Why is Racism so Complicated?

So I had a moment last week.  A moment of confusion, a moment of frustration, and then a moment of weakness.

It started when I was talking to a friend about growing up as a minority.  The neighborhood I grew up in was right beside Chinatown and included most of the city’s low-income housing.  The neighborhood was predominately Asian with a mix of other minorities.  One of those minorities were the families of the middle class, artsy-entrepreneur crowd.  That was me.

I still have my grade 7 year book and looking at it now, I was one of 5 white kids in my grade.  I’ve learned a great deal reflecting back on all of this.

Growing up, the school and community did a great deal to teach us that racism was wrong.  We had leadership groups, speakers, engagement from the teachers, stories, VHS tapes… you name it.  But the lesson was always the same:  it was never OK to judge someone based on the color of their skin.  But kids can be mean.

By no means was this neighborhood like present day Detroit, but it had its rough patches.  I used to get asked if I knew what the KKK stood for.  I was told that it stood for ‘kill kocky kaucasians’.  On more than a few occasions, I would be picked last for a team because it would be funny to leave the white guy for last.  I was beaten up more than a few times, teased, picked on, all of it.  Oddly enough though, I rarely associated it with my skin tone.  I took it personally.  I thought they were picking on me, because of me.  Reflecting back on it, I don’t think my skin color was the driving factor, more of an excuse.  I think it had something to do with it, but for the most part, it was just kids being kids.

By the time I got to high school, things were a little more diverse but not by much.  The white minority was now probably closer to 15%.  By this time though, I didn’t identify as white.  I’m not sure if I ever did.  Why would I?  There were still some racial tensions in high school but again, I think it was mostly just kids being kids.  I had several circles of friends and they were never determined by race, just by what we had in common.  I had my friends through sports, my friends through the academics, my friends through computer games, my friends through work, and my core friends that I grew up with.  More often than not, I was the only white guy and it was more of a novelty than anything.  Now that I think about it, the nickname given to me in high school was actually whiteness.  I really didn’t mind though, because my friends were still my friends.  They made fun of me having a big nose in the same way that I would make fun of them for having small eyes.  There was no hate attached to our brand of racism, just humor and lightheartedness.  It was like our way of being… over it.  Perhaps that’s why when Dave Chappelle and Russel Peters started to bring that dynamic to the mainstream, we were huge fans.

The last time I punched a hole in the wall was a few years ago.  It was very out of character for me.  I was dating a girl who I thought had a deep understanding of who I was, but she was intent on checking my white privilege.  It was so confusing and frustrating for me.  It was as if she couldn’t appreciate that the path I had taken wasn’t exactly the best example of white privilege.  Last week, I was told that I didn’t grow up as a minority.  Sigh.

Instead of getting frustrated, I tried to ask why.  She said that if I were to watch the media, or read books, or look at anything outside my bubble, white was the norm.  As a kid who grew up watching Dragon Ball, Fresh Prince and The Simpsons, I’m not exactly sure that’s true, but I understood what she was saying.  I pushed back though, saying that even if that’s what was in the media, I was a kid who spent most of his time in school, community center programs, or with friends.  Even my nanny was an old Chinese lady who didn’t speak any English.  I can’t help but think that objectively speaking, I grew up as a minority.  And perhaps why I pushed back on it is because I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for having gone through that.  I think that’s a big part of who I am today and for someone to tell me otherwise can be rather frustrating.

Ironically, she actually went to the same high school as I did about 30 years earlier so she said she knew what I was talking about and went through some of the same dynamics but said it still wasn’t the same as growing up as a minority.  Maybe so, but what came next was even more confusing.  She said that I was a racist.  At first, I thought it was a comment about everyone being racist to some degree.  I think that’s probably true.  The color of someone’s skin still acts – to some degree – as a predictor of other qualities.  Asians tends to be better at math.  Blacks tend to be more athletic.  Whites tend to be better at… country music?  As far as I’m concerned, the reason why racism is silly, is because while the color of someone’s skin used to have some relevance in predicting other qualities, that relevance is decreasing rapidly, to the point of inaccuracy.

This is something I brought up in that conversation, that once upon a time, generalizing based on race or even gender may have come with enough accuracy to justify the assumptions that came with them.  Up until 100 years ago, assuming that a woman’s role within the family was based around raising the family, was correct far more often than not.  Back when travel between regions of the world was much more limited, you could use facial features and the color of someone’s skin to identify where they were likely from, and where they were from would usually tell you about their culture.  If you knew someone’s cultural background, perhaps more often than not, you could make somewhat accurate assumptions about their values.  That all falls apart in the modern age though.  We still actively look for markers that lend to a deeper understanding of the people we see, but I can’t help but think that race is an out-dated tool.

