to divide the economic allies by legally calling one white and the other black, by giving one the right to vote and the promise of Indian lands and the other the promise of a life as chattel property to be treated like real estate one could inherit. The underlying message to the newly made white Americans was, “you may not be rich, but at least you are free and you are white.”
Some scholars say this was the spiritual birth of American racism. Over time this American (economic) form of racism as a power dynamic has kept up with its cultural temperament. Racism always remains a powerful dividing force. Unfortunately for humanity, it escaped American shores and colonial racism eventually spread all around the world with the advent of steamships, radio, movies, television, jet travel, and these days, the Internet.
The invention of whiteness — and its message of supremacy — would’ve been nothing more than name-calling (and Shakespeare disabused us of the notion that the name possesses any of the magic of the thing itself). But as a power dynamic, race was insidiously seductive and always backed with the threat of violence, be it sexual, economic or physical. Whiteness, with its implication of supremacy, was a difficult bomb to defuse. And for early Americans, whiteness was a way to make the entire New World make sense. It gave precedence to “white people” over blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Chinese and Indian laborers. Armed with the virtue of Church blessing and papal decree, early colonial Americans (including the Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, French and British) made it clear to anyone they came in contact with that by the order of God in heaven, white people were made naturally superior to all other races of people.
Before the New World was colonized, a person was from their place of origin. You were European or Asian; maybe African, or Indian. But after the conquerors of the New World, suddenly the world had races, new ways to divide people (and once divided, they’re easily defeated). Since none of us can reverse the course of the river or turn back time, since none of us can remove the racist threads from the whole cloth of history, I don’t care if you’re a racist. If you’re an American you had no choice in the matter. You’ve always known racism. It’s not your fault. But I won’t tolerate it if you’re a bigot.
You can divide people into groups. And you can even hold pet theories about what you appreciate about the people in those groups. That’s all about as harmful as astrology. “Ohmygod, you’re an Asian? That’s so cool, I’m an Aquarius! We’ll totally get along,” is pretty much all I hear.
Yet, I often read journalists, bloggers and writers who bandy about the term racism like they were getting paid to use it. I see Internet commenters who love racism almost as much as they adore pizza and cats. And, of course, there are the trolls who use racism like a match and gasoline, and yet, still, none of us can even agree on a definition of racism.
This lack of clarity leads to things like my absolute favorite construction because, etymologically speaking, it makes no fucking sense: reverse-racism. From what I gather this is time-based racism. First, someone or some group must treat someone in a racialized way, and then later, that person or group responds in an equally racialized way. That’s my best guess at whatever the fuck reverse-racism is. Honestly, I don’t give a feather or a fig about it. There’s just racism.
When I see online commenters suggest that minorities can’t be racist to white people, honestly, sometimes I just sit there wishin’ and hopin’ someone brings up Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. I’ve actually spent delicious minutes doing a Bobby Mugabe countdown waiting for a commenter to bring up the white farmers in Zimbabwe who are under threat of land seizure and murder, which they are, and then cite this as proof white people suffer from racism, too. And you know what? They do. If race were invented as a function of power, and if these white farmers are targeted as victims because of their “race,” then that’s clearly racism. But when Zimbabwean farmers have their land seized or when they’re murdered, that’s no longer racism. That’s bigotry.
I throw out most all those cross-divided, sub-divided, jingoistic terms like reverse racism and instead rely on two very simple terms to describe how members of ethnic groups of people treat each other in a race-based way: racism and bigotry. That’s it.
Racism is a system of “color-coded,” power-based designations, invented for economic reasons to divide people.
Bigotry is a system of supremacy, both in thought and action/inaction.
When a white neighbor shoots and kills a young black teen, that’s not racism; that’s bigotry. When a Latina teenager stomps a twenty-something Vietnamese writer to death outside a nightclub, that’s bigotry. When a trans woman is murdered in front of a police station and cops do little to nothing to solve her murder, drop the charges on the only suspect and let the case go cold, that’s bigotry.
Every single time a mother is beaten within an inch of her life by a violent partner, that’s bigotry. When two cops beat a homeless man to death (and it’s recorded, yet somehow in a trial they’re found not guilty), that’s bigotry.
Bigotry is our problem. Stop spending so much of your energy calling people racist, and arguing over the definitions of racism, and the primacy of racism. You’re falling into the trap. Racism is like a fractal. It’s the same picture at every level and in every bit of the picture. Racism is designed to divide, and every time you use it as a lens to understand what’s in front of you, it divides the picture. Besides, it’s embedded in the fabric of society. Hell, you can’t even spell Americans without racism. To focus one’s mind on racism is a waste of everyone’s time.
I’m not saying we’re post-racial. I’m not saying racism is dead. Nor am I saying that racism doesn’t exist. It obviously does. I’ve personally suffered from racism my whole life. I know it exists. It’s everywhere. I’m saying that where we must focus our energies is on the bigotry, the underlying supremacy that gave the world racism. We must look past the symptoms and find the disease. We must all agree no one has the bigoted right to hurt others. The assumption of any one group’s supremacy is the problem. The history, the economics, the power dynamics of racism, none of those matter as much as the seductive allure, the beguiling call of supremacy.
I prefer things to be clean and simple whenever possible. I know that’s not always the case, but when it comes to bigotry, it’s as simple as math and as clean as morality. Any time a person acts negatively in a sexist way, in an anti-immigrant way, in an anti-trans way, in a homophobic way, or any designation you might name — it doesn’t matter to me — those are all acts of bigotry. When a person is denied their individuality and cataloged into a group and then treated as a lesser creature for being a member of that group, that’s an act of supremacy. It is bigotry. I’m against bigotry of any form. But race? That’s as stupid as hating people with freckles.
A dog, now there’s a fitting analogy to explain why race is invented bullshit. You can say all sorts of clever things about different breeds of dogs but to a veterinarian they’re all dogs. To the dogs, they’re all dogs. To cats, they’re all dogs. We’re the only ones saying Schnauzer and Cockapoo. The same goes for us. Call yourself whatever you want but you’re still just a human same as all the rest. No better or worse than any other.
I love hearing stories from my friend’s German mother because I’m left to picture whomever I want. From what she says, all I know is there were two men, both tall, and they were traveling with three older women, two were from Chile and the other was a banker. Being raised German, she holds such high expectations for how people behave she has very little need for morality. There is an expression she uses, “Man tut das nicht.” It means, “one does not do that” or “a person doesn’t do such things.” Her attitude about life presumes this sort of common decency. She believes most everyone is a good person until proven otherwise. Most importantly, because everyone matters to her, because of her expectation of decency and because of her general empathy for all, she has little patience for any person who ruins the quality of life for others. She needs no other reason or context, empathy and common decency motivate her to action. She possesses the warm heart of your hardest schoolteacher.
I like her view of the world, and though I was born an American racist, I attempt to imitate it as often as possible.