Talking About Race: Part II — Racism

 
My thanks to sapromo.com for this image.
  Following up on last month’s Talking About Race post, we’ll look at two rather different ways to talk about racism: as a problem within an individual and as a problem within the larger society.

Who here is racist? Raise your hand.

No one admits to being racist, of course. But what if we could admit, even just to ourselves, that “everyone’s a little bit racist.” Here’s a five minute video from Avenue Q, the two-act Broadway show running since March, 2003.  I’ll post the lyrics below the video, but the main idea is this: everyone’s a little bit racist.

If we all could Just admit That we are racist A little bit, Even though we all Know that it’s wrong, Maybe it would help Us get along!

 
  [learn_more caption=”Here are the lyrics by John Tartaglia and Laura Marie Duncan”] Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist PRINCETON Say, Kate, can I ask you a question? KATE MONSTER  Sure! PRINCETON Well, you know Trekkie Monster upstairs? KATE MONSTER Uh huh! PRINCETON Well, he’s Trekkie Monster, and you’re Kate Monster. KATE MONSTER Right. PRINCETON You’re both Monsters. KATE MONSTER Yeah. PRINCETON Are you two related? KATE MONSTER What! Princeton I’m surprised at you! I find that racist! PRINCETON Oh, well, I’m sorry! I was just asking. KATE MONSTER Well, it’s a touchy subject. Now, not all Monsters are related. What are you trying to say, huh? — That we all look the same to you? Huh, huh, huh? PRINCETON No, no, no, not at all. I’m sorry, I guess that was a little racist. KATE MONSTER I should say so. You should be much more careful when you’re Talking about the sensitive subject of race. PRINCETON Well, look who’s talking! KATE MONSTER What do you mean? PRINCETON What about that special Monster School you just told me about? KATE MONSTER What about it? PRINCETON Could someone like me go there? KATE MONSTER No, we don’t want people like you — PRINCETON You see?! You’re a little bit racist. KATE MONSTER Well, you’re a little bit, too. PRINCETON I guess we’re both a little bit racist. KATE MONSTER Admitting it is not an easy thing to do… PRINCETON But I guess it’s true KATE MONSTER Between me and you, I think BOTH Everyone’s a little bit Racist, sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing Hate crimes. Look around and You will find, No one’s really Color-blind. Maybe it’s a fact We all should face. Everyone makes Judgments… Based on race. PRINCETON Not big judgments, like who to hire or who to buy a newspaper from — KATE MONSTER No! PRINCETON No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican busboys Should learn to speak goddamn English! KATE MONSTER Right! BOTH Everyone’s a little Bit racist — today, So, everyone’s a little Bit racist — okay! Ethnic jokes might Be uncouth, But you laugh because They’re based on truth. Don’t take them as Personal attacks. Everyone enjoys them — So relax! PRINCETON All right, stop me if you’ve heard this one. There’s a plane going down and there’s only one parachute. And there’s a rabbi, a priest… KATE MONSTER … and a BLACK guy! GARY COLEMAN Whatchoo talkin’ about Kate? KATE MONSTER Uh — GARY COLEMAN You were telling a BLACK joke! PRINCETON Well, sure, Gary, but lost of people tell black