Saturday, November 26, 2005

Race and Raising Kids II

Got some interesting emails from folks about my recent post "Race and Raising Kids" so I thought I'd get back to that topic one more time.

Some people obviously felt better discussing race privately than on the blog itself. I guess that probably says something significant about our sense of freedom to get into race openly.

Anyway, as a result of those emails, here are a couple of quick clarifications and additions to my original thoughts:

• One person was surprised and thought I sounded a little like many Euro-Ams who deny that racism and racial prejudice are current and relevant.

I’m sympathetic to that comment. Writing or talking about race is pretty complicated. I have fundamental respect for anybody who makes an honest and good faith effort to do so and sometimes clarity is hard to come by.

I think ‘racial’ prejudice and racism are both alive and well. The current effects of historical racism are so obvious that it’s hard to know how to respond to the people—mostly social conservatives--who don’t take it seriously

Unfortunately, there are many Euro-Am folks, mostly conservatives but some progressives too, who truly believe that ‘racial’ bias and racism are a thing of the past. I have some sympathy for that take because so much progress has been made in the past 50 years, but at this point I think they’re wrong. I hope someday they’ll be right.

So, no, I’m not among those who want to deny that current racial prejudice or racism exist or who want to downplay the current effects of historical racism.

I do think, though, that there are lots of folks who take the effects of historical racism seriously but simply disagree about how to deal with them.

I don’t automatically assume that people who reject affirmative action, for example, lack an appreciation of our disgraceful national history of racism and genocide. I support thoughtful affirmative action, but it has to stand on its own merits in an honest discussion of social policy.

Seems best to appreciate our history while also paying attention to the realities of the current moment and planning for something better in the future.

• When I say that racial prejudice and racism still exist, I mean there are still a significant number of people who believe that biological and physical characteristics and differences—-skin color being the most obvious example--are truly meaningful and are somehow determinative of the way people will behave or act.

The traditional concept of race—as Americans understand it--is a fairly recent social construct meant to justify European supremacy on the basis of biological superiority. We’re talking about an idea that is probably no more than 5 or 6 hundred years old. It was one of the most effective weapons of European imperial expansion.

We’ve lived for four centuries here in the US steeped in that kind of thinking and perception, so it’s silly to think that lots of people don’t think in those terms. Some still believe in their heart of hearts that their 'racial' group is somehow "genetically" superior (to use our current biological terminology).

But I’m just not sure that most people in the US really think in terms of biological superiority anymore.

That’s why I say that when people talk about ‘race’ (which is a biological concept) what they usually mean is ‘class’ and ‘culture.’ The prejudices and systemic injustice we’re dealing with in the US right now are based—-in my view—-mostly on class and cultural differences. I go into more detail on this whole thing in a previous post, “The New Meritocracy and the Poor.”

The distinction between race on the one hand and class and culture on the other is important for people who are serious about justice.

Europeans marketed the concept of biological superiority and inferiority so successfully that almost all Americans swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Slavery and Jim Crow and the indigenous genocide were all firmly based on the idea of biological superiority and inferiority.

A turbo-charged version of that same racial ideology led to the killing of 60 million people during WW2. That was just 60 years ago.

I travel a lot around the world. Traditional biological racism is thriving.

If the idea of biological superiority or inferiority (traditional racism) has lost most of its historical hold in the US we should party. People who are serious about justice should lead the celebration.

If what I’m saying is accurate, those who are serious about justice in the US should still work hard for racial reconciliation and should still challenge traditional racial prejudice and racism where they exist.

But perhaps we'll need to pay a lot more attention to prejudice and systemic injustice based on differences in class and culture. I think that’s where the real action is now. A change in language and terminology could help too.

I’m not hopeful for any quick changes along these lines. The ideas of “white” and “black,” etc., etc. are so deeply ingrained that we can hardly think or speak without them. Even though I believe most of us have left behind the substance of traditional "biological" racial ideas we’re still trapped in the old-timey language and categories of traditional race.

• When I say we should consider raising our kids “color blind” I mean we should teach kids that physical characteristics don’t determine character or behavior. I think that’s what Dr. King meant.

Raising kids color blind doesn’t mean raising them to ignore:

--the obvious variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultures in the US
--our collective history
--current forms of traditional racial thinking, racial prejudice and racism
--current prejudice or systemic injustice based on differences in class and culture.

• Here’s something curious. Some of the most outspoken justice-oriented proponents of what I consider to be old-timey racial thinking marry across traditional ‘racial’ lines and raise kids who don’t fit into any traditional ‘racial’ category. I guess sometimes our lives can be more relevant and eloquent than our words.

In a famous film from the civil rights era that most of us have seen at one time or another, an Imperial Wizard of the Klan rails against integration because he thinks it will create a “mongrel nation.” He had the good sense to know that youth and love--given some social leeway--would tend to break down arbitrary ‘racial’ barriers faster than almost anything else by mixing up the gene pool.

