I May Be An Asshole, But At Least I’m Not A Racist (Most Of The Time)

13 Mar

About a month after I moved to New York in 1994, I found myself on an empty subway car in the middle of the night. The subway stopped, and three black guys got on. I immediately tensed up. I, a nice Jewish kid from the north (white) side of Chicago, suddenly felt an instinctual fear from these three black people. To me they looked like gang members, or at least what I thought gang members looked like because of all the TV and movies I’d seen. They stayed far down at the other end of the car, and when my stop came I got off, hustled to my dorm room, buried myself under my covers and wondered if New York was always going to be this scary.

I’m not racist. That’s what most people will say. And many of us are not. We look disparagingly upon “birthers” who claim that Obama was not born in America. We in the north feel pride in the fact that states in the south are fighting to overturn the Voting Rights Act, which is their (not ours, of course) residual shame of the country’s original sin of slavery. And don’t get me started on Boston…

I’m writing this because of this terrific Op-Ed by Ta-Nehisi Coates from last Thursday’s New York Times. In it he recounts how the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped by a deli worker who thought he had shoplifted. Later the owner apologized (and fired the guy who stopped and frisked Whitaker). That incident is just one of many that happen around the country every day. Whether these acts are overtly racist or not is a point of contention because the very idea of racism has been drastically redefined over the years.

When I think of racism I conjure images of the KKK and fire hoses unleashed upon non-violent protesters. It’s the N-word, it’s discriminatory voting practices, it’s mothers protesting forced bussing. These are all blatant acts of racism, many of which no longer occur. We can watch old black and white footage of African-Americans being beaten by southern cops and say to ourselves: “I’m so happy we are past this. Our country has changed.”

And it has. And yes, the fact that we have a black President is important. Anyone who claims that nothing has changed since Selma and Montgomery are misguided and cynical. But anyone who thinks we live in a color blind utopia is huffing a bit too much of the idealist ganja. Here’s one important point Coates makes:

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.

Racism nowadays is less overt acts of individuals and more a systemic and subconscious problem that runs through all of society. It is subconscious because most of us do not realize that we are—as the song goes—a little bit racist. And it is systemic because, well, we all are a little bit racist.

And I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be okay. You may be prejudiced, but you’re not a bad person. And this isn’t just about racism against African-Americans or anti-Semitism against Jews or even that other anti-Semitism—against Arabs. It’s not just misogyny or misandry. It’s about saying things like: the south is a bunch of in-bread hillbilly rednecks and far more racist than us. Or that religious people are delusional idiots. Or that Philadelphia has the worst sports fans in the world. (Though that last one is a no-doubter.)

When once it was a point of pride to actually discriminate against people, now it is verboten to even think in a manner that seems prejudicial against a group of people.

Partially this has to do with political correctness. One of the ideas behind PC is that by changing the way we speak, we will also change the way we think. If we simply act in compliance with certain rules we will somehow stifle those prejudices that lie within. And, yes, there are words we don’t use anymore. And that is a good thing. Because saying those words, just like being a deli worker who profiles customers, is discriminatory and harmful to society.

But that does not mean that inside of us there is not a belief that [INSERT ETHNIC GROUP HERE] is kinda different and wrong because they always [INSERT ODD BEHAVIOR HERE].

***

Do you really think that you have not one hateful bone in your body? We all do. We all find reasons to get angry with others, to begin petty feuds, to hold grudges, to neither forgive nor forget, to remember every slight and offense, to look for ways to stick the dagger in, to ridicule others, to mock them behind their backs, to seek revenge. It’s not just against selective groups where prejudice lives, but also individuals. There are people we don’t like, people we may actually hate, even though we claim we don’t.

“I don’t hate Julie. How can you think I do?”

“Because she slept with your husband on your wedding night.”

“But I’m not a hater. I’m a Buddhist.”

Yeah, and the Dalai Lama never felt anger or hatred? How about Jesus? Or…okay, I ran out of holy peaceniks.

