Racism is looked upon as the defining sin of the West.
Tribal warfare has stained human history and the conflicts between clans and nations have catalyzed the shifting boundaries of social and national allegiances the world over. In western history, however, this distinction between tribes took particularly pernicious form via race-based slavery and legal structures of oppression, justified by the assumed validity of self-serving doctrines of racial superiority. Because of this history, many of us naturally assume that not merely the inequalities, but the social animosities that still persist in western societies are manifestations of this legacy of racism—and, in many respects, they are. On a more essential level, however, the acrimonies that exist between groups today reflect less the recent history of racism in the West and more the perennial condition of inter-cultural discord that has shaped human conflict throughout recorded history. It is important to recognize the differences between racism, cultural prejudice and earnest cultural critique, in order to avoid labeling people as racist who don’t deserve it. Yet cultural prejudice, while distinct from racism, carries implications for society that are not dissimilar to those of the racism it is often mistaken for. We should never make light of the fundamental problem of prejudice in our society.
Quite apart from egregious but less common examples of police brutality, racial violence, etc., African-Americans and other people of color in the US have many stories to tell of being treated with rudeness, suspicion or condescension by white people in ordinary situations. It is fairly common to hear of black people followed around stores by shopkeepers, as if they might be about to steal something, or to hear of a Latino or Asian who suspects she was passed over for a job interview, because of her name. Yet it is also common to hear stories of white people who have been accused of racism—despite having friends who are black, voting for politicians of color, revering artists of different ethnicities, for reasons as seemingly innocuous as having a certain political opinion or complimenting a person on the way that they speak. Many people of color seem to know they’ve been the recipients of racism just as surely as most white people seem to know they are not racist. How does each of these realities exist alongside the other?
I am half African-American which, traditionally, simply makes one black in America. Yet I come from a multicultural family and grew up in a progressive middle class suburb in the 1990s and early 2000s. My own cultural moorings were very different from those of my black cousins in erstwhile South Central Los Angeles, much less those of my black classmates, who were bused from the inner city to my school.
I wasn’t one of the darker black kids, but being relatively light skinned wasn’t what provoked both black and white students to question my blackness. My white father, born to a wealthy family in 1950, commanded me to speak the King’s English, insisting that I resist the temptation to give in to slang and double negatives. I was prohibited from listening to hip hop and dressed more like a kid from an Old Navy ad than a rap video. The black boys from L.A., on the other hand, sagged their jeans, wore stocking caps or baseball hats the wrong way round, rocked flashy colors and were frequently taut and muscular. Their English was the kind my father warned me away from, the kind that didn’t translate well in essays. They were frequently in trouble with teachers, but were popular with girls and intimidating to other boys. Those weren’t qualities I had. The authorities loved me, but girls tended not to notice me. Mine was the short end of the stick, as far as I was concerned.
In my junior year of high school, I began to grow my hair out for the first time. Whereas I had always worn a traditional, prep-school crew cut that was anything but ethnic, at the age of sixteen I grew out my first Afro. Then, once it was long enough, I returned for my senior year with my hair braided into corn rows (think Allen Iverson or Snoop Dogg). The braids were tight and the pain was intense (the process was new for me, after all). But, when I hit the courtyard during lunch break, kids of all colors who had known me for years stopped and stared. Then, with shock and enthusiasm, the L.A. black kids gathered about me from across the courtyard and their excited chatter swelled into an outpouring of cheers and applause.
I stood dumbfounded on the stone pavement just past the lunch lines, fielding praise from kids whom I hardly ever spoke to, who seemed to be welcoming me into the family: Damn homie, ’dem braids is fresh! See you did somethin’ with all that pretty hair! Finally!
The moment was glorious. I had crossed some invisible threshold. The black kids I had always wanted to be more like (cool, bold—in a word, blacker) were suddenly seeing me as more like one of them. It was a good feeling, though the novelty of the moment faded quickly. Yet I found myself starting to identify with my hair as a symbol of cultural significance. I had never looked at it that way before.
I had also never realized that many white people see black hair in precisely the same way—with different implications.
Off campus, the way strangers acted around me suddenly changed. I had always been the type of kid to smile at passersby, to cheerfully say hello to people on the street or in line at the store. Generally, people would respond in kind.
Now, it was harder to make eye contact with strangers. This was particularly true if they were older and white, though it seemed to be true in general. Then, one day, I was walking towards the bus stop after school when I saw a white man in his forties in business casual attire walking towards me on the same sidewalk. He was probably on his way to the Starbucks I’d just left. As I stepped into his line of sight, I observed that, upon noticing me, his eyes quickly dropped. He fumbled around for his phone. This might have been coincidence, but, by this point, it fit a new pattern.
“Hi!” I said as we neared each other.
“Excuse me,” I tried again. “Excuse me!”
I upped my volume a little, to make it clear whom I was speaking to. He looked up at me, clearly nervous. I spoke again.
“Hi there!” I piped, cheerfully. “I was just wondering if you happened to know what time it was? I’m hoping I didn’t miss my bus.”
The nervousness on the man’s face melted suddenly and he smiled. “Oh, of course!” he said. “It’s 3:25.”
“Great,” I said. “thank you!”
“You’re welcome!” he happily replied.
The truth was that I didn’t need the time. I simply suspected that he might respond differently to the signal of my voice than to the signal of my appearance. He did. The way I looked made him nervous. The way I sounded put him at ease.
