Every single person belongs to a certain race. This fact is unavoidable, as racial differences are clearly visible. However, race is often an issue which is avoided in polite conversation since it is considered a controversial topic. Emotions run high when overtly discussing racism because people identify so strongly with their race; after all, what is closer to you that your own skin? Because it is so visible, race is also one of the most immediate ways we judge each other. First impressions are not only made by our handshake, the amount of wrinkles in our shirt, and the sincerity of our smile. No matter how much we would like people to judge us based on such personal details, the unfortunate truth is that stereotypes are formed about race just as readily as they are for such things as gender, disability, and age. But, like other ways we tend to group people, looks can be deceiving: Although being part of a particular ethnicity means you are more likely to be informed by the accompanying culture, this is not necessarily true. Race is merely an externalized likelihood that someone interacts with the world in a particular way, but it does not define who we are as individuals.
I live near San Francisco, a mecca of liberal politics and socially progressive policies, but even here we are not immune to the effects of racism. This spring, I worked in a program where I was one of only two white people in a room filled with 27 students and staff. I never experienced obvious racism in my students, but I did experience it with my fellow co-workers. One day as we had a music activity, I modeled different kinds of dancing for the students, focusing on maintaining rhythm and controlling body movements. A fellow coworker (who I didn’t get along with) danced by me, saying “You dance like a white girl!” The comment was surely meant innocuously, but I didn’t experience it that way. I experienced it as a judgement and an accusation, and it made me feel even more estranged from my coworker. While it wasn’t constructive of me to ignore the effects of race and culture on my students’ dancing and my own, my coworker’s comment was surely destructive. I never interacted with her in a meaningful way again.
Racism is not simply demeaning another race. It is any judgement - positive or negative - formed about someone purely because they look a certain way. By judging a person based on their heredity - something they have no personal control over - racism alienates people and inhibits relationships. Introducing the divisiveness of racism into interpersonal relations makes a personal connection nearly impossible, since it makes it clear that there is nothing the person you are interacting with can do to change your mind; You have judged them based on the color of their skin and the shape of their bones - things they did nothing to receive, and over which they have no control. Examples of the effects of racism abound: they can be found in personal anecdotes, cross-cultural studies, economic opportunity, and even art.
One piece of art I experienced recently was Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, “Shortcomings.” In this book, Tomine deals with the effects of racism on relationships by illustrating the characters’ ideals and (more hypocritical) behaviours concerning race. Two main characters, Ben and Miko, have been in a long-term relationship but they are clearly becoming increasingly distant from each other. Part of the reason for their distance is Ben’s lack of awareness about racial issues and their effects on the experiences of the people around him.
Although some cases of racism are obvious, some are not so clear. For example, “Shortcomings” begins as Ben and Miko watch a movie about a girl who has assimilated into the American culture, and as a result feels distant from her immigrant grandfather. As they leave the theater, Miko notes that the movie was the best of a series of submissions for an Asian film festival, and Ben gripes that it was actually a poorly done movie. He rants that it only received accolades because it had an Asian director, and that it didn’t deserve any recognition since, on the whole, it was not a good movie. Miko, who helped organize the festival, is clearly upset at his criticism. As Ben continues to complain about the quality of the movie, Miko accuses him of being racist, saying, “it’s almost like you’re ashamed to be Asian." While Miko is proud to be part of increasing the legitimacy and opportunity for people of her own race in the film industry, Ben refuses to view the movie within the context of race. This kind of discrimination is insidious, but not entirely misplaced. I agree with Ben: art is art, and good art should not be defined by culture or race. However, denying the effects of race is not the complete truth either. The fact that the best film in an Asian film festival was not of a high-enough quality to be shown in a theater may not indicate that Asians are bad directors, but rather that their opportunities in the field are inhibited by discrimination. However, this idea was not addressed in the book. Just like I never had a conversation with my coworker about how her comment about my dancing made me feel, Miko avoided pursuing the issue. Rather than initiating a discussion about race and its influence on opportunity, Ben and Miko simply stopped talking.
This failure to pursue the mine-field of racism is not peculiar to Tomine’s book. Even in situations where you would think an open discussion would be encouraged, it does not always happen. This summer, I took an upper-division ethnic studies course. One day I brought up an issue I was confused about; I repeated something I had heard about an ethnic group, and asked why it was true. My professor became upset, and said that it was not true at all, and that the stereotype I had repeated was the result of intolerance, or judging one culture in the context of another. But she did not elucidate beyond that. I became excited, and since it was a college class I expected that the discussion would continue beyond “right” and “wrong.” However, like Miko, my instructor refused to continue the discussion. Rather than pursue the nature of the discrepancy, thereby possibly ameliorating a racist belief I myself held, she perpetuated a segregation of ideas. Both my professor and Miko were more aware than Ben and I to racial judgements and barriers, but neither one of them helped to further any sense of understanding. In this way, they both played a complacent part in continuing the racism that they seem to be trying to combat.
While most people may be able to agree that racism should be ameliorated, it is difficult to completely eradicate because it is actually part of human nature. Everyone is more comfortable with their in-group than they are with anyone else. For most people, this in-group is made up mostly of people who look like them, and act like them, and think like them. This type of behavior is not racist or intolerant or mean; it is simply the way people negotiate interpersonal relationships. Ben has lived most of his life with Asians. His girlfriend is Asian, his best friend is Asian. Even his arch-enemy in college was Asian. Ben’s lack of racial awareness is not only a result of his self-absorption (although that certainly encourages it), but also the fact that he doesn’t have a very diverse in-group. Ben’s intolerance is a product of his environment as much as it is a product of his insensitivity.
Like Ben, we are all a product of our environment. If we continue to segregate each other not only by race but also by “right” and “wrong,” we cannot hope to overcome the misunderstandings and incomplete truths that water the seeds of racism. Overcoming racism will not be achieved by merely stating opinions or truth-telling. Because it is an attitude that is intertwined with very human instincts, open dialogue and validation of everyone’s experiences is most effective in directly addressing racism. Avoiding the topic by encouraging “color-blindness” is not enough. Advocating for minority rights to the exclusion of acknowledging the experiences of the majority is not enough. Attributing harmful stereotypes to individuals without awareness of cultural biases is not enough. What is enough is to keep talking; to continue the conversation as we explore ourselves and our experiences together. Ben and Miko lost their relationship because they couldn’t communicate with each other. May our own society avoid the same fate.