There are people I hate. They have personally done me wrong. They are not Evil, necessarily. They might actually be good people in general. But I hate them because of some action they committed against me or those I care about. When I think of them I grind my teeth. I wish I didn’t hate them. I wish I didn’t desire their comeuppance.

Nah, I like hating them. I hated bin Laden, and when he died I was happy.

You just got to let go of the hate, Jake. Just let it go. Let it fly away like a dove in the breeze,” she said, placing a flower in my hair.

Yeah, well try that with love. Really. I mean it. Take someone you love and try not to love them. Try to remove the love from your heart. Not easy, is it? Hate’s the same.

We don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people because we feel negatively towards others, so we repress those feelings until we don’t even know that they’re there.

But therein lies the problem: just because I hate someone does not mean I am a bad person. A thought does not make one evil. Desiring to harm someone else is not wrong. Harming someone else is wrong. Acting upon those desires is what makes a person with a spiteful thought into a truly spiteful person.

In a twisted way this is how anti-gay groups view homosexuality. When they say that homosexuality is a choice, they don’t mean one can choose to be attracted to people of the same sex. That is something they understand is not going away. In their opinion, it is the actual act of homosexuality that is the choice. The sex is the sin, not the desire for it.

As I don’t think homosexuality is wrong and find repression of it to be detrimental to both individual health and societal strength, I find these people’s aims to be misguided. But their philosophy is not dissimilar to my own regarding the passive thought of doing something versus actually doing it.

Another example, this time of sexual acts which a great majority of society thinks are wrong: pedophilia. Not everyone who desires to have sex with underage people actually has sex with underage people. Why? Partially, I would imagine, is the fear of getting caught. But it’s also because these individuals recognize that to act on those desires is wrong. As I wrote in the above post:

The difference between a good person and a bad person is that a good person doesn’t do the bad thing he desires. The bad person does, and doesn’t give a shit about the consequences.

We are not all slaves to our baser instincts. We are human beings capable of rational thought and moral choices.  We can look at the potential consequences of our actions and understand that to behave in such and such a way would cause harm to others. And then we can opt against acting in such and such a way.

Rarely do we plumb the depths of our inner unsavoriness. But we need to examine our Mr. Hyde’s and understand that occasionally they will make an appearance. We need to accept the fact that none of us is pure. But to look inside of oneself can be ugly doings. Beneath a person’s outer shell is a mess of anger, hatred, spitefulness, prejudice, and all around nasty nastiness. And each of us has to take a deep breath and say, “Well, we all have some baggage. At least mine doesn’t contain a dead hooker.”

***

I hate being wrong. I hate having an argument with another person and realizing half-way through that they are right and I am most assuredly not. When I realize that this is happening, I will not surrender but will instead reinforce my incorrect argument. (Some think there is a instinctual reason for this behavior.)

I know a couple other people like this. Not only will they not acknowledge that they are wrong, especially when I lay out honest-to-goodness facts in front of them, but they will become enraged by the fact that I made them feel stupid.

This is a problem they and I share. I have acknowledged this fact, this ugliness within myself. I don’t try to repress it, because repressing it would be similar to not acknowledging that my friend is right when I am wrong: I will only make the problem worse. Instead, I let my Mr. Hyde come almost to the top, but then try—I emphasize try—to have my Dr. Jekyll confront him. I don’t repress this baser part of me, but attempt to confront it with the better angels of my nature. Does it work? Let’s just say that it’s getting better.

Similarly, I think as a society we need to acknowledge that we will never get over some vestigial prejudice. We must concede that when a good person errs it does not automatically make him evil.

I am not proud of feeling uncomfortable around those three black guys some 18 years ago. Neither am I proud to confess to it. But it’s a statement of fact about myself. Just like when I felt uncomfortable when I saw four young Arabs sitting at my gate at LaGuardia one time in 2002. I have used the phrase “I got gypped” in the same way that others have said “I got jewed.” I don’t even know if holding a door for a woman but not a man is chivalrous or demeaning.

And don’t get me started on what I think about Boston.

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