Racism: A Constantly Moving Target
I hadn’t planned on this but I suppose this is a follow up to my previous article on the national race conversation we aren’t having and how much work needs to be done to set up a communicative framework before we even focus on having THE conversation. As it happened I was in a conversation with my boyfriend on what exactly racism is after coming across an article about a spate of violent protests in Israel.
What’s been going on is that African migrants have been subject to violent harassment in a southern Tel Aviv neighborhood. The native residents feel that the reported increase in crime from theft to sexual assault is a result of the African migrants living there. There are numerous stories reporting this increase and on its surface, it would appear those people are right. But upon further examination you find that many of these migrants have been in the country for years, some are even second generation residents, that there is a lack of economic opportunity in the area particularly for immigrants, and the businesses owned by the African migrants themselves have suffered a great deal of discrimination. As many sociology majors know a lack of economic opportunity and discriminatory policies can directly lead to increases in criminal activity. Additionally the local media (with little help from the police statisticians) have been running stories on increases in crime without a great deal of analysis on the root causes or for that matter if there really is a statistically relevant increase to begin with. For instance are these stories anecdotal or backed up with numbers?
And unfortunately people, no matter how cynical, tend to believe their news and this particular news is directly and indirectly saying the migrants are responsible. When told by sources who are perceived as reputable that there is an obvious scape goat to point at, how many people don’t go along with the assumption? And because that has happened, there is a groundswell of anti-semitism on the internet concerning the Israelis behavior and call outs of racism, when I contend that had it been an olive toned or even another ‘white’ group who were held responsible for an increase in crime, the native residents would have likely behaved similarly. They may not have chosen African migrants simply because they’re brown, but because they’re being told this is the group responsible. With migrants literally coming in by the truck load and xenophobic government authorities cosigning what the media reports, are these clashes really unexpected? Prejudicial thinking and discriminatory practices are progressed by media, propaganda, and false assumptions about a group of people.
The concept of race is an end result of a search for domination, power, and influence. European whites picked an abundance of melanin, a lack of commercial industrialization and over sized facial features as demarcations of inferiority (and these are not just about African descendants, but Middle Easterners and Asians/Eurasians too) but ask yourself, why these features and not others? There are prejudices in other cultures against red hair, light skin, a particular dialect, and even what foods someone eats. When looked at against this back drop the clear issue is about power. We may want to address the root causes of this attempt at domination because racism like other forms of prejudice is the symptom and system used to create imbalances in power and opportunity, but it’s not the cause. We may actually be post-racial and not because of the reason many think, but because ‘racism’ may not be the social structure in need of being torn down. There is a millennium long history all over the world of atrocities committed in the name of racial purity and culling the ‘undesirables’ and this history hurts and is terrible, but judging these actions as simply racism may miss the larger point that whether because of race, gender, sexuality, ethnic heritage, or class; one group made up its mind to oppress another and the basis and justification for oppression can be anything that is usefully hurled at the ‘Other’ and manages to stick.
So my point is that the use of a term like racism can not be easily defined. It seems to be defined as believing one race (a human construction) is more superior than the other and that this racism can include discriminatory and prejudicial behavior from socioeconomic sabotage, to a denial of universal rights, to using offensive descriptors of the supposed inferior population, to subtle micro-aggressions of applying stereotypes to a person before you get to know them.
Furthermore it seems to be about how the offended party feels, whether in their interpretation and world view the matter merits being called out on its racism and cultural insensitivity and I am not in disagreement with that assessment. But does it mean that the person’s offense is reasonable? And to be clear I can not even begin to address the issue of if the offense is justified because that’s a response mixed with an emotional and sometimes critical lens and therefore not open to being an objective determinant. But I can ask about whether the reaction is reasonable. Is the offense useful fuel? Does it mean better and more equitable conditions? Is the offense part of a situation that could be aptly described as ‘learn when and wear to pick your battles’ and the offensive situation in question may not qualify? When individuals have been victims of racial micro-aggressions like “You’re incredibly well spoken,” to an African American, or “Do all you [people] eat rice?” to someone of Asian descent; does the intent matter? Specifically if in tone and facial expression one can determine the person, while socially ignorant, is really looking for information to inform their world view and honestly do not mean harm, can anger and offense be tabled for a moment in order to have an honest discussion and dialogue? I ask these questions and I have dozens of others about all sorts of minutiae concerning a conversation on race because I am truly interested in what a positive and progressive dialogue looks like.
‘Race’ is a tenuous concept at best because what qualifies for grouping others is arbitrary and takes little to no account of the advancements in science and DNA technology that has begun to shed light on just how mixed everyone is. If our cells, the very building blocks on which our bodies are founded, have that much diversity, what then does the concept of race even mean? This is of course a thought that many people have had over the years and I wonder if its time for it gain mainstream traction because calling out you’re a ‘racist’ has gotten to be used so often that sometimes people do not know exactly what they mean when asked to detail the specificity of their offense. It would be good to remember that when using ‘racism’ to describe a prejudicial and discriminatory situation that it’s related to a much larger problem; someone in a position of power, dominance, and influence (whether they’re aware or not i.e. white privilege) has no desire to lose it and will use what ever means are available to them to hold onto to it. And truthfully I’m not even sure that’s morally wrong, but I’d sure like to address how we can relieve individuals, groups, and nations of the need to stay in control and on top and realize that there really is enough world for everybody.