Was this man a racist? No. I was just as black when he smiled at me, as when he was straining not to look at me. The likely explanation is that, by virtue of my hair, he perceived me as sending a certain cultural signal. That signal I seemed to send was one many black people with that hairstyle would consider to be tied to their very blackness itself. In some sense, then, this man was put on the defensive by what might subjectively be considered my blackness, even though he had no issue with the objective reality of my being black. The dynamic might have been the same if my jeans had been sagged or if I had been wearing a do-rag or a hoodie.
This is the difference between cultural and racial prejudice. It also explains why the latter is so often confused for the former.
Culture correlates fairly tightly to race (particularly among ethnic minorities). Thus, we often treat them as if they were synonymous. Yet culture is more fundamental to the differences between us. Though there are genetic differences between groups—as surely as there are between individuals—race is more of a sociological category than a biological one. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in his book Between the World and Me, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Fixed qualitative distinctions between groups of people on account of skin color and hair texture are relatively recent innovations of human history. Yet, if we remove these distinctions, the cultures of peoples and the ways in which they do and do not harmonize remain.
Much of what sounds like racist condemnation of African-Americans and Latino immigrants in the States, or of Arab and African immigrants in central and western Europe, is, in fact, concerns over what are perceived to be the cultural ailments of certain portions of these groups of people. Conservatives in America (most, but not all, of whom are white) are generally not anti-black. Yet they see part of black culture as lending itself to the vices of family dissolution and criminality. (Black conservatives, and many black liberals for that matter, feel this way too.) They are not anti-Latino, but see many Latino immigrants as bringing with them a tolerance of socialist authoritarianism that conflicts with traditional American civic values. Latino conservatives feel this way too. Similarly, opposition to unchecked immigration into Europe from the Arab world has far less to do with any social presuppositions made on a genetic basis, but rather on an understanding of Islamic culture that sees it as embracing illiberal attitudes towards personal freedom, and imbued with too great a willingness to tolerate political and religious violence. Most of these cultural critiques come from white Europeans, but by no means all. They are echoed by some Muslims and ethnic Arabs living in Europe as well.
Regardless of whether or not their cultural assessments are correct, to call such white people racist is to put them on a continuum with Hitler and the Nazis, with Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan. It is part of what some might describe as the postmodern perversion of language that we should apply such a stigma to people whose attitudes are essentially distinct from what the meaning of that word implies.
But are cultural prejudice and racial prejudice similar? Furthermore, are cultural criticism and cultural prejudice the same thing? For those who wish to communicate that racism is much less prevalent in our society than the left typically assumes, it is important that all of these things can look similar. But when it comes to cultural and racial prejudice, their consequences can be similar as well.
The enlightened liberal mind may critique cultures on the basis that cultures harbor ideas and ideas must be tested. In our daily lives, however, our ability to disassociate troubling points of culturally rooted ideology from our feelings about individual members of particular cultures is threatened by our hard-wired imperative to make quick judgments about human beings—on the basis, sometimes, of their appearances alone. African-American liberal commentator Juan Williams was terminated from his position at NPR for confessing to feeling “nervous” when seeing people in Muslim garb boarding his plane. Williams was admitting that his emotional response to a cultural signal was at odds with his well-documented desire not to judge people by their ethnicity. Williams is neither a racist nor a bigot, and his firing was unconscionable. Yet, does the fear many have of Muslim extremists not cause some to act in ways that may make ordinary Muslims feel offended or uncomfortable?
The impact of reflexive cultural prejudice can also have material consequences. In a 2003 study entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha And Jamal?,” researchers found that resumes with identical and near identical qualifications, sent in response to job postings were 50% more likely to receive responses from employers if they were for candidates with traditionally white—as opposed to ethnically black—names. This may imply anti-black bias, a pro-white bias or bias against a particular stereotype of black culture that employers may associate with certain names. In any event, this bias may not reflect racism. Yet whether it is a question of racism or of cultural bias, job applicants with ethnic names ultimately suffer the same result. Does such a dynamic not have implications for policing and sentencing as well?
Politically, cultural critiques have a difficult time distinguishing themselves from racial judgments, with complex and damaging implications for everyone. When conservatives like Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro suggest that single motherhood and incarceration rates in the black community “have nothing to do with rac[ism] and everything to do with culture,” while also opposing Affirmative Action and expansive welfare programs meant in part to combat poverty in minority communities, they are making arguments that are in no way objectively racist. Yet, to the ears of many critics, including many black people, these arguments echo the rhetoric of a former generation of social conservatives, who stood in opposition to the rights of black people. It was William Buckley who argued that blacks ought not to be allowed to vote because it was a right they were not intellectually or culturally ready for. He also claimed that “segregation is morally wrong if it implies any invidious view of a race, not so if it implies no such thing.” Was Buckley a racist? No. But his cultural critiques supported the policy position of southern racists in the 1960s. In the politics of association that are so commonplace today, those who advance cultural critiques which inform policy are inevitably heard as advancing or supporting a racist agenda—regardless of whether or not their positions are well intentioned or correct.
The western world must graduate from the conversation about race to the conversation about culture. In doing so, we must recognize that the social landmines that attend an honest dialogue about culture are about as generously littered as are the traps of discussing race. The fundamental element of prejudice in society remains to be contended with. The reason we must make this shift is because the question of how racial hatred poisons western civilization is, largely, outdated.
These are the questions for our time: how can we understand one another’s values? How do we misunderstand them? And, most importantly: how might we reflect on our own behaviors and attitudes such that the greater culture of society might evolve?