more racist than you think

Today on the radio I heard a conservative commentator repeat something that I hear a lot: “In America today, racism is not as big a factor as people think.” This is just a slightly less abrasive way of saying what I heard Sean Hannity say several weeks ago, that “Blacks will start voting for the Republican party when they realize that racism just doesn’t exist any more in America.”

Sean is a tool who will say anything for ratings; but the first guy (Mark Davis) is an extremely intelligent, extremely thoughtful, extremely articulate man. He and I disagree completely about the way the world should be, but rarely disagree about the way the world is.  So I thought to myself: “Why is he saying these things? Why do serious thoughtful conservatives think this way?”

Then it occurred to me: they think that racism means “hating black people.”  It’s as simple as that.

And if that were what racism meant, then they would be right. I think there are relatively few  people in our culture today who consciously, overly hate black people. (Those people still exist, don’t get me wrong; but they aren’t the bulk of our society today, and they aren’t the ones “pulling the strings” in our culture, in my opinion.)

The problem is, you can be racist without hating black people. You can be homophobic without hating gay people (despite what uptight etymological purists will tell you… feel free to use the term “gayist” instead). You can be sexist without hating women.

It comes down to a question of whether you show biased behavior. Biased behavior can happen out of habit. It can happen out of thoughtlessness.  It can happen very innocently: but that doesn’t make it less biased.

Let me give you an example that is slightly less politically charged than these “sexism” and “racism” issues.   Back when I was in college, a friend of mind said, “I’ve noticed you’re attracted to guys with dark hair.”  And I protested vehemently: “I never even think about hair color! Hair color doesn’t matter to me at all!  It’s not one of the things that I look at when I’m drawn to someone!”

And my friend said, “Well, in the time I’ve known you, you’ve been out with a lot of people, and not a single one of them has been blond or a redhead.”

I thought about it, and my friend was right. My behavior showed that I do have a preference. Even though, introspectively, it never even occurred to me that hair color might be a factor in what I was attracted to. It was completely unconscious.

But does that mean that my friend was wrong? Absolutely not. The bias was there in the behavior, and it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t caused by a conscious little voice in my head saying, “Ew! Blonds! Gross! Icky-poo! I hate them!”

Of course, when it is sexism or racism it adds an entire layer on top of mere “personal taste,” because there are cultural and systemic patterns of behavior that get reinforced over and over again to the point where they impact the broad flow of who can achieve what in our culture.  That’s “a whole other level,” as they say.

But if you are talking to your conservative friends, I encourage you to start simple.  Even putting aside systemic bias and history and all that noise, you can explain to them that even they can be biased without it being conscious.  So just because most people, when asked, will say, “I don’t think skin color matters!” doesn’t mean that racism has been expunged from our society. You have to look at the way people actually act.