Pop quiz: What s the single biggest impediment to an alcoholic or any other kind of addict getting the help he or she needs to break the addiction?
I’m sure that most of you get an A on this quiz, because it’s pretty obvious to most people.
It’s the failure to admit that you have a problem to begin with. As long as an addict says, “I can quit any time I want” or “I’m not hurting anyone else” or any number of other excuses that minimize or deny there is an addiction, the person will not get help. Or if the person does, it will be help that does little or no good.
Maybe the person changes their ways slightly. Gets drunk less, for example. On the one hand, you could say it’s improvement, but is it really a good thing that the person is driving drunk only a third of the time now? That’s still potentially deadly, for the alcoholic and all the poor innocent bystanders. Or maybe the person only gets drunk and beats his or her children violently a quarter as often as before. Is that improvement? Yes. Is it good? No. Is it enough? No.
This is largely what has happened with racism. Too many people say things like, “Well, I don’t do anything racist” or “Slavery and Jim Crow is over and has been a long time.”
Those are good things, certainly. But did ending slavery end racist acts and policies? No. Ending Jim Crow didn’t do that either, as there are many ways to discriminate. Not hiring qualified workers or color simply because of their color. Arresting people of color more often and giving them harsher sentences than whites. Revitalizing white areas or making downtrodden areas attractive for white people and leaving impoverished areas to languish or forcing people of color out of the neighborhood to make room for the white people.
The cycle of privilege goes merrily on, and while there has been improvement, and continues to be in some areas, the basic problem remains: racism.
It remains in part because it can never truly be eradicated. But it flourishes quietly and continues to harm people of color in the United States because too many people live in denial of its existence and power.
People like Thordaddy, who once posted here before I banned him, and who posts at Big Man’s blog and other places. Heck, you can go to the comments of this post to see how he does exactly what I’m talking about (by the way, many of my own comments there are going to see revamping and repeating here, so if some of the rest of my post sounds familiar, you’re probably a visitor here and at Raving Black Lunatic, and I apologize for the repetition). He suggests (and sometimes has said outright) that because blacks have rights, and more than they did at one time, that racism is a myth, and that blacks are simply lying that racism is increasing and that their lives are as bad as in slave time.
First, I don’t know of many blacks who claim that things are just as bad as they were in slave times or Jim Crow. What they are saying is that a lot of bad things are going on, and some thing that were improving are now getting worse.
And it’s true. Because too many people claim that when things got better, the core problem vanished. It didn’t. And if you blithely ignore that the racism remains, you give it room to grow again, like a weed in an untended garden.
Failure to acknowledge racism is permission to let it grow.
Of course, the problem is that no one wants to be labeled a racist, as Big Man pointed out in his “Stigma” blog post.
Racism, as a word, is a pretty neutral one. Racism doesn’t mean evil in all cases. If I see an elderly female Asian behind the wheel of a car and assume she will be a bad driver, as I do about 90% of the time, that is racist. Is it evil? No? Does it harm her? No. But it is racist.
We’re all racist. The trouble is that so much baggage has been attached to the word that it is assumed to be a pejorative term. And so no one wants to acknowledge its pervasive power, lest the label be attached to them.
How do we get around that? As Big Man notes, he doesn’t know the answer.
Frankly, neither do I, and I don’t think there is a good answer, at least none that can be broadly applied. Because the answer is for whites to take a good long hard look at history and the current day and to recognize things like white privilege and inequity. Many aren’t willing to do that, because they don’t want to believe it exists, they are ashamed of the prospect, or whatever else.
But let’s say you get them to recognize such things exist.
Then they have to care. And recognition doesn’t always equal caring. Or at least not caring enough.
And if you’re someone who thinks privilege is totally normal and should be encouraged and continued, as Thordaddy does, then you you won’t want to have a society that is fair and based on merit and personal traits (rather than connections, skin color, etc.), and you won’t ever care. Instead, you will try to convince the gullible that racism is a myth and that it hurts no one anymore, simply because it no longer enslaves them or allows them to be lynched with impunity.
And frankly, even if your aren’t as bad as a Thordaddy and you’re simply scared (of losing jobs, of economy tanking, etc.), and you’re white, you might start to see things like equitable and fair treatment as threats, even if only on a subconscious basis. And if you do, you will want to narrow things like the definition of racism, or pretend it’s gone.
It’s all about education, and people are very selective about what they really want to learn. It requires more self-education than anything else, in order for it to be internalized and be productive, and people are even more selective about the knowledge and learning they will actively seek out.
As I noted, we’re all racist on some level, about someone or some group or something. It’s all levels and gradations, though. And some people’s racism has the power to do more harm than other people’s racism. But because many of us, of all colors, have lost the ability to treat the word racism neutrally and really talk about things openly, we get nowhere.
Racism had long since become a dirty word, and so people can’t see it as an accurate and useful word, and understand that it has gray areas and doesn’t equal “evil.”
There’s not making it a neutral word again. No chance of it. And if you pick a new word, the stigma eventually attached to that will make it a dirty word too, unless people are willing to learn and to grow.
People have to want to learn and see and understand and do better. They can only do that, I think, by continued exposure to one another and honest communication.
But I don’t have much hope for that in this age of Tweets and Facebook and niche discussion boards and hypersensitivity.
I fear we’ve lost our ability to discuss widely, and most of us now retreat to those places and groups where we don’t feel threatened.
I think about my own travels online and among people in real life (not simply the racial ones), and the problem is that so often, I will try to talk about real shit with folks, and then they get defensive, no matter how diplomatic or reasonable I try to be. No matter how hard I try to show that we’re both right and wrong about some things and that some things aren’t cut-and-dried. But it breaks down quickly, and the ability to have real discourse disintegrates.
All too often, I’ve been in discussions with agnostics, atheists, racists, liberals, conservatives, etc., and I can say things like, “hey, I see your point” or “yeah, you might be right about that” but they never budge on their own positions and never consider that their positions need adjustment (or so rarely that it might as well be “never.”)
Discussion is a two-way street and there needs to be give and take. But very few people are really willing to give…not even a little.
It’s very disheartening, and has led me to leave many online venues and to distance myself from people in real life because they only want to hear their own views parroted and supported and reinforced.
I’ve rarely been that way. Yes, there are core concepts that I hold strongly to, but I don’t hold any of them as sacrosanct because all of them rely on my own interpretations and filters, and I know that I can be wrong.
About race. About religion. About money. About politics.
But pride is a powerful thing. And so is fear.
And as long as we hold tightly to those things, and continue to fail in our ability to even acknowledge that a problem remains, we will never fix it.