jokes… GARY COLEMAN I don’t. PRINCETON Well, of course you don’t — you’re black! But I bet you tell Polack jokes, right? GARY COLEMAN Well, sure I do. Those stupid Polacks! PRINCETON Don’t you think that’s a little racist? GARY COLEMAN Well, damn, I guess you’re right. KATE MONSTER You’re a little bit racist. GARY COLEMAN Well, you’re a little bit, too. PRINCETON We’re all a little bit racist. GARY COLEMAN I think that I would have to agree with you. PRINCETON & KATE MONSTER We’re glad you do. GARY COLEMAN It’s sad, but true! Everyone’s a little bit racist — all right! Bigotry has never been exclusively white — ALL If we all could Just admit That we are racist A little bit, Even though we all Know that it’s wrong, Maybe it would help Us get along! PRINCETON Christ, do I feel good! GARY COLEMAN Now there was a fine upstanding black man! PRINCETON Who? GARY COLEMAN Jesus Christ! KATE MONSTER But Gary, Jesus was white! GARY COLEMAN No, Jesus was black. KATE MONSTER No, Jesus was white! GARY COLEMAN No, I’m pretty sure Jesus was black! PRINCETON Guys — Jesus was Jewish! BRIAN Hey guys, what are you laughing about? GARY COLEMAN Racism! BRIAN Cool. CHRISTMAS EVE Brian! You come back here! You take out lecycuraburs! PRINCETON What’s that mean? BRIAN Um. Recyclables. Hey, don’t laugh at her! How many languages do you speak? KATE MONSTER Oh, come off it, Brian! Everyone’s a little bit racist. BRIAN I’m not! PRINCETON Oh, no? BRIAN Nope! How many oriental wives have you got? CHRISTMAS EVE What? Brian! PRINCETON Brian, buddy, Where you been? The term is Asian-American! CHRISTMAS EVE I know you are No intending to be, But calling me Oriental — offensive to me! BRIAN I’m sorry honey, I love you. CHRISTMAS EVE And I love you. BRIAN But you’re racist, too. CHRISTMAS EVE Yes, I know. The Jews have all The money And the whites have All the power And I’m always in Taxi-cab With driver who no shower! PRINCETON Me too! KATE MONSTER Me too! GARY COLEMAN I can’t even get a taxi! ALL Everyone’s a little bit Racist, it’s true. But everyone is just about As racist as you! If we all could just admit That we are racist a little bit, And everyone Stopped being so P.C., Maybe we could Live in — harmony! CHRISTMAS EVE Ev’lyone’s a ritter bit lacist! Songwriters: Robert Lopez / Jeff Marx © Walt Disney Music Company[[/learn_more]   Is this a strange new idea for you? Given my grade-school lesson on prejudice that I wrote about two years ago (we’re all prejudiced; the trick is to be aware of it), I was glad to find this.  But in massaging the information I’ve been gathering for this ongoing series on Talking About Race, I discovered how prevalent this binary view of race is. If you are so inclined, you might try this survey from the Understanding Prejudice website.   Nicholas Kristof’s NYTimes article, “Is Donald Trump a Racist?,” (July 24, 2018) underscores how pervasive this racism-as-character-flaw concept is. And Jona Olsson, writing for Odinsblog.tumblr.com, collected 28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors  that offer 28 helpful introductions to a stimulating, if possibly difficult, conversation.  I hope you’ll check it out.  I’ll be posting to my Facebook page from this list over the next month and hope you’ll participate in that conversation too.

