Friday, November 7, 2014


racism (n) -
1.  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2.  racial prejudice or discrimination  

In light of my recent reading of some adult adoptee views on adoption, I have also done some thinking about racism.  What is it?  How does one cope with it?  Let us keep firmly in mind that I am a white man; racism is something I know about, not something I know.  One might say that I know how to pitch, not how to catch.  OK, well, there was that one time in AIT where a bunch of black guys ganged up on me (still not sure why) and one of them hit me in the back of the head, but, otherwise, it's rather outside my experience.

The dictionary definition of racism gets at the core of what racism is, but does not say much about its manifestations and mechanisms.  It is, shall we say, a monster with many faces.  I suspect that the immediate mental image that most people get when they hear the word "racism" is a lynch mob, the KKK, or of blacks being terrorized and brutalized during the Civil Rights Era.
Racism, however, can take less overt and violent forms: racial epithets, job discrimination, "red lining" in bank loans, "white flight", and the "soft racism of low expectations" of affirmative action.  Ironically, it can even masquerade as praise, such as the "Model Minority".

Does racism exist only in the individual act?  Is racism confined to individuals who decide to commit acts that demonstrate "racial prejudice or discrimination"?  Or is it something more pervasive, something so pervasive and universal that even people of goodwill who honestly believe that they are NOT racists, who are horrified by racism and discrimination, silently and unknowingly engage in it or, at least, take advantage of it?  I refer to the concept of White Privilege:
One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms which we can see and embedded forms which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see.  In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in the invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.
Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. (But) a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.

White Privilege is further defined and studied under the rubric of Critical Race Theory:
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.
If these theories are correct, not only are white people - ALL white people - responsible for the "marginalization of people of color", they don't even have to do anything to perpetuate this wicked system (I do not speak of racism as wicked in a sarcastic sense; it, along with sexism and anti-Semitism and all the other "isms of hate", most assuredly IS wicked).*  They (we?) don't have to do anything at all to be racist.  Further, if these theories are correct, the "meritocracy" that is the core of Rev. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is exactly that: a dream, and a completely unrealistic dream at that.

It strikes me that these theories have an extremely damaging effect on all concerned, including minorities.  They effectively absolve the individual white person of racism because, literally, everybody does it whether he intends to or not: merely being white, living everyday life as a white person, is sufficient to perpetuate the system.  Even an active effort to be (for want of a better term) anti-racist merely "palliate[s], but cannot end, these problems." Is it a source of wonder that many (most?) white people at best refuse to listen to claims of racism and and worst actively resent them?

Minorities are equally harmed, for, if White Privilege IS how the world works, then EVERY failure, EVERY setback, EVERY feeling of injury can be blamed on it.  From this idea (or, perhaps, supporting it), I think, stems Microaggression Theory:
Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." Sue describes microaggressions at generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions are considered to be different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offence and are unaware they are causing harm.
A life of despair, hopelessness, and even hatred must follow from such a worldview.  What is the use in trying to succeed when the entire system is loaded against you... and when failure can be conveniently blamed on it?  Or, conversely, when every success may be tinged with the idea that it was not entirely due to one's own efforts but was rather a free gift from the white majority that holds all the cards?  (For some white people, such "remedies" as affirmative action must be quite wonderful: they get to exercize white privilege by deciding - if I may use a blunt term - who gets to be a house slave and who stays in the fields AND feel virtuous while they do it)**

I do not mean to imply that racism does not exist.  It certainly does.  We see it when people are hired or jailed or elected or given a bank loan or harassed by the police or assumed to be smart or given a scholarship or beaten or killed because of their skin color.  We see it when various groups form with the explicit intent to help or advance only people of a certain skin color or national origin.  We see it when politicians attempt to play groups off against each other.  We see it when certain words or ideas are allowed only for certain groups or else outright forbidden in the public sphere.  It is real.  It is harmful to the individual and to our society.  It is a betrayal of our founding ideal that "all men are created equal".  People who have been the victims of it have every right to feel angry.  People who witness it have an obligation to say, "No more."

Is it possible to harm or insult somebody without evil intent?  Of course: we routinely jail people for such things as vehicular manslaughter even though they didn't set out to run somebody down with their car.  I suspect that most people have had an unfortunate slip of the tongue where they've told an inappropriate joke or story or simply mentioned a touchy subject in front of the wrong person; they didn't mean to be insulting or hurtful... but they were.

What ought the person do who believes himself to be harmed?  I should add here that harm and insult are to the victim as real as butter and eggs no matter what the intent (or lack thereof) of the perpetrator.  How many of us have had it explained to us, with varying levels of sincerity, that, "I didn't mean it THAT way" or "I had no idea that it would bother you" or "I was only fooling around"?  Yet, we are still insulted and possibly pay some penalty for it, ranging from having to apologize to being hauled up to HR to being punched in the nose.  Should a person react to every "microaggression"?  If so, then how?  Or should retaliation be reserved for egregious injuries?  Does retaliation, especially excessive retaliation, merely perpetuate racism?  ("Man, those people just can't take a joke!" or "Oh, it's OK if one of THEM says it!")

