If ever there had been a set of controversial issues, it is over matters of race. The very notion of
“race” has been controversial. The idea that the human species is divided into 8 or 9 genetically
distinct subspecies has largely been dismissed, in part due to the fact that there tends to be more
genetic variation within a supposed racial group than between them. But on a superficial level, it can
be said that there is a recognizable correlation between a given range of physical features, such as
skin color and facial structural, and an ancestral geographic region. But such distinctions are as
irrelevant as they are obvious.
And yet distinctions have been made. To make undue distinctions on the basis of racial differences is
what we call racism. Racism has manifested itself in many ways throughout history, the most severe
manifestation obviously being slavery.
Overall, traditional Southern-style racism was aimed at keeping blacks in their “place”, although
undoubtedly, many whites harbored a desire to be rid of them altogether. There certainly was a strong
association between blacks and the South’s defeat in the Civil War, but on a primordial level there can
be an instinctive aversion to the physical presence of persons with such radically different and
unfamiliar outward attributes. To the racist mind, much darker skin invokes fears of the “unclean”, and
while racists have been upfront in regarding blacks as perennially harboring contagious diseases,
“unclean” took on a quasi-religious sense and thus powerfully transcended basic matters of health and
hygiene. And one scarcely needs to be reminded of their hyper-abhorrence of the very idea of black
men having sex with white women.
On the other hand there was the attempt to intellectualize racism by arguing that blacks were
inherently “inferior” and thus deserving of second-class status. You’d think that folks would feel sorry
for those who are supposedly unfortunately inferior rather than being mean to them, but I guess the
trouble starts when they get “upitty” and must be put back in their “place”. Either that or racists are
just evil jerks who simply enjoy abusing people over whom they have power.
Speaking of power, some minority advocates have—in order to deflect accusations of reverse racism--
attempted to re-define racism to necessarily include power. This is incorrect. Racism is an attitude,
and you don’t need power to cop an attitude. Certainly racism + power is much more threatening, but
they’re two different things. And to say, “whites have power, blacks don’t” is an oversimplification. Our
basic understanding of racism may be the historical oppression of powerless blacks by the white power
structures of the time, but today most white supramacists are working stiffs or rural rednecks trying to
make themselves feel important. The likes of Louis Farakhan certainly have more power. When
incidents of powerful entities such as Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott (with her remark about
“house niggers”), and the Texaco board of directors (with their “black jelly beans”) being racist erupt in
major media scandals, they become the exception that proves the rule.
But when racism takes the form of racial profiling of blacks by the police, for example, it’s not motivated
by a desire to keep them in their “place” or to simply make their lives miserable (usually anyway), but
rather by the assumption that stopping blacks or patrolling black neighborhoods is an easy way to
catch criminals. It’s still racism, but more coldly dehumanizing in pursuit of a practical objective than
hostile and prejudiced.
So part of the complexity is that there are different forms of racism with different motivations and
triggered by different aspects of racial differences. Making assumptions about people based on
previous experiences or information involving members of the same ethnic group—and treating them
accordingly—is a form of prejudice called stereotyping. It’s not fair that an individual should be treated
any differently just because other individuals from the same group have made a certain impression
with their behavior. But it’s important to understand that the onus of racism is on those who apply
stereotypes, not on those who might inadvertently create or “play into” stereotypes via some media
portrayal. Stereotypes do not usually apply to every member of a group, but neither are they usually
completely ficticious. They’re usually generalizations or tendencies or the behavior of individuals, not
something a film producer or reporter should be held responsible for or made to pretend doesn’t exist.
There’s often a thin line between “our culture” and “that’s a stereotype”, and it’s usually more a matter
of whether it’s unflattering than what percentage of the group it applies to. People should be
reminded not to apply stereotypes to the larger group, but to censor some portrayal because it “plays
into stereotypes” is form of bias in itself.
The context in which a reference or portrayal is made makes all the difference. Sometimes jokes about
racial differences are the handmaidens of serious oppression and sometimes they’re just reflections on
variances in the human condition. And sometime they’re just rude for rudeness’ sake. Such was that
case with the infamous remarks made by radio personality Don Imus in 2007 (he remarked that the
women’s basketball team of Rutgers were “nappy-headed ho’s”) were racist—or rather, sexists with
racist overtones. Basically, his point was that these women—despite having won a championship—
were only to be valued as sexual objects, and owing to their racial features, rather poor ones. The
public backlash that followed was justified, but an earlier use of the term “nappy” in the media
produced a backlash that most certainly was not. In 1998, a 3rd grade teacher on Brooklyn was run
out of town on a rail after reading to her students a children’s book entitled “Nappy Hair”. The story
was of a black girl whose struggles with her unruly hair becomes the basis for a lesson in developing a
positive self-image regardless of appearances or body type. But members of the local community,
going on little more than the title, denounced the (white) teacher as racist and even subjected her to
death threats. The idea seems to be that any calling of attention to black people’s physical attributes
by the white power structure, and that can include a schoolteacher as well as a book publisher (never
mind that the author was a black woman) and the rest of the media, can only be for the purpose of
The trouble is that racism is not being defined according to a set of basic principles, but rather by
association with the various episodes that characterized the racist past.
If any association with historical racism can be drawn, then it’s a sure bet that such a situation will only
be viewed in that context. If it reminds you of racism, then it must be racist. Who can forget the uproar
that erupted when a local official in D.C. used the word “niggardly”—meaning “stingy”—to describe
some situation. Even after it was made clear that the term bears no relationship to the racial slur, the
complainers still insisted that its use was “racially insensitive”—in other words racist—to use it knowing
that its similarity to a racial slur is liable to make a lot of people misconstrue it meaning and feel
victimized as though they had been subjected to a racial slur. About the same time, similar complaints
were made when referred to a situation as a “tar baby”. It’s generally understood to mean a situation
that becomes more and more sticky the more one struggles to extricate oneself from it. But because
the term is associated with the Uncle Remus stories, which in turn are associated with the contextual
background of the Jim Crow era, it too is regarded as an unacceptable racial slur.