But there’s a second way to look at racism, the one my inner-sociologist is pleased to now introduce.

Perhaps you can identify with some of these statements:

I’m not racist; why can’t we all just get along? 

I’m not racist; it’s this focusing on race that’s dividing us.

I’m not racist; I have lots of Black friends.

I’m not racist; I don’t even see color. 

Lots of us white folk have been saying these things for a long time. The problem is that when we use these, we take the issue of race off the table for further consideration. These are, to us, the conclusion we’ve drawn. The end of the conversation. Yes? And, when race is taken off the table, when it’s felt there is nothing more to say on the matter — Let’s just get along — then the underlying, systemic, institutionalized problem of race gets more firmly entrenched.   Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, has a six-minute video on why “I’m not racist” is only half the story. When we look at racism in an individualistic, binary (Is she or isn’t she?) way, we arrive at polarizing ideas. No one wants to be thought of mean spirited, ignorant, uneducated! So of course no one is going to admit, even to themselves, that they may be the slightest “little bit racist.” In DiAngelo’s words, only when we look at racism as an institutional, systemic problem can we begin to tear down these barriers to a world free from oppression and fear.  Free from racism. What are those barriers?
  • poor education, poorer schools,
  • forced segregation in housing — look up “red lining”
  • a criminal justice system that is skewed in favor of white skin
  • an internalized sense of superiority,
  • an investment in the existing hierarchy of power
  • an inordinately out of balance division of wealth
Want more information?  Tricia Rose and her graduate student, Samuel Rosen, offer another YouTube presentation on How Structural Racism Works that’s worth taking a look at.  It’s an hour long.  The first half is the structure — education, housing, jobs, mass media, and the criminal justice system, to name only the most obvious — while the second half runs us through some cases we know of. I hope you’ll take a look. It’s important stuff for our times. Could this institutional, systemic racism be an easier way — a better way — of talking about race and racism? We’ll return with Part III next month. How about you? How does the idea of racism make sense to you? 

26 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Thanks, teach! Some of your links were very eye-opening:, particularly 28 Common Racist Attitudes and your “inner sociologist attitudes.” Racism is pervasive in our culture but your post reveals how subtly it can creep into our (my) thinking.

    My black neighbor talks more to me than my do my white neighbors. Is that racist?
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Fear, Faith, and My Kitchen BacksplashMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian.

      I took a blogging workshop a few years back with Jeff Goins. He had us identify the role we took on with our blog and gave us five choices: entertainer, journalist, professor, and two others. I recall I had trouble choosing among those three though and I merged them and came up with “challenger” — one who challenges assumptions and expectations. And I wanted to do it in an entertaining way. The humor seems to have fallen away over the past two years, though I do try. 🙂 But it’s the challenging that still motivates me. I want to challenge myself too. So, often, my topics are indeed challenging, as this one has been. (more of a whittling down challenge; there is so much information out there; so many stats; so many stories). I don’t have the answers; in fact, I’m not crazy about folks who say they do. But I do love to ask questions; that to me is where the meat is. And I do have a pretty good idea how to go about searching. I love the process of how we phrase the questions that most intrigue us. All this to say, thanks for calling me a teacher; I’ll take it as a compliment since you are one yourself. But I’m most rewarded when I see questions coming back at me. Yours reminded me … I could write another post here. Next time. Thanks for starting us off.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  2. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I never fail to learn something when I read your posts. Thank you. Marian has it right when she calls you “Teach.”

    Here is a quote I shared back in March on Tuesdays With Laurie:

    “We’ve been led to believe that the goal of equality is to somehow make differences disappear yet, in reality, it is to be profoundly aware of them and to recognize them as beautiful and valuable and necessary. The virtue is not in ignoring our various distinctions, but in celebrating them; not in pretending as though they don’t exist, but in believing that their existence makes us a better version of humanity as we live together in community.” —JOHN PAVLOVITZ, from his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…InfluenceMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes; I remember reading his blog. John’s great and I couldn’t agree more. I use a wonky four-cell square when I talk about culture. Conscious and unconscious across one axis, Competence and Incompetence across the other. Pulling from some of the Peace Corps materials, I move from that “blissful ignorance” (unconscious incompetence) stage, to the demonizing or even trivializing of differences, to (3) acceptance/tolerance of differences and, finally (4) integration of differences, where we actually welcome them, want them, see them in a positive light as something that makes our own life more vibrant and interesting. I’m so glad to hear you quoted him. It’s an important lesson, I think. And I thank you for the reminder.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  3. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    Oh, how I wish you could see my play, Bound Together: One Great Bundle of Humanity. We’ve been performing it in NE Ohio. At a high level, it tells the story of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet/abolitionist born in 1825, described later as an “extraordinary person of color.” In my play, she is snowed in with her fictional white nurse in 1909. After the play is over, we ask attendees what they thought and if they see the issue of race differently. Answers are encouraging (although I also recognize that the people willing to watch this play and have this discussion are much more open about addressing racism and correctly problems than the average group of people).

