You’re a racist.

I’ve thought a bit about how feasible it might be to live in a world free of racism or various other isms. Optimists would hope that it is achievable as more people have access to better education and communication with people who are from different backgrounds. Pessimists might assume that if people stop making assumptions based on race, that they’ll just make assumptions based on other, perhaps sillier things.

I can’t say that I know if we would be better off without racism. There are so many things that people base generalizations off of and there may even be biological components behind some discriminatory attitudes. In the linked exampled, a psychologist proposes a theory with a biological element to develop some of the deeper workings behind homophobic and anti-gay attitudes. As another, more widely observed example, is called sexual dimophism – when males and females of the same species display sometimes drastically different physical characteristics. For ducks and pheasants, the male is larger and much more colorful than the female and for humans, the female tends to be shorter, lighter, and generally smaller on average. That may account at least partially for why sexism is quite rampant in many human societies, a topic that I discussed in a previous post.

Xenophobia may be an evolutionary trait (at least for men) that kept early humans alive; if competition for resources was fierce, it would be best to not be so open to trusting others. Heck, when research was done with robotic colony members, the researchers realized that the robots, though not specifically programmed to be assholes, began to deceive other members of their “species” in order to gain advantages. If deception is such a great tool that can be used against you at any time, heck, an ounce of xenophobia might be quite helpful in preventing you from swallowing a jug of poison. In fact, this was a point that was brought up in another post – there is a correlation between being wealthy and being deceitful.

There have been tons of thought experiments into how a society would go about eliminating all discrimination. Some serious, some kind of silly. Basically, the idea comes down to this – in order to totally eliminate anything that people might use to unfairly discriminate against others, a society would have to find a way to make everyone exactly the same.

In Harrison Bergeron, that equality was achieved through pursuing a sort of equilibrium to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Smart people had their thoughts interrupted by deafening sounds. Beautiful people hid their faces behind ugly masks. Strong people had weights on them just beyond their ability to manage it so as to keep them slightly clumsy. Even in this case, where everyone was effectively equal, they weren’t the same. People who didn’t have to carry weights or earpieces that blasted sirens directly into their brains felt left out or jealous because they didn’t get to experience those things themselves. Also, you could tell who was the most beautiful by finding the ugliest mask. So, the society had failed to actually eliminate inequality because, in doing so, they had created a new form of inequality.

In a sillier example, Hetalia: Paint it White basically had the countries of the world struggling with invading aliens who were bringing their superior culture of total equality forcibly to all of the cities on the planet. They did so by turning everyone into one of them. Since they all looked the same, there would obviously not be any ability or reason to discriminate. However, the aliens were also completely expressionless and had nothing that made one decipherable from another. Only by exposing the aliens to the rich cultures of Earth, and also after Italy drew silly faces on their blank visages, did the aliens realize that uniqueness was actually important.

So, eliminating discrimination will result in new forms of discrimination or the wiping away of all culture, happiness, and progress. I think though that people find this sort of media so important, enjoyable, whatever, because it may lend a hand in relieving some of the uncertainty that people feel when facing the issue of racism in their own minds.

Without much discussion, racism is dismissed as automatically bad, and you don’t have to perform mental gymnastics to figure out why that might be. It’s true that only through racism and other methods of discrimination are some of the most horrific crimes even possible. You just aren’t motivated to kill or hurt someone who you believe is exactly like you, but if you think that someone is behaving in a very unusual way, you might be. But, the discussion of this topic tends to go to the extremes right off the bat, which puts people in the position of having to automatically deny being a racist without actually knowing what it truly means to be racist. This, in turn, makes it much more difficult to totally eradicate racial stereotypes that people maintain. Without ever being able to discuss their preconceived notions and learning facts to replace them via a calm, accepting conversation, people don’t have those assumptions challenged in ways that they need. As a result, too many people still believe silly things like Asian women having “sideways” vaginas (this is one of many examples of people voicing uncertainty about that very notion).

I’ve seen people who will call themselves open-minded and will always deny being racist in any respect say that they think it’s important for parents to be of the same race to avoid “confusing” the child or facing social stigma. There are other people who either believe or are unsure of whether it’s a bad thing to marry someone from a different race. Or, they might deny having any sort of prejudice against a racial group but denounce polygamists (note: polygamy is not the same as polygyny), people from different faiths, or people who identify themselves as a different, mixed, or third gender. The core of racism is the same as the core of every other prejudice: generalizations made about a group of people based on a shared trait. This doesn’t automatically make people evil. Everyone makes generalizations, generally. Those are just assumptions made to basically avoid the long and arduous task of examining each and every person you come across to determine whether they’re someone you want to deal with.

