Well, for starters, race — and its corollary racism — seem to be the omnipresent byproducts of the human tendency to organize into hierarchical social structures. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go or grow up. People classify themselves based on the colour of their skin, texture of their hair, and shape of their eyes. They use those classifications to exert power and control over one another.
Every society in the world has these classifications:
In South Korea, surgeries to “Caucasianize” your eyes are advertised all over the place.
In India, using creams and unguents to lighten your skin tone is common practice.
In America, using perms, weaves, or wigs to create a de-kinked coiffure is part of a basic, “civilized” appearance for people of Black African descent.
And these are only the surface practices. In terms of attitudes and perceptions, beliefs about the superiority of a certain skin tone or appearance — particularly combined with perceptions about sex and gender — create equally dangerous and far-reaching practices. Think apartheid. Think stereotypes. A wonderful text, The Pig Farmer’s Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice, gives a beautiful series of examples of how “neutral” laws in the United States have been enforced radically differently when the litigants came from dis-empowered racial groups.
It’s worth wondering if Trayvon Martin, the victim of George Zimmerman’s shooting, would have been perceived as a dangerous hoodlum if he were White. Or Asian. Because in the U.S., people of Black descent are sometimes perceived as more dangerous, more aggressive and violent, simply because they’re Black. Especially if they’re Black and male.
The U.S. is up in arms about the Zimmerman case at the time of this writing; people are enraged that race has been considered a factor in the shooting, and people are enraged that anyone would think that race mattered to Zimmerman. It’s all gone mad over here.
But here’s what I think. I think, in a world where race has always been categorically used to create and maintain systems of power and control, we can’t pretend it doesn’t matter. We are unequivocally incapable, at this point in our species, of disregarding entirely the fact that, wherever we grew up, we have been indoctrinated with all kinds of beliefs about how race impacts us.
This doesn’t mean that we have to practice discrimination. To me, it means the opposite; that our awareness of our cultural limitations should spur us to work harder to own the impact that systematic racism has had on our ability to connect with each other simply as people. This does mean, however, that we have to stop living in denial.
We have to stop pretending that racism ended when our particular country or culture ended the slave trade, or ended apartheid, or outlawed a given surgery. It didn’t.
We have to stop pretending that racism is only a function of specific cultures, like White America. Racism is everywhere, but its particular structure is culturally informed.
We have to stop pretending that racism is separate from any other issue of oppression. Our experiences of sexism, for example, are shaped not only by gender-focused dynamics (“Women are weak”) but also by race-focused dynamics (“White women are delicate flowers; Black women are for work and sexual exploitation”) and numerous other forms of social control.
We have to admit that we, as social creatures shaped by our cultures, carry our own prejudices and privileges. We have to own our issues and find ways of dealing with them, not ignoring them.
Above all, we have to stop acting as though the pursuit of anti-racism is an attack on privileged groups. Privileged groups will lose certain privileges, that’s true, but it’s not because privileged groups deserve some form of punishment. It’s not an attack; it’s a call for evolution.
As we continue to engage the world around us as activists, tourists, ex-patriots, and people, let’s try putting some of this into practice. Instead of defending ancient hierarchies of power and control, let’s take an honest look at ourselves, our histories, and our ability to have a positive impact on the all-too-racist world.