Friday, May 04, 2012

Racism and Selfishness

I'm not sure how to talk about this without stepping on the toes of just about everyone. I'm also not sure how to process any of this without coming off racist - so I'll just admit it. I am a racist.

I make stereotypes of people that are partly, if not wholly, based on race. I don't like it and I repent of it and I'll try to figure out some ways to amend my lifestyle to combat it. I'm still a racist.

Let me explain a bit. I've spent a fair amount of time with the urban poor to varying degrees. It's been a difficult journey, but I've come to recognize that the values embraced by the culture of urban life are different (albeit no less valid) than the values imprinted on me by my white, middle-class, mostly suburban upbringing, an upbringing that tends to be upheld as "American" or "normal."

I have come to appreciate the different emphases among my friends in the city. They have helped me embrace things that have made my life better and more complete. There are certainly positives and negatives to any cultural condition; I have benefited greatly from learning to think critically about my own and embrace another.

I understand that this urban culture is not exclusively black, but my experience in it has been almost uniformally so. My best teachers and friends in the city have been African-Americans. As part of that experience I've come to expect certain things from them in terms of behavior and values. Things indicative of the culture they come from and not at all indicative of the color of their skin.

The problem I find myself facing now is that I've unconsciously combined the two. Perhaps the past two years spent in an exclusively white context has dulled my cultural sensitivity or perhaps I am just a racist. Either way, I find myself having difficulty separating what someone looks like from the expected cultural context.

It sort of feels like I've come full circle and ended up right back where I started. I do possess more of an ability to accept cultural differences without judgment - to move beyond my own cultural conditioning in evaluating other cultures. At the same time, I seem to have pigeon-holed people in my mind based on the color of their skin.

I know it's a white guilt problem when it comes to stereotypes of ethnic minorities. Everyone makes such stereotypes based on their experience of lack thereof - its only us white people who feel guilty about it.

So I'll lie to myself and to you and say I hope it's more of a human problem - not that my stereotyping is from anything other than lack of experience - but from too narrow an experience.

Somehow I, and a whole bunch of other clueless, well-meaning white people, think that because we've spent time with one group of different-skinned people that we'll all of a sudden be enlightened to understand everyone who's different from us. I'm not sure where we get this crazy idea. Clearly the white people I knew in Kansas are totally different than the white people I know in southern New Jersey; I wouldn't even give a second thought about that. But somewhere in my brain there's this idea that every hispanic person or every asian person or every black person is exactly like other people I know who look like them. It's insane.

It's even more insane that it's taken 30 years to come to this realization. I wanted to get this out there in public for a few reasons: 1) Nobody really likes to talk about it - at least it makes white people uncomfortable and we could do with being more uncomfortable, 2) I know this sort of ignorance makes people frustrated and upset and I wanted to acknowledge that at least I recognize it exists in me, 3) we have to move beyond the solution of just experiencing more cultures.

Let me go over that one a little bit. As I've been processing all these thoughts, my first solution was simply to try and intentionally spend time with more and more people groups - the assumption being that I'll be able to appreciate and understand a more diverse population if I'm exposed to it. While that might be technically true, it's both impossible and short sighted.

There's a lot of different people out there, different culture, subgroups and individuals. I'm not going to accomplish some sort of magical cultural competency by accurately stereotyping everyone. It will just make me a well-rounded racist.

The real solution is to engage individuals as individuals. I know, no real revelation here. It's something I talk about and advocate all the time. Apparently I'm totally failing at it. I think its pretty natural, when one meets a new person, to try and compare them to someone else you know; we'll probably never escape that inclination. We, as humans however, do possess the ability to override our natural inclinations.

People are valuable and unique and deserve treatment as such. They're not to be categorized or grouped together or used for some other purpose. I do all of those things far too often. A few years ago, when my grandfather died, I wrote that what I most admired about him was that every person felt like they were his favorite person in the world. He was constantly in the moment with people.

Our country and our world have some real and pressing societal issues with race. Issues that encompass and address large groups of people. We constantly speculate what grand gestures we can make to fix or begin to heal those rifts. I wonder if we're not working in the wrong direction. I would never advocate we ignore or diminish those issues, but what if the solution to our large-scale problems comes in focusing on individual relationships and not trying to simply fit the individuals we meet into some bigger picture?


Auntie J said...

I think your conclusion in the final paragraph is the right one.

It's in our nature to take what we learn and try to associate it with other things we have learned in the past, in the hopes of connecting the information to internalize it in our brains.

But people are far more complex, and I think you're absolutely right: the best way to start knocking down walls is to do it one person, one relationship at a time, and allowing each person we invest our time in to be as unique as we are.

Odist_Abettor said...

Ryan, thank you for taking the risk to step out there and honestly write on this topic.