Your People Are My People

Race, Racism, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 3 of 7)

“What are you?” sometimes strangers and new acquaintances ask me, whether obliquely or directly. I have come to learn that this is short-hand for “What race/ethnicity box(es) do you check?” The racial categories on current U.S. census forms are more complex than they ever have been, yet they remain simplistic. (See a helpful article here. ) “Black, African-American, or Negro” stands in contrast to the deceptively straightforward appearing “White.” Citizens of Asian ancestry have six boxes to possibly check, along with an “Other Asian” fill-in blank. By contrast, Arab- and Persian-Americans have no obvious option (“Other”? “White”?), leading to controversy within their respective communities ( ).

The history leading up to these designations is serpentine and rife with contradictions (whether to count “Latino” as a race or as something else, for example). Until relatively recently, the forms also required respondents to check one box and one box only, implying that racial categories are mutually exclusive, in fact a long-standing attitude in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially regarding the purity of whiteness.


What is Race?

Race is the idea that there are different branches of the human family with different attributes, including observable ones. Definitions of race in the U.S. have long been color-based. In common parlance, “African-American” is simply a euphemism for “black” rather than a thoughtful designation of its own. This can lean to awkward moments, such as a student persistently referring to a black African as “African-American,” to which I give the only sensible reply, “No, African-African.”

Race is a social construct. This is just a fancy way of saying that race has no meaning other than the meaning that societies give it. The differences within any given racial group are far greater than the differences between groups. This is not to say that race is meaningless. But the meaning that race has actually has far more to do with its historical baggage as defined by the people of the past than with anything objective much less scientific.


What is Racism?

Racism is the belief that one race (especially one’s own) is better than others (perhaps all others) and/or that some races are worse than others. Racism includes the practices that result from those beliefs.

Because race itself is a social construct, it seems easy enough to dismiss racism as morally wrong and intellectually foolish. However, this is not enough.

Racism is often subconscious. Racism can also be systemic, hardwired into the ways that a given society functions in how it treats people of a given race. The baggage of racism can be so pervasive that even though a society may be doing superficially well at combatting color-based discrimination, that same society may, in fact, be doing quite poorly at helping individuals overcome the legacy of how their ancestors were treated.

Systemic racism is intertwined with the cycle of poverty. The victims of overt racism in the past frequently have descendants who must struggle against systemic powerlessness, poverty, and lack of opportunity. Whether you must face these conditions is largely a factor of what kind of family you were born into and in what kind of neighborhood. We must not mistake the fact that some break the cycle and escape as an indication that there is no problem.


Who is Responsible?

Racism is not merely a problem of the past and a problem of overt racists. Racism is a problem that all of us must reckon with, whether or not we are its overt and direct perpetrators or its victims. We are all part of a system that is still broken in many ways. If you possess power, privilege, and relative affluence, are you simply using those tools to benefit yourself? Are you attentive to how the gifts you were born with give you an advantage over those who were born without?

Life isn’t fair and the system isn’t fair. But it should be. To the extent that any of us can work toward that, helping individuals and communities where we can, we can hope to make the playing field more level. This will benefit all of us. If America and the world are relying on only a fraction of the potential talent pool to resolve some of our more pressing issues, we are short-changing ourselves.

An individualistic approach to the legacy of racism is simply inadequate. To say that it is someone else’s problem ignores the promise of potential healing and redemption, not merely of the fissures between communities in a much divided world, but in what should be our common quest to serve the greater good.

If you are white in the U.S., are you guilty or should you feel guilty for what your grandparents did or failed to do? Maybe they were Civil Rights activists. Be proud. Maybe they were blatant racists. Denial is worse than shame, especially if your shame might spur you to action. Maybe, like most, they kept silent. Their silence cost lives. Perhaps yours continues to do so.

Whether or not you yourself feel guilty about someone else’s past is less important than what you do in the present. Your grandparents probably left a mess. Whether they did or not, we all need to help clean it. A sense of collective guilt can be a useful thing. You are not responsible for what your ancestors did. But, especially considering that you may have benefited obliviously from the ways that your grandparents may have exploited others or benefitted indirectly from others being denied opportunities, you are responsible for what you do in the present. You are responsible for creating a better future for your grandchildren… and everyone else’s grandchildren, too.

Racism divides people wherever it is present, but so does the fictive notion that we are more different than alike. The idea of race itself is problematic, if still relevant in practice in modern society. We are all human. We are all part of the same family. That realization should define all societal activity, both at home and abroad.

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