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Kelly, I do think you’ve hit the bullseye of one of the immutable problems in “talking about race” — a variation on the preaching to the choir idea. How we get these conversations out into the wider world, get folks to chew on things they’ve not thought of before, that’s to me the challenge. In the meantime, we can all keep asking our naive, innocent, well-meaning, and perhaps somewhat awkward questions. There’s no shame in any of those. I wish I could see your play too. I’ll be out in mid December again.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  4. susan scott
    | Reply

    I love how you unpack this Janet and see the dangers of falling into same old same old notions. I agree that poverty and inequality breeds racism, how can it not? We whites DO have privilege, simply because of the colour of our skin.

    I’ll watch the links you’ve provided when time permits. Thank you. Racism is alive and very unwell here in SA. It seems though to be the other way around; whites are perceived as the ‘other’. We have acknowledged and tried very hard and continue to right the wrongs of our apartheid past but now it seems as if the oppressor is becoming the oppressed. Reverse racism is very definitely being used as a political ploy among the political players. I firmly believe that the general population both black and white want to, and do, get on. Our people are amazing. There is also xenophobia in our land.

    My younger son the musician has written and sung about racism. He’s a political activist in his way. He also opens up the conversation in many ways.

    I would have loved to have commented further. My feeling is that we have to look at the wounds of the past squarely in the eye to see how they are manifest in today’s world. The whites around the world must acknowledge their guilt. And be truly and deeply apologetic for the wrongs done and make reparations. Our history is appalling – around the world – our ingrained sense of superiority has to go.

    • Susan Scott
      | Reply

      I meant to say the formerly oppressed have become the oppressor –

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      arrggghhhh. I had such a thoughtful, lovely response (if I do say so myself) written and ready to send and hit the wrong button. Double arrgghh. It was long, too. Too long. And now I must run. Still, thank you for sharing your perspective from your part of the world, Susan. We both have countries with abhorrent pasts.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

      • susan scott
        | Reply

        Am tidying up masses of notes and papers in prep for upcoming move and came across this scrap, undated:
        racism – institutionalised before – undertone seems to be stronger now – is it because of freedom of speech and we’re talking more about it
        institutionalised racism of past – conditions were different
        is there increase in racial tension
        in the past we whispered now we talk more openly

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          Fascinating note to find at this time, Susan. I was struck especially by the end, “in the past we whispered now we talk more openly” and couldn’t help but draw a parallel to medicine and how often we can now “find” illness because of the instruments we now have and often the “increases” in different maladies are really no increases at all, but more a reflection of the increased ability to discover. I have found the the more often I bring a once-hushed topic out into the light of day, the healthier the participants get. Secrets make us sick, says an aphorism I love. Do you have the metaphor of the elephant in the living room there in SA? We use it with any topic that everyone knows about but no one talks about, they just “dance around the elephant in the living room.” It must surely be a universal condition. Thanks for writing.
          Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

          • susan scott
            |

            o yes, the elephant in the room – said here too!
            Your comment is interesting re: having the tools these days to uncover existing conditions. I met a visiting old school friend yesterday who now lives in Aus. He gave a talk last week at Stellenbosch University (near Cape Town) on the link between shaman medicine and today’s medicine – he’s a psychiatrist. And how the patient wants someone else to make them well again. He sees a strong link between emotional illness and manifested physical illness..

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan, you wrote, “poverty and inequality breeds racism…” I’d only add — or vice versa. Our histories, oh yes. We have occasional conversations here about reparations too. But my country chooses war to spend its money on. Very sad.

      Thanks too for the note you added. I’ll comment on it below.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  5. kathleen pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, you never fail to challenge and enlighten. Thanks for all the links which I will explore over time. I agree that racism is a deep-seeded, systemic problem which requires a thoughtful and thorough approach to resolve. Admitting our own racism is certainly a first step. Although I do not feel I am a racist, I also know I have lived in white privilege and have not been tested. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.I’ll be thinking about this!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you so much, Kathy. I’m really touched that you think so.