There is a popular YouTube video of a female jogger called "What Kind of Asian Are You?"  She is of Korean descent.  A white male jogger rather boorishly attempts to strike up conversation with her by, among other things, complimenting her on her English (she informs him that she was born in America), attempting to speak to her in Korean, and informing her that he LOVES Korean food.  Her response is... amusing.***

Is the white guy committing a "microaggression"?  Or is he simply trying - and failing spectacularly - to be (ahem) friendly to an attractive woman?  Does this fictional encounter (I expect that many woman would tell me that something like this has happened to them) say anything about white privilege or racism?  Should the woman extrapolate anything about our society from it?  Was HER response "racist" or "excessive" as some YouTube commentors stated?

What is it like to have such encounters on a daily basis?  To frequently (if not constantly) be the subject of hard stares by store employees or policemen?  To frequently (if not constantly) be assumed to be good at this or bad at that?  To frequently (if not constantly) have people assume that they know a priori and from a single glance one's behaviors and attitudes and ideas and values?  And what is it like to be considered a racist when you didn't mean any insult... or haven't done anything at all?  Oh, wait: I think I know that one.

What do we do about it?  What do I, as a father, do about it?  What do I teach my daughter to do if somebody calls her a chink?  Compliments her on her English?  Assumes that she's got insane math skills (please God this is true!) Makes a snarky remark about her driving?  Gives her a minority scholarship?  Denies her entry into college because she's Asian and they are "overrepresented"?  Tries to hit on her by... Never mind: Mr. Remington and I have that one covered.

I think that I may be forgiven for being disinclined to teach her CRT or that, as a minority, she's pretty much f*cked for her entire life because White Privilege. I think that I may further be forgiven for teaching her to regard anybody who tries to tell her these things with a great deal of suspicion.  But what SHOULD I do?

I believe that I have four tasks, remembering that, one day, she will be living on her own:

1.  To teach her that racism (and sexism and all those other nasty -isms) exists.  There's no sense in sugar-coating it.  She almost certainly will encounter in her life some low-brow who thinks to raise his pathetic self-esteem by trying to tear hers down.  At the same time, I don't think anything is to be gained - rather, much is risked - by teaching her to go through life with a chip on her shoulder, to look for racism and "microaggressions" all the time. "Kiddo, some people are just maladroit and some people are just a$$holes.  Not everybody is a klansman."

2.  To teach her, as well as I and the rest of her family can, that she is a beautiful, intelligent, and above all VALUED person.  We also need to help her to develop pride in herself: "Why on earth should I care what YOU think of me, you racist prick?  I know my own worth." Part of this is teaching her to have pride in her heritage both as an American and as a Chinese.

3.  To teach her that I and her mother and the rest of the family are behind her 100%, that we will not tolerate anybody mistreating her, and that we are available - nay, EAGER - for her to talk to us about whatever or whoever bothers her, and that we will try, even though it may be outside our own experience, to understand and to help.

4.  To teach her to defend herself with discretion, to use the appropriate means to make it quite clear - gently if possible, forcibly if necessary - to the low-brow that she will NOT be stepped on.

Maybe this is not enough.  Maybe it's the wrong approach.  I don't know.  Should I teach her to hope for (and work for) a color-blind society, to tell her that I have a Dream for her, too?

I don't know.

Whence all this passion towards conformity anyway? Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you will have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business, they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive towards colorlessness? But seriously and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain.
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man


(*) Racism, of course, is not confined merely to white people. In the United States, because whites are the majority ethnic group and because of various episodes in our history such as slavery, the Indian wars, Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc., etc., "racism" is reflexively - and unfairly - considered a "whites only" crime.

(**) Walter Williams has an interesting take on statistical underrepresentation, one of the ideas underlying - to it's adherents, proving - CRT:

If America's diversity worshippers see underrepresentation as "probative" of racial discrimination, what do they propose be done about overrepresentation? After all, overrepresentation and underrepresentation are simply different sides of injustice. If those in one race are overrepresented, it might mean they're taking away what rightfully belongs to another race. For example, is it possible that Jews are doing things that sabotage the chances of a potential Indian, Alaska Native or Mexican Nobel Prize winner? What about the disgraceful lack of diversity in professional basketball and ice hockey?

(***) Interestingly, the video's producer, Ken Tanaka, is an adoptee.  Born in Los Angeles, he, as a white baby, was adopted by a Japanese family.  <EDIT> Thanks to blogger Red Thread Broken in the comments, I find that Ken Tanaka is, in fact, a fictional character and only his "long-lost twin brother", actor David Ury, is real.  More the fool I... </EDIT>


  1. Ken Tanaka is a fictional character created by actor David Ury to take a "humorous" spin on all of the Asian children adopted by affluent Americans. I find this character to be pretty offensive and think he could have made some interesting political comedy (Like the "What Kind of Asian are You" video, which I love), but instead simplifies and makes a mockery out of international adoption through his "long lost twin brother" Ken Tanaka.

    1. Why, that dirty fibber! Thank you; I shall edit accordingly.