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How Dare You Call Me Racist!

A lot of people are getting mad because they are called racist, and they don’t hate people from other races.  They even have friends from other races.  It makes sense that they would be upset — it’s a pretty devastating charge.  I think I can explain though.

We all tend to be selfish.  That is we put our own interests first, and it requires an effort of imagination and ethical effort to care about others as much as we care about ourselves.  For example suppose a bunch of children are given a single pie.  I might take three pieces, because I like pie.  If there are only eight slices of pie and eight children that means two children will do without.  But I’m not doing it because I hate those children.  I’m doing it because I like pie.

Cognitively as well if I want the lead in the school play it’s just cause I like my acting.  It might be that other students are actually better at acting than I am.  But I’m not asking to be the lead because I hate them.  I just like acting and it seems better when I do it.

In both cases — the pie and the acting — to move beyond this initial selfishness and take the needs and rights of others into account requires some work.  I need to actually count how much pie there is.  I need to remember who got pie yesterday.  I need to look at my own acting and that of others objectively, and perhaps suffer from the painful realization I can’t (right now) act as well as I wished I could.

But in neither case — the pie or the acting — does it mean that I’m a jerk, or iredeemably selfish, or am hurting people on purpose.

Racism is just like that.  I don’t experience my racism as hatred for other races.  I experience it as an enjoyment of things my race gets and a regard for my race’s qualities.  And I don’t even need to identify them as such.  As in the pie example — I just go for the pie, I don’t think “Eric Kaplan deserves pie”.  In the race example, I just feel comfortable around people who look like me, and uncomfortable when people who don’t look like me are walking down the street.  I don’t think — white people are the best — or — brown people shouldn’t be free to walk down the street.  I just do what feels right and don’t think as hard as I should about how it causes suffering.

I just feel that, as Steven Miller wrote, Christmas is just part of the soul of America.  I don’t think, maybe Chanukah and Id-al-fitr are also part of the soul of America.  I just respond emotionally that certain things sound good, feel good, are good, and I don’t imaginatively and cognitively stretch myself to see if those good things have bad consequences for other people.  Just as if I cast myself in the school play and eat three pieces of pie I don’t naturally extend myself to think how that plays out for others.

The accusation of racism shouldn’t be viewed as an attack on someone’s moral character, or as a consignment to perdition.  To say someone is acting in a racist way, or speaking in a racist way is just to say they should think harder about the perhaps unintended effects of their actions and speech on people of other races.

Nobody should be self-righteous about it, on either side.  Everybody could stand to be more just and empathetic.  It’s the American way, and it’s also fun.

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3 thoughts on “How Dare You Call Me Racist!

  1. I think I’d disagree – giving your own tribe priority over another tribe is one thing. But what we’re talking about with racism is deciding what demographic it is going to be okay to hate. You might not hate them now, but it’s setting up to be okay with it should the time come. There’s a difference between eating more pie then when a window gets smashed you think any of the people (those who got pie and those who didn’t) could have done it Vs thinking only a certain demographic could have done it. Selfishness can be quite open minded.

  2. You make good points. A few thoughts:

    * Our egocentric view of the world is part of the problem, and empathy is part of the solution. It’s empathy that motivates us to consider the welfare of others in addition to our own. Selfishness is part of our makeup, but only part of it.

    * Evolutionary kin selection implies that at least some racism is our default attitude. We tend to trust, help, and cooperate with those we perceive as our genetic relatives. Conversely, we tend to distrust, oppose, and fight those we perceive as our genetic competitors. The same thing occurs in many other species, from chimpanzees to wasps.

    * As thinking beings, we can override our instinctive kin-selection hostility toward members of other groups. However, we must first admit our tendency to harbor such hostility. Racism is not something that “needs to be carefully taught.” We’re born with it. What needs to be taught is that it’s wrong and we can overcome it.

    * I don’t see racism as morally neutral, partly because I define it more narrowly than you do. Our innate tendencies are morally neutral because we don’t choose them. However, we do choose how we behave and how we treat others. If people treat others with the appropriate respect and consideration, then I’ll judge them based on that. But if they harass or attack others because of morally irrelevant characteristics (race being one), then I think they are acting immorally and deserve condemnation for it.

    * It’s counter-productive to overuse charges of racism. Accusations of racism should be reserved for morally significant behavior, not applied to people’s private attitudes or subjectively-interpreted “micro-aggressions.” If everything is racist then nothing is, and people start to dismiss racism as a mere talking point. Instead of making people take racism more seriously, it makes them take it *less* seriously.

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