One of the things that I hope to instill in readers of this blog is the eventual abolition of the idea of the dichotomy of racist/not racist. It’s a split that enjoys a great deal of popularity in our culture despite the fact that, with only a few outliers, essentially everyone puts themselves on the ‘not racist’ side of the line, regardless of their attitudes or behaviours. As a result, the term loses any really discriminant ability and becomes merely an unhelpful pejorative.
When I talk about racism, I am talking about a set of cognitions that reduce the evaluation of a person or persons to their ethnic/cultural group at the exclusion of any other salient details. Often, when we have negative ideations about a group, we are likely to have correspondingly poor impressions of any given member of that group, regardless of that individual’s behaviour or actual characteristics. We are pretty good, as a society, at calling out egregiously negative examples of this thought process, but not so good at the more subtle ones. This is, I think, because of the fact that we are still expecting to find ‘the line’ between racist and not racist. So for you, dear reader, I offer these examples of racism on a gradient from merely bad to… well, you’ll see.
A Muslim man from SeaTac, Wash., who claims he was fired from his job as a security guard after refusing to shave his beard has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer. Abdulkadir Omar, 22, began working in Kent, Wash., for California-based American Patriot Security in May 2009. He said no one told him when he was hired that he would have to shave his beard, which he keeps closely trimmed and said is part of his Islamic faith.
So this one is borderline, right? First off, Muslims aren’t a race – they are a cultural group that spans a number of ethnicities. Second, this is an issue of an employer setting a dress code and one employee refusing to comply. Even under a really generous view of where ‘the line’ is, surely this doesn’t qualify as racist, right? Well yeah… but then you read this:
Omar told the supervisor he was religiously obligated to keep his beard and continued to work at the company until April 2010, when he met with a regional project manager to discuss wages he hadn’t received, according to the suit. When she saw his beard, that manager warned Omar that to continue working there he’d have to shave it and comply with company policy, and Omar repeated that he was following his religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit. Omar said other security guards at the company had beards and continued to work.
All of a sudden it’s not so clear, is it? He had been given prior permission to wear his beard, it wasn’t until he came to lodge a complaint about not being paid that it became an issue, and other people working there had beards. All of a sudden it stops being a story about a disgruntled employee and starts being about someone who was singled out for discrimination based on his ethnicity and religion.
NBC employee sues for racial harassment (warning: New York Post article)
A Native American NBC studio technician was tormented about his ethnicity by cruel colleagues, who strung up an Indian doll on a noose and called it his “long-lost daughter,” he claims in a lawsuit. Faruq “Peter” Wells — who worked on the “Today” show, “Dr. Oz” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” — endured the abuse after returning from a vacation and eventually quit his job when NBC’s Human Resources Department told him to ignore the problem, the court papers charge. The worst indignity came when one co-worker pelted him with the doll and barked, “Here’s your long-lost daughter!” the papers say.
So I’m sure most of us (especially those reading this blog) can point to this as ‘over the line’. This, we would say, is clearly racist. However, I’ll bet you if you asked those that thought it was a good idea to hang up a doll on a noose to torment a Native American colleague, they’d tell you that it was ‘just a joke’ and that Mr. Wells needs to ‘lighten up’. They don’t see it as racism – just a bit of office pranks that he’s just being too sensitive about.
Except that it’s not funny for Mr. Wells to learn that this is the way his colleagues see him – as a caricature based on his ethnic heritage. He’s probably proud of his heritage. Having it used as a weapon to ridicule and exclude him is probably incredibly hurtful in ways that his colleagues will likely never understand. That’s of course entirely outside the fact that he can’t be comfortable at work anymore, and not due to any action of his own doing, but because of the insensitive racism of his co-workers.
On a recent Sunday morning just before dawn, two carloads of white teenagers drove to Jackson, Mississippi, on what the county district attorney says was a mission of hate: to find and hurt a black person. In a parking lot on the western side of town they found their victim. James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot, near his car. The teens allegedly beat Anderson repeatedly, yelled racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses.
This is about as chilling as a news story can get. For no reason, and completely without provocation, a man was murdered for the crime of having black skin. This is, I’m sure, the kind of racism that even the most staunch opponents of the anti-racist cause would decry as clearly racist. There is no equivocation possible here – this was a targeted murder motivated solely by race. Not only is it an unforgivable crime against Mr. Anderson, but against the whole black community of Jackson. Who knows when the next gang of white kids is going to decide to roll into town and murder them? What possible preventative action could there be, short of completely walling the white community off and not allowing them to enter the city?
So we have here a clear example of racism that pretty much everyone can agree is definitely ‘over the line’. My point in all of this is that the differences between the situations facing Mr. Omar, Mr. Wells and the late Mr. Anderson are not of type, but only of magnitude. Mr. Omar is singled out for discrimination because of his religion and his skin colour (given that other employees are allowed to have beards); Mr. Wells is singled out for ridicule because of his ethnicity; Mr. Anderson is singled out for murder because he is black – the underlying cognitive framework is identical in each situation.
Anyone who disagrees with this characterization must then provide a definition of racism that finds a way to differentiate the third story from the first two. Or, far easier, recognize that while the severity may change, racism is the same in all its various forms.
TL/DR: I present three examples of racism with increasing severity in an attempt to demonstrate that it is a unified concept, despite the many faces it may have.
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