Michael Richards Redux

Today NPR had Michael Shermer on Talk of the Nation. On the show he echoed a lot of the things I wrote here about our reaction to Michael Richards. He also just wrote an Op-Ed piece for the LA Times. I’m not interested in Michael Richards, I’m interested in what people think of race in America.

One woman called in to Talk of the Nation to say how she wasn’t a racist, but that she did have prejudices. She said that having prejudices doesn’t make a person a racist.

It seems that for some strange reason people don’t like being called a racist, but they don’t mind admitting that they commit acts of prejudice. When we think racist we think of crosses burning and men marching like idiots while shouting “Sieg Heil.” Yes, those are racists! But are those the only kinds?

Is the store detective that follows the black kid who just walked in (instead of the white kid) a racist? Is she committing an act of racism? Or is she just prejudice? What is the difference? Really, I’m asking?

Does the black kid feel better if the detective just has a prejudice? How is that person not a racist or better than a racist? What difference does that distinction make? We don’t want to call our actions racist because we don’t want to belong to the KKK marching band (and who would?) but they are just the cheerleaders. We are the team.

Shermer ends his opinion piece in the LA Times with a Dostoevsky quote, which I will pass along here

Every man has [thoughts] which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. (Notes From the Underground)

note: I’ve changed “reminiscences” to “thoughts,” because I think that reminiscences might be a bad translation.

As an interesting side note, there is a test on a Harvard website called Project Implicit which tries to test some of our real feelings. [edit: I seem to have been mislead, this is actually a pretty silly test and doesn’t seem relate to race at all.]


Michael Richards is Easy

kramerPeople keep bringing up Michael Richards and his racist rant. First it made me wonder about our future in general, where everything is caught on video and posted within the hour. I wondered what road we are heading down, where we don’t need “Big Brother,” because we are our own Big Brother… with all it’s nasty implications.

But that’s not what impresses me most about the reaction to Michael Richards. What impresses me is other people reacting to it. How easy it becomes to look at Richards’ actions and say, “for shame.” When we look at him we see an unabashed racist and we can draw a line between him and our society and ourselves. I imagine many people would like to imagine those lines looking something like: racist, growing tolerance, enlightened. We can say that, “there is him and then me, we’re nothing alike.”  When a Michael Richards comes along we can talk about how wrong he is and how much different we are from him, and that makes us feel all content inside. I don’t know though. Does not screaming bad words at a black person make us enlightened, tolerant, or even “not a racist”?

This whole thing got me thinking about all the bad “—isms” and the rate of progress we as a society and as individuals have slowed to. Most of us would like to present to the world a vision of a tolerant woman or man who believes in equality and all that jazz. When we see a Michael Richards we present him to the world and proudly say, “not me.” But I don’t think that is enough anymore. I wonder what kind of great achievement it is to not be screaming n–ger at someone. I also wonder if that hurts us because of how content we feel. If our prejudices aren’t overt, abusive, or confrontational are they any better?

I think it might be time to re-evaluate our criteria for being a good person. Tolerance is such a cheap word, “I’m afraid of you, and I won’t help you if you need it, but I’ll tolerate your existence” doesn’t seem like it is good enough. I think maybe it is time for the tie between hate and the bad “—isms” to be challenged. You don’t have to hate black people, or asian people, or any other people to be a racist. Just like you don’t have to be a misogynist to be a sexist. You can have a black woman as a friend and co-worker and still have racist and sexist views. Racists, sexists, homophobes and the like aren’t just people with banners and rallies, they are all of us. If you have ever locked your door because you are in a black neighborhood, if you have ever felt a little uncomfortable when the gay guy at work walks into the bathroom at the same time as you, if you ever doubted a woman’s view because she is just getting emotional then you are committing acts of racism, homophobia, or sexism. Does that make you a terrible person? I don’t think so. Is it something we should be happy about doing? Probably not. Do we deny those feelings, those thoughts? To ourselves, to others? What can we do? Is it a product of our upbringing? Can we change? Do we even want to? For everyone it will be different, but I don’t know if a lot of us are really even asking ourselves the questions in the first place. I don’t even know if the people who think they are actually are. Doesn’t it feel good to say you are regularly introspective?

I think that maybe what we really get by focusing on the Michael Richards’ or the Mel Gibson’s or the loud “—ist” next door is a reason to not change, a reason to not take a hard look at ourselves and our actions and think about how we might make things better by trying to change our view of things. Calling ourselves out is hard, calling others out is easy. Maybe that’s what we all need to start doing more of.


Racism & Classism

I have a lot of opinions on race and class, and I don’t know that any of them are solid, but I do think that both issues are the core America’s problems. There is a lot to say about both and other people can write in detail about both better than I can, so I won’t. But I will share a few observations from today.

Observation one. There is a “check’s cashed today” / money lending / whatever place just down the street from me. I haven’t really noticed it until today. As I passed I saw posters along all three walls, I just glanced but one thing stuck out to me, each poster had one person on it and only one poster had a white person. What’s more the other people were holding shopping bags and money and checks, while the young white man was holding a book. There’s a message there. But I’m not blaming the advertisers, I think that would be too easy. I am wondering what that says about the state of race and class in America. Don’t believe me? Look at a website from one of those companies like The Money Tree or at EZPaydayCash.com, go ahead… find the white person.

Observation two. I caught the end of Bill Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO (a perk of Travis & Monica’s hospitality). One topic was about immigrants learning English. There was the usual arguments pro and con. Pro English shared the usual boring and wrong headed ideas like “my parent’s had to learn and they did” and “it is important and steals valuable resources from our country to cater to others.” The con argument of course was the well thought out “it’s racist.” (side note: it was interesting was how angry the reaction against calling it racist was, when clearly the line is blurry so there is no need for righteous indignation) What was more interesting to me was that this wasn’t approached at all from a class perspective. Whether or not it is racist to decide everyone must speak English, it is certainly classist. The fact is that if you are in this country, don’t speak English, and are poor, English is not an option. There isn’t enough time in the day, not to mention the money that language lessons cost, not to mention the time and energy it takes. What’s more, if you are raising a family you need to spend time with them and save money for children’s college because it is getting more and more expensive while scholarships and grants are getting harder to get. Even if you are middle class you might not have the luxuries of time and money, both of which are needed to learn a new language. The odds are already against the middle and lower class, why make things harder? And further, what are the penalties for not learning English? No job? That doesn’t seem like it would solve anything does it?

I don’t think that Americans think about race in the right way, anyone who’s looked and thought about what they’ve seen can tell you it isn’t as polar as people want to make it. And I know that most Americans don’t think about class, period. I am not saying that I have answers, I don’t, but I think it is time we all started to think about and talk about both issues again. Especially class and what it means to all of us.