As global travel became easier, people started to move around.  The color of someone’s skin was no longer an accurate predictor of where someone was from.  As people of different ethnicities started to cozy up to each other, the prevalence of mixed-race couples was on the climb.  As everyone started to shift around and mix-and-match, skin color became just that – skin color.  I grew up with an understanding that I had way more in common with the Asian kid or the black kid from my neighborhood than the white kid one town over, let alone on the other side of the country, let alone from another country.  It wasn’t about race, it was about culture.  And your skin tone might still be able to predict the culture you were raised in once in a while, but since when is a tool worth using if it rarely works?

So when she said that I was a racist, I thought she was referring to the actual tool of racism which we’re all familiar with but rarely speak to out of fear of being labeled a racist.  Not quite.  So I asked her for an example, again, doing my best to understand where she was coming from.  The example she gave was that we always assume that the world’s accomplishments are a result of white men.  Huh?  I’m pretty sure I don’t do that… so I asked if she could give me a more specific example.  She asked me who invented the light bulb, I thought about it for a moment and replied with Thomas Edison.  She said wrong, it was a black guy and that this was a perfect example of how history was written in the white man’s favor.  I’m fully aware of how history’s inaccuracies come about but I was surprised that this was an example.  The science community tends to rise above these kinds of things so I thought I’d look it up.  What I found, I think speaks volumes about modern racism.

As with all great ideas, the light bulb was built upon past innovations.  It’s true that Thomas Edison filed the first patent for a commercially viable electric light bulb in 1879 but that was nearly 80 years after Allessandro Volta  invented the voltaic pile, history’s first manifestation of incandescent lighting.  Since the voltaic pile wasn’t commercially viable, other inventors continued to build out their own versions, each getting slightly closer to something that would be available to everyone.  Thomas Edison’s first iteration of his bulb made use of carbon filaments but they would only last a few days.  A few years later, he was able to extend the light of the filament significantly.  Shortly after that though, Lewis Latimer developed a technique of encasing the carbon filament in a cardboard envelope which would extend the life of the bulb even further.  It’s argued that this final step of the development of the incandescent bulb is what made it commercially viable, but this is where things get a little grey.

So what does this say about modern racism?  For starters, it’s a reminder that it’s better to do your own research than to take the word of someone of hasn’t done their own research.  When it comes to the topic of race, people get heated and sometimes, proving a point can be more important than being accurate.  I don’t doubt for a minute that my friend thought Latimer had invented the light bulb, but I also suspected that she hadn’t really looked into it.  My guess is that someone she trusted gave her this information.  Because it fit her understanding of the world, she accepted it and started telling others.  This is how misinformation spreads.  People tend to be less critical of new information when it fits their view of the world and I can’t help but think that this dynamic played a major role in the spread of racism in the first place.  Mexicans are lazy.  Blacks are dangerous.  Asians are bad drivers.  White people write history in their favor.  Each may be true at times, but they’re likely the exception to the rule.  Not to mention that each criticism could be said about a different race, and still be true at times.

Looking into this light bulb situation, it was still a reminder of the past’s racial dynamics as well.  Latimer didn’t invent the light bulb, but he did make a significant contribution to it just as many other scientists had – including Edison.  It was a group effort from the scientific community, just as all great inventions tend to be.  While the scientific community credits Latimer with his contribution here, I can’t help but think that the history books do a better job of rewarding the person who filed the patent than the people who were behind the invention.  Sure, it’s easier to say that Edison invented the light bulb, but if we had a clearer picture of how this all really came about, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that Latimer, along with other scientists, played a more significant role.

Fortunately for me, I had google at my disposal and I’m pretty fearless when it comes to looking things up on the spot.  So I looked it up, and told her it looked like Latimer had contributed to the invention, but wasn’t solely responsible for the invention itself.  To her credit, she conceded that she would need to look into it further.  But she also insisted that the point was still the same, that white men wrote history in their favor and the Native Americans was a more well-recognized example.  I reminded her that I was very familiar with how history is written, but this did remind me of something I need to own up to.

When I think about whether or not I’ve ever been racist in the past, in the traditional sense, I have been.  Most of the friends I grew up with were children of immigrants who were raised in the projects.  When I spent time at their homes, I saw people working multiple jobs, and pinching pennies to do whatever they could to give their children a better life.  When my friends started working, they started chipping in at home.  It was inspiring.  It still is.  20 years later, most of them have moved out of the projects and while their parents will never be millionaires, the kids really were given an opportunity to make something of themselves and that’s a sacrifice I’ll always recognize and appreciate.  So I was confused when I got to high school and saw all these unmotivated Native Americans.

