To have an educated discussion about racism, I suppose the first thing we need to do is establish a basic definition of the term. Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster online…
Definition of racism
: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
: racial prejudice or discrimination
I want you to read the definition carefully at least twice so that we have a similar understanding of the issue we’re addressing. The first definition is what I am really focusing on today–the idea that your race determines your traits and abilities, and that because of racial differences, some races are superior to others.
Now, if we can agree on that very general definition, we can start to think about what it looks like when someone is “being racist.” (According to dictionary.com racist can be defined as: a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.)
We’ve all witnessed racist behavior. When I was going out with a boy in high school who happened to be Hmong, my grandpa asked if there weren’t any white boys to go out with. I loved my grandpa, he was generally a decent guy, but in that moment I saw that he was harboring a racist idea. That would be an example of what I would call milder racism. You can also go to the other extreme where you find people who burn crosses on people’s front lawns and would like to murder those of a different race. I would classify that as extreme racism. Both kinds are wrong–but the differing levels can make a lot of difference in how the racism is acted out and how it is perceived.
Personally, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to label someone as racist, though I’m sure there are people who deserve the title. For your average human being, I think it’s more helpful to talk about harboring racist thoughts, engaging in racist talk, behaving in a racist manner. Most of us think that we’re decent people deep down inside. Whether or not that’s true of a certain individual, if you come at them and call them a racist, they are going to take offense or block you out because they don’t personally identify themselves as racist. They may even go so far as to project the title of racist back on you. As I’m sure you can imagine, this would make an open discussion of the subject rather difficult.
If we can remove the personal element of the argument and focus instead on the thoughts, ideas, language, actions, policies, etc., I suspect that we will make much more headway. I’m not saying this to sterilize racism or deny the personal impact it has on people’s lives. But if you want to begin a rational conversation with someone who is displaying racism, you have to start somewhere. One way to do that is to start with the nuts and bolts–before layering on the personal and emotional impact of racism in the lives of real people. Once someone understands that the ideas and tenets they believe might possibly be biased or flawed, the hope is that they won’t take it as a personal attack when you present anecdotal evidence which debunks their assumptions and prejudices. I hope that I’m making sense and you’re following my line of thinking.
I can’t say unequivocally that this method will work with all people. Perhaps personal anecdotes would work better in educating some people. Maybe another person needs to actually meet and have regular interaction with someone of a particular race before they are willing to let go of their prejudices. But for now let’s just stick to the dry, boring, and rational discussion of racism for this post. We can cover those other areas in the future.
So…how do you go about discussing racism with someone you believe may be harboring racist ideas? If it’s someone you are close to, you will probably have success just asking them about their views. If they have to verbally express their ideas in front of someone who remains neutral while listening, they may start to hear the unkindness in what they are saying. It will be a challenge for you to listen without flipping out or jumping in with your own opinion. Try to stick it out, though. Continue to ask open-ended questions and listen to their answers. Repeat back to them what you think you hear them saying. Ask for clarification when necessary. Try to fully understand their perspective and thoughts. Not until you’ve heard them out, can you expect them to respectfully listen to your viewpoint.
The above scenario makes sense when you’re dealing with someone who can have a reasonably appropriate conversation. However, if the person I was talking to started showing gross racism (as in lots of big racism) or using racial epithets, using crass and hateful language, I would choose to discontinue the discussion. Someone who cares so little for others that they’re willing to throw decency and propriety to the wind is not someone who is going to listen to your point of view or consider another perspective. You are not going to make inroads with everyone–especially those who are very firmly entrenched in racist ideals. Save your time and energy for those who simply need more information or need to follow their thinking to its logical conclusion to see if they are really comfortable with their beliefs. If you can help someone exhibiting racist ideas to come to a crisis in their thinking, they may choose to discard those racist tenets.
In conclusion, I would encourage you to begin to have open conversations about race, prejudice, and diversity with the people in your sphere of influence. You don’t have to come out with a big announcement about what you want to discuss, but bring it up when appropriate and spurred by real-life news and events.
I wish you the best of luck!