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!
Here are the lyrics by John Tartaglia and Laura Marie Duncan
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!
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!
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[
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?