There were a few natives at my elementary school and while I got along with them for the most part, there was a lot of friction between them and the other students.  When I got to high school, there were more native kids than white kids but most of them were in the alternative programs for kids who were struggling academically.  It created this weird dynamic where they were basically segregated from the rest of the school.  A lot of them had issues with violence so that was part of it, but at the time, I never invested the time into learning the rest.  One of my problems was that I had a few friends who were native and we got along just fine.  It made it easy for me to write-off the rest as flawed.  In the most fundamental sense, that was racist.

It wasn’t until late high school that I wandered through one of the projects by my school.  It was almost all native kids.  There was an outdoor basketball court with a few kids playing.  It looked like a scene out of Harlem, except instead of black families, it was native families.  Even the dress code was similar.  Here’s the thing.  In high school, I played basketball, listened to hip hop, watched BET, and dressed way too thuggish for a middle class white kid.  I had a huge appreciation for that side of black culture.  So how was it that I could be so judgmental and dismissive of these native families who were going through such a similar struggle?  That was a big moment for me.

It wasn’t malicious, but I was genuinely racist towards Native Americans until that moment.  It was at that moment that I stopped looking at them like the other, and started looking at them like fellow humans.  It was in that turning point that I started asking why they were different.  Why was it that my friends who grew up in the projects were hustling hard in school while the native kids were skipping class? Why were the parents of my friends working 2-3 jobs while the parents of these native kids seemed content on welfare?  What was the difference?  Had I been born with their genetics and raised by their families, would I be any different?  I couldn’t help but try to understand what was happening here.  Native American culture was rich, and interesting, and had a connection to spirituality and nature that should be better appreciated in modern times, but something was missing.  My prejudice was replaced with compassion.  My assumptions were replaced with questions.  Now I just look to help where I can.  While it sucked to realize that I had been racist, I was grateful to have learned what it felt like, and why it was counter-productive.  While I had admitted this to myself in my own mind years ago, it wasn’t until that conversation that I said it out loud.

I half-expected my admission to be a moment within the conversation but it wasn’t.  That didn’t fit her argument.  What I learned recently is that people don’t always argue with you, as much as they argue with what they assume your argument is.  My admission of racism didn’t fit her dialogue so she skipped right past it and before long, it was time for BLM.  She said suspiciously, ‘you’re not one of those all lives matters people are you?’  I looked back, sheepishly, saying something to the effect of ‘I don’t know, probably…’

The truth is, I didn’t know all that much about the BLM movement besides the fact that they stood against police brutality against the black community and that they were referenced in the conservative media as one of the more violent factions of the alt-left movement.  More recently, I had also read that they had leveraged their muscle to keep uniformed police from marching in support of the Toronto and Vancouver Pride Parades – something which the founders of those parades found troubling.

I was plenty familiar with the ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric of Fox News, used to undermine the position of BLM.  Like most of what they put out, it’s an ounce of truth followed by a pound of bullshit.  But the ounce of truth was that all lives matter.  Maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut… but I can’t help but speak my truth.

This seemed to really frustrate her.  It was as if saying that all lives mattered undermined the momentum that this virtuous movement has gained.  It didn’t matter that all lives mattered, this was their time in the spot light and anything to take that away from them was wrong.

I disagree.  There are solutions that create more solutions and there are solutions that create more problems.  United, we’re strong.  Divided, we’re weak.  I was fully aware of the racial discrimination that shows up in the statistics around police brutality and I’ve seen the body cam footage of just about all of them.  But I’ve also seen the body cam footage of white people getting gunned down by cops with an almost identical demeanor.  Race played a role, but this isn’t a race issue, it’s a police brutality issue.

I tried to tell her that we need to stop drawing these lines in the sand between us and that the more we focus on race, the more others focus on race.  I told her that we’re all human and that the sooner we realize that, the sooner we’ll realize that we’re all in this together — and that’s when we’ll have the power to create the change that we’re looking for.  Not when we’re fighting each other.  She said that I was being unrealistic, that what I was talking about was reserved for a distant future.  I’m convinced it isn’t, but we didn’t need to argue much further.