      You know, I’ve seen that excerpt from Avenue Q over the years more times than I can count, but trying to explain racism and how we can’t help but be impacted by it in this culture (and therefore be “a little bit racist”) to my 18 year old grandson recently was impossible. But set it to music, and it’s easier to swallow. Weird, huh? I’ve missed you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  6. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    When we look at racism in an individualistic, binary (Is she or isn’t she?) way, we arrive at polarizing ideas.

    I especially like this line. I’m finding as I get older I realize that the biggest, most seemingly intractable problems can often be, if not solved at least mitigated by, reframing the problem away from anything binary.

    Obviously racism has been here forever, lurking around the edges of everyone’s life. Now thank heavens we’re talking about it publicly, but I have to wonder if the conversation is going in the best direction. Great thoughts and links here. Thank you.
    Ally Bean recently posted…#ThursdayDoors | Finding History In Front Of Us, Hello Texas Saltbox HousesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ally. So glad you came by. I’m of the opinion that the conversation will probably take many wrong turns, have many awkward moments, and make lots and lots of folks very uncomfortable. And that’s OK. Difficult conversations rarely go smoothly at first. But, as long as they keep going, good stuff always comes along. Eventually. I believe in the process.

      What I’m learning as I go along here is that “race” as a concept has only a socially constructed meaning; it has NO significance medically or biologically. Geography makes more difference. Once we sink our teeth into that, I think it’ll be easier to look at systemic and social racism more realistically.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  7. rachaelstray
    | Reply

    Such a thought-provoking post Janet. I will bookmark this post and watch the videos when I get home.

  8. Anindya Rakshit
    | Reply

    Thought provoking write up Janet, it’s good that you have taken it up. Best way is to take off the racism term from the table completely, and get along together respecting the diversity and individuality. That is the best way. Well done.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Anindya. I’m pleased you think it’s an important topic. Encouraging curiosity in differences — and cultural differences as you know, are my favorite ones (especially the ones that make me gasp) — is my mission. Your perspective can add a lot to this blog as time goes on. I hope you’ll return again.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part II — RacismMy Profile

  9. Tracy rittmueller
    | Reply

    I believe you’re on to something, Janet. I’m going to try to turn the conversation away from “who is racist” and toward “how are our institutions racist.”

    Joining your tribe now. I don’t have time to follow only a few blogs, and I value your insights and challenges. I may not comment regularly, but I’ll be reading and thinking, and occasionally checking in. Thank you!

  10. Elaine Mansfield
    | Reply

    Thank you, Janet. I think our institutions and our unconscious assumptions about a person are tinged with racism, sometimes more and sometimes less. I learn a lot from friends who don’t have pale white skin–like me. They are dark-skinned and even though they have professional jobs with high status, they face racism every day, especially when they travel outside the university bubble. They live with a kind of fear I don’t have to deal with. Racism has been ingrained in this country since it was founded. Change is slow.
    Elaine Mansfield recently posted…Making Masks: Revealing Our Hidden SelvesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Change is slow, Elaine; at least the long-lasting kind. And the question for me is often when do I work for change, have hope, take a stand, and push back and when do I let life be, accept the unacceptable, and look inward. Thank you for being here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Talking About Race: Part III — White to WhiteMy Profile

  11. […] Last month, in Part II — Racism, we talked about the institutional, systemic foundation that keeps race alive as an issue — racism — and the idea that being racist can no longer be reserved for mean-spirited bigots. We looked at how we have all been caught up in the subtleties of racism, how we can’t help being “a little bit racist.” And how our focus must change from the individual “racist” — is she or isn’t she? — to the larger, systemic issue of racism and how it has not only held on so long, but grown in both depth and breadth. And continues to grow. […]

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