adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Thoughts on Racism

01 August 2012

My first memories of home take place in a two-story welfare housing unit in Lynchburg, Virginia. I remember lying in bed scared at night afraid that ninjas were going to climb in through the bedroom window and slice everyone up. I remember sitting in an upholstered chair with the stuffing coming out while my mother gave me haircuts and being afraid that at any second Freddy Kreuger was going to burst through the seat and end me. I remember standing by an outdoor track with another ankle biting delinquent and shouting the cuss words she had taught me, then going home and asking my mom, "What does 'fuck you' mean?"

I also have a distinct category of memories which I owe to my skin color and facial structure. My father's American, but my mother is Vietnamese and I take after her: tan skin, broad face, flat nose, and dark, bristly hair. As a kid, hearing "ching chong" sung tauntingly or derisively at me was a regular occurrence, along with questions like "where you from?" and "you know kung fu?"

So, growing up, I was made aware that I was different from most my peers. However, I never came to feel like I was inferior to others because of my race. When the prevailing stereotypes associated with your phenotype are that you're good at math and you know how to do jump kicks (both of which became true of me), having your Asian-ness thrust in your face doesn't really humiliate you. So it's hard to call what I dealt with racism. My first memories of actual racism are from high school. I knew people who were angry toward black people, all black people, and spoke of them with complete contempt. Others would speak of them with mild derision and disgust. One guy I knew had a seemingly endless supply of "nigger" jokes.

At the time I knew that racism was simply bad, but I didn't fully the realize the acidic, soul-destroying effect it has. My first inkling came when I took on a seven-week internship with an organization that helps at-risk youth. As it turned out, most of these kids came from poor families, and most of them were black. Many of the kids seemed pretty normal, but some of them... I don't know how to describe it, except that elementary school children shouldn't have that much anger. I'm sure that there were many factors influencing how these kids were - a fractured family, poverty - but I'm also sure that being told in subtle and perhaps overt ways that they were worth less than others as human beings because of something out of their control had an impact on them too.

My real awakening about the impact of racism came when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I finally came to really understand that racism is not just about being called "nigger" or "chink" or "whitey". It's not just about the daily indignity of being treated as inferior. It's also about institutional power. Slavery was an institution. Jim Crow laws were part of our legal institutions. Malcolm X recalls:

I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames. My father had shouted and shot at the two white men who had set the fire and were running away. Our home was burning down around us... The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down to the ground.

I've included a couple more excerpts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X and from Black Like Me below. Even today, however, it's easy to find racism in our institutions, even if there's no legal basis: blacks being targeted for disenfranchisement or not receiving equal treatment under the law.

Racism is clearly responsible for some of the most cruel, degrading treatment humans inflict on each other. About 9 years ago, however, I read "Everything that Rises Must Converge", a short story by Flannery O'Connor, and it's made me think. The story takes place in the South during the civil rights era. One of the main characters says the following:

"With the world in the mess it's in," she said, "it's a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.

"Of course," she said, "if you know who you are, you can go anywhere... Most of them in it are not our kind of people," she said, "but I can be gracious to anybody. I know who I am."

One of the major components of her identity is her superiority to black people. This is still astounding to me - that someone could view this racist mentality not only as justified, but as an integral part of who she is.

How does this happen? It's clear that children don't actively choose to incorporate racism into their identities. Rather, it seems like identity is like an inner Mr. Potato Head, and some built-in mechanism plugs in whatever pieces are available from the surrounding culture. It's also clear to me that this built-in mechanism is completely amoral, that its purpose is to produce a Head like those it's exposed to rather than to ensure respect for universal human dignity.

And that really helps me to have empathy for people who act in racist ways. Abraham Lincoln argues that slaveowners "are just what we would be in their situations" - an acknowledgement of the overwhelming power of culture and environment to shape your beliefs and your character.

There's a lot more that I want to write on this subject - for example, how racism is really just one example of out-group prejudice in the in-group/out-group paradigm, with other examples including homophobia and classism. How it's possible for victims of prejudice to justify their own prejudice (see this article on hip hop and homophobia .) In fact, I'm sure there's a lot of literature on the subject and if anyone could point me to it I would appreciate it.