Then came my moment of weakness.  I was planning on doing a sober January in solidarity with a friend who was taking month off from cannabis for the first time in a long time.  Instead, I went home and busted out a vape pen I had mostly forgotten about.  I was so wound up that I needed help unwinding.  But then a very nice thing happened.  My friend called.  She wanted to check in on me.  It wasn’t necessary as I wasn’t going to let that affect our relationship, but I did tell her I was frustrated and that her call was appreciated.  I think I articulated it well… I wasn’t frustrated that she thought BLM was the way to go, I was frustrated that just because I wanted to take a more unified approach to solving the problem, I was being treated like the enemy.  That was my problem with the approach, it’s the ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’, kinda thing.  And we know that only Siths deal in absolutes.  She understood what I was saying, and then said something that I think was very valid.  She said that sometimes, before you can truly work on fixing a problem, you need to be seen.  You need to be recognized and appreciated by those around you, and only then is the soil fertile enough to plant a seed.  While I couldn’t necessarily relate, I could understand.

For the next few days, we sent a few messages back and forth.  I told her that the thought leaders I follow would suggest that together is better, and that together is on the horizon.  She asked who they were.  I told her Joe Rogan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and Jordan Peterson.  Her husband who was a part of that chat blasted Jordan Peterson right away, saying he was pompous and arrogant, and included a link to a Toronto news article that was something to the effect of “Jordan Peterson is a dumb man’s smart person”, and started off with calling him the belle of the alt-right.  It was like reading an article from Fox News on Obama… all I could do is reply with a frowny face.

So I thought I’d do some more research on BLM and see what else I could find.  I started with a google search of ‘BLM divisive’, as the divisiveness and violence were the only issues I really had.  I came across a very interesting article from a black woman who had been a part of the civil rights movement back in the 60s.  I didn’t agree with everything she said, but I did agree with the theme of her article.  She was saying how she empathized with the BLM movement, but struggled to support the way they were going about it.  From her perspective, all lives did matter, and that the civil rights movement was about exactly that.  And their approach was with love being stronger than hate.  I can’t help but think that same approach would be even more effective today.  Imagine blacks, whites, latinos and everyone else marching together against police brutality.  That was my vision of all lives matter.  Curiously, she sent me a TED Talk with the founders of BLM and within the first few minutes, they spoke about how they hoped BLM would grow into a movement where all lives mattered as well.

The second thing that I found when searching for ‘BLM Divisive’ was the founder of the BLM Toronto Chapter.  I still don’t know much about what she’s gone through, but she’s got some issues.  I knew that she was in-part, responsible for keeping uniformed police officers from marching in support of the pride parades in Vancouver and Toronto, but I was surprised at what else I found.  On multiple occasions, through social media and at rallies, she seemed to be keen on black racial supremacy.  I won’t bother quoting any of that here as it’s easy enough to look up.  When I found that article, I sent it over to my friend and asked her if she was familiar with this side of BLM.  She said that person was an extremist, not well, and she was disappointed that I used her as an example of BLM.

Here’s the thing, it’s not just her.  It’s the people who are cheering at her rallies when she speaks.  It’s her followers on social media.  And when she’s helping the Toronto faction of BLM influence divisive policies within the Pride movement, one which has championed diversity and inclusivity for years… it’s not just her.  When she spoke, she was speaking to a group of people who people who were carrying around a tremendous amount of hurt and pain for past and present transgressions, and playing to their emotions.  She recognized them, gave them someone to blame, gave them a cause to rally behind, and I’m not sure what comes next.

The reason why I have a problem with this isn’t because systematic racism doesn’t exist, or because black people aren’t over-represented in the prison system or through police brutality.  The reason why I have a problem with this is that it’s the same problematic tactics that have been used for ages.  From Trump and the alt-right to Hitler with Nazi Germany.  You tell them that their pain is real, you tell them that it’s unfair, you give them someone to blame, you give them someone to hate, and then you leverage that power.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen hate and fear used for good.

With so much going on with both of us, I haven’t forced the conversation any further.  I’m happy to let her come back to me on this one when we’re ready.  She did however mentioned something over dinner the other night about how love conquers hate, so I might be winning her over.. if only just.

The last dynamic that I thought might be worth mentioning here are the racial dynamics of those involved.  I’m a white guy in his early 30s that apparently looks like a model of white privilege.  She’s a white woman of Swedish decent, in her early 50s, who I don’t think has experienced all that much privilege in her life, but might assume she has.  Her husband, who I would also consider a good friend, is a black man who’ll be 50 this year.  Here’s where things get interesting, the family did an ancestry report recently.  If I remember correctly, her husband was about 40% black (Caribbean), about 40% German and the rest was a bit of a mix.  The two of them have 3 daughters.  The whole family is rather passionate about the BLM movement and racial injustice towards black people.  While she’s proud of her Swedish heritage, I’ve never heard them speak much about their German ancestry.

I really don’t identify with any of my genetic heritage.  I think I’m half Scotts-Irish a quarter Jewish, and a quarter Austrian.  The only thing I’ve ever assumed about my lineage was that they were all tough as nails in their own way.  If I was part black, I’d probably say the same.