James Randi, famed magician and current author and lecturer, frequently discusses assumptions as being the door through which falsehoods can enter undetected. Though his focus is primarily on purported psychics who swindle people out of money by appearing credible, I think this is applicable to the topic of racism. There’s a reason why people who have attained higher levels of education tend to be less racist than those who completed a high school or lower level of education; it’s by learning more about the world that you learn that some of the assumptions you had been taught to make are incorrect.

My main point in making this post is that people make assumptions and generalizations. Some of those are hurtful. Assuming that black people are more likely to commit crimes, latinos and latinas are dumber than white people, or that white people are all oblivious can all be hurtful to other people. Besides, there is no “pure” anything among humans. Since we’re all the same species and we love rubbing our genitals on new things, there has been a lot of mixing between races, cultures, religions, socioeconomic statuses, physical size categories, and probably other stuff I’m not thinking about right now. While some generalizations might actually be true, like black people are less at risk for melanoma than white people, these also tend to have some kind of actual evidence to back up the claim made. On the other hand, if you want to consider yourself a reasonable person, you must require yourself to meet people at their level; understand that generalizations are going to be made and that no one is necessarily a bad person because they make them. As Randi explains, everyone makes assumptions. No one is immune. It is easy to condemn people for having opinions that you might consider uncouth, mean-spirited, or ignorant. It takes a person of a much higher caliber to understand that people are not stupid or uneducated for holding certain assumptions. Only by meeting people at their level is there any possibility of getting some minds to change.

I was raised in the Bible Belt by my grandparents. I have heard lots of silly things that I, as a person who considers herself and is considered by others to be super-duper-smarty-farty, had to learn were not true as an adult. It’s embarrassing because they’re little factoids sprinkled in with common wisdom and I’m still finding myself surrounded by highly educated people with my pants down, totally oblivious to the fact that I was convinced of some downright stupid things. Thanks, granddad.

As an example, in the Bible Belt, butter is not an extra, it’s a required ingredient. You can’t make anything without butter. It’s like salt; you put it on everything. Well, in the Northeast, most people don’t eat butter like it’s going out of fashion. Actually, a lot of people don’t even have butter at home, as I’ve found. This is something that held true when I married my husband, the fourth generation of his family born in the same freaking hospital.

Several months ago, we were making muffins, which do require butter or otherwise just taste like ass, and since he does most of the cooking at home, it had been some time since we’d bought butter. We still had a package of it, which I promptly pulled out of the fridge and began using a spoon to throw in some for the muffin batter. My husband stopped me and asked how old the butter was, to which I responded, “It doesn’t matter. Butter doesn’t go bad.”

He then grabbed the butter from my hand and peeled the rest of the sticker off to reveal, much to my shock, that there was mold on it. He explained with a “DUH” tone that butter was DAIRY. DAIRY goes bad. DUH. I felt like a total moron. I genuinely had never thought of butter as a dairy product. Well, sure, NOW it seems obvious seeing as the butter is usually next to the milk and cheese, but I didn’t know that. It was an assumption I made based off of my upbringing. Butter had always been treated as pretty much the same thing as salt, so I assumed that it was pretty much the same thing as salt. No one ever explicitly told me that butter was the same as salt. It was just an assumption I had made as a kid that just slipped under the radar totally unnoticed for around twenty years before it was revealed to anyone that it was there.

To go a little further, my husband was the second Jewish person I had ever met in my life and the first one I had ever even talked to beyond the most basic level of pleasantries. I hadn’t even known very many Asians before college either. I didn’t learn better because someone called me a racist and threatened to shove a grenade in my mouth. I learned better through education and meeting people. I have seen the people who are confronted in an angry manner turn around and use that encounter as proof for their previous assumption about some race. Yelling, arguing, and screaming just don’t work, no matter how justified and angry you feel.

If people can slow it down, accept that there are things that they don’t know about the world, and be honest with each other, I think we can at least open the floor for an honest discussion of assumptions based on race, gender, orientation, and whatever else people have heard. Only by making it safe for a person to reveal assumptions that they were raised with will people start to be willing to consider that some of those assumptions might be safe to let go of. On the other side of the coin, people who have been affected by the various isms infecting our culture must be willing to acknowledge their own assumptions. Everyone does it. No one is immune. It requires open, honest, and kind discourse to overcome the assumptions that have been a hindrance to society. No one person is to blame, but each person can do more to contribute to a better society by listening and learning.

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