Count me among the 'mongrel' lovers. Marriage and family across traditional 'racial' lines might be the most effective tool of all in dealing a final blow to old school racial thinking in the US.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Racism in America is a problem we choose to dance around rather than address head on. We feel good about ourselves because we can honestly say there has been improvement in our behavior toward minorities. However, we are so defensive when these same minorities focus on the lack of speed or progress toward a fully intergrated equality. We lie about our true feelings about race because we don't want to appear as irrational or evil beings. As my mom used to say "You know better." Meaning you have been taught to use your intellectual and spirital skills to do the right thing. Although America has enacted laws and inherited Supreme Court rulings regarding racism, there seems to be no cure for this plague. Or is there? Yes, it was give to us long, long ago. Treat others as you would like to be treated.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

amen to your last sentence especially, anon...that's the key, the hard part is doing it.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

Just wanted to throw some thoughts in that stem from being born and raised in the southern US. My entire family is from East Tennessee and South Georgia, places where in my opinion “traditional racism” still very much exists, and is a huge problem. From my experiences of being raised in the south, I’m not sure that I agree with you in totality that our current problems have more to do with class and culture then with traditional views on biological superiority or inferiority – or at least not in the southern US.

Just a brief example of why I say this. I have relatives who live in a smaller town (40,000 people) in South Georgia, a town that is extremely segregated along racial lines. White people live on one side of town and black people on the other. There is a white (public) high school and a black (public) high school. There are two public swimming pools in town, less then 2 miles apart: one that caters to the white people and one for the black people. But the striking thing is that there are definitely different “classes” and “cultures” that seemingly mix together in these places.

Here is another example of how traditional racial thinking is still very much prevalent in the south. Just last year in a town only a few hours away from my hometown the local public high school had its FIRST EVER “integrated” prom. Here we are 40 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement, and this town still had two separate proms, one for white students and one for black students. Here is the link to read the article.

I know many upper class (economically, but in other ways, well…) white people who never talk disrespectfully about or discriminate against the very poor white folks who live in trailer parks. However, when they speak about black people they regularly employ very derogatory terms. For them it is skin color, not what economic class you are from, that produces certain types of behaviors, period.

Throughout the south, I would say this is the overall attitude and belief of the vast majority of people. The traditional views of race along biological lines, and the prejudices and racism that accompany these attitudes are in my opinion much more prevalent then those along economic class and cultural lines.

With all of that said, I can imagine that this might not be the case in other parts of the country. My experiences and reflections come from spending the first 25 years of my life in the south, where unfortunately racism along biological lines is still very prevalent, even among many so-called “Christians.” I like you am a “mongrel” lover, and see this as being one of the best ways in tackling the very wrong, ignorant and evil views of traditional racial thinking in the US.

In writing and thinking about these things I am reminded of how extremely thankful I am that my parents very intentionally and proactively raised me and my siblings to be “color blind” which is not a very common and orthodox practice in the southern US. I guess my parents, sisters and I are “Americans by birth, but extremely unorthodox Southerners by the Grace of God!”

12:54 AM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

The link for the bbc article that I referenced didn't come out correctly. This one should be the correct one:

1:01 AM  
Blogger anhomily said...

I think I agree with MP that prejudice based purely on percieved skin color is much more firmly entrenched in America than at first might seem obvious (particularly in educated, urban circles). I am not exactly sure whether my parents were pro-active in teaching me to think differently about race, but they definitely were proactive about placing me in multi-cultural environments. I think their philosophy of child-raising(at least with me) was sort of laissez-faire. The question I wonder about is that of being "a 'mongrel' lover," not because of being in favor of the opposite, certainly, but because of some comments that minority friends have shared about their concerns about maintaining the importance of their culture. That certainly doesn't mean that pure race = pure culture, but I have tried to understand and be sensitive to the idea that some people have expressed to me, not that no one should get married inter-racially, but that they feel it is important to honor their families' or communities' encouragement to marry and have kids within the same racial-cultural-linguistic group. Also given the historical power dynamics, I feel as a white male it may not be my place to encourage more mixed-race children, even though I think it is wonderful. This is a very tough question for me, and I definitely have not reached any conclusions on it yet...

6:35 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

great comments both MP and anhomily. Good to hear the perspective from somebody growing up in the bible belt south. And I resonate with your comments, anomily, about not feeling comfortable encouraging marriage across racial boundaries because of concerns some minorities have about hanging onto culture.

I didn't marry across traditional racial boundaries so I have no problem with folks of any ethnicity doing that, particularly if the motive is to honor and develop a particular culture. As I mentioned, I think the biggest issue we're facing is prejudice against particular cultures or classes, so holding on to cultural integrity can be an important way to advance justice.

On the other hand, I find the race=culture emphasis of some within the justice community increasingly annoying and even counterproductive. My guess is justice for the poor is going to be advanced best as people feel free to hold onto their specific cultures or mix and match em, depending on life circumstances. I realize that's not a popular take within the left leaning justice community right now, but it's the only practical way forward in my mind.

As far as 'white' people not being in a position to speak on these issues, well, if folks have made serious efforts--however clumsy they might be--to pay their dues and demonstrate their committment to social fairness I don't see any reason why they shouldn't.

11:38 AM  
Blogger jon said...

AGREED! I am so in agreement with your post that it's scary. I don't have any experience in the south (the closest I've been is a lot of time spent in rural Missouri), but from the experience I do have in the rural, urban, and suburban west, I would deeply agree with everything you said.

As far as mongreling...I fully expect to do it myself in the future (if I get married at all). I think that God's plans for good marriages have little to do with race, so I don't want to proactively encourage it. But I am so happy every time it happens. I understand why families would like to maintain their cultural heritage. But parental attacks towards their children's different-race partners is the absolute worst source of parent/child conflict I've ever seen. There may be some benefits to "keeping the culture", but I think those pale before the extreme racism and family brokenness that I see resulting if the parents get insistent about it.

10:48 PM  

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