I can’t help but think that people are going about this all wrong.  When my buddy told me that Meghan Markle was half black, I was surprised.  I thought a mix of something, but would not have guessed black.  Does she experience black prejudice?  What about white privilege?  Should she have the same emotional connection to BLM?  If someone is half black and half German, if they carry the pain of black slavery, should they also carry the guilt of Germany’s Nazi past?  How white do you have to be to experience white privilege?  How black do you have to be to be able to use the N-word?  If someone shares the genetics of a slave and a slaver, what then?  The answers to just about all of these questions, for me, are some variation of nonsense.

You are a human being.  You are unique.  The color of your skin will only tell you two things: How likely you are to get a sun burn, and how likely racist people are to make assumptions about who you are.  Skin color is not a measure of laziness, nor is it a measure of privilege.  If you want to know these things about a person, you’ll need to get to know who they are and the path they’ve traveled.  You are also not your ancestors.  The only thing you received from any of them was a slice of genetic code.  You didn’t inherit their accomplishments,  you didn’t inherit their pain, their prejudice, or any of it.  If you carry it, that’s on you.  That’s your baggage you have to deal with, and I think it’s about time you stop making the rest of the world deal with it.

My friend told me that racism was deeply seeded in North America, but I resisted and told her it was something we could solve.  She doesn’t think it can happen in her lifetime.  She may be right.  I hope not.

Something I realized in our conversation was the generational gap between us.  She talked about how she was raised to be a racist, assuming credit to the white man when that wasn’t necessarily the case.  She told me that it was the same for me.  It isn’t.  I don’t have that prejudice.  I was raised differently.  She was projecting.  I can’t help but think that she’s also projecting some of the hurt and pain which women have experienced through their own oppression.  It’s like the oppressed are getting together and fighting back, and they seem to have found a common enemy in the white man, especially the ones who wear a suit.  Lucky me.

I don’t doubt for a second that many of the shittiest people in the last 300 years have been white men.  From Stalin, to Hitler, to Nixon, to the Koch brothers, to Trump.. all white men.  But then I look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and I see the same bias to white men.  With how human history progressed, western civilization led a great deal of this, and western civilization happened to be white.  There was both good and bad in what they accomplished.  From slavery, to space travel.  Had the industrial revolution taken place in China or Africa first, we’d probably be having a very similar, but different conversation.  It’s a messy history, but it’s our history.  If we made more of an effort to understand it, rather than allow it to trigger emotions of pride, shame, anger, fear, or hate… I think we’d all have a much more honest understanding of who we actually are.

When I think of how I was raised, and the popularity of modern comedians who make light of race, I can’t help but think that our generation is largely over it.  Most of us are mixed-race, with more on the way.  Most of us couldn’t care less what color your skin is.  When we’re talking about systematic racism, it’s less about the laws and structures that are in place and more about the people who are behind those laws and structures.  Racism still exists, but I can’t help but think that the vast majority of these sentiments reside in the older generations.  These are the generations that grew up in racially charged times.  These are the people who had to deal with a government that played to racial tensions and made things worse.  Race is still very much a part of how they see the world, and they can’t help but think that of us as well.

Perhaps this is why I’m confident that we’ll turn this corner on racism sooner than later.  Once these people move out of their positions of power, those replacing them won’t share that prejudice.  There will always been exceptions to the rule, and the rest of the world is a different conversation entirely, but I see a big shift on the horizon.  Within a couple generations, mixed-race will be the norm.  Within my lifetime, we’ll get to a point where just about everyone is born some shade of beige.  I’m sure racism will still exist in some way shape or form, but I’m hopeful that it gets relegated to the realm of ridiculousness that it belongs in today.

Also… simple way to make a huge step forward?  Every kid leaves the hospital with a ancestry report.  Knowledge.

 

Author: Author

In an age of promotion before substance, let's try substance before promotion. I'm hoping anonymity will help keep a focus on the ideas but I do understand wanting to connect to the person behind them. Let's split the difference with some fun facts: I have a professional crush on Harvey Specter, Bruce Wayne is my favourite superhero, and I share a personality type with the likes of Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Lex Luthor.

2 thoughts on “Why is Racism so Complicated?”

  1. Fascinating! The young lady you mention said that she was raised to be a racist. Thankfully, I was raised to be a member of the human race. I wonder which of us leads a happier life? Although I know the climate of late, I don’t have to buy into it. Instead, I can exercise my God-given right to choose. Getting curious about it, and as you also mentioned during some research, gaining some knowledge, seeking understanding…alrighty then, I prefer to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

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