Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Casual Racism--It's Not OK

In my early 20s I joined several NYC theater companies, happy to be a part of any group that would have me as a member.

One group was particularly small and was most focused on "collective" work. We met every week to read plays, to discuss vision, to vote on prospective members.

And every member of the group was white (yes, I count Ashkenazi Jewish as white).

Toward the end of my short year with the group I remarked to a member -- a West Virginian native -- that maybe we should try to bring in more racially or culturally diverse members. He shrugged and asked why. 

I thought this would be self-evident, but gave him the usual reasons about inclusiveness and representing at least some of the many cultures as New York had to offer. Or, more importantly, NOT excluding people for superficial reasons. 

He argued that we had no control over who applied to be a member. I suggested that we could advertise in less homogenous communities. 

He shrugged again, saying it wasn't important, then added, "Yeah. I don't know. I don't really care. I don't think it matters." My jaw dropped. 

He read my expression and added, "I guess I'm kind of racist. I don't know. It was just the way I was raised. You know, that like they just aren't as good as us? It's just how I feel. It's the way I was raised." My jaw welded to the floor. 


It was like he was saying, "So, big deal if I'm a bigot, it's not my fault, and it doesn't really matter." But it was his fault. And it absolutely did matter!

Did he ever consider that any non-white prospective member just might pick up on this attitude and react accordingly? Did he ever consider that just maybe this was a heinous belief system that was responsible for some of our culture's most hateful acts??


To him it was just "how he was raised" -- in the same way a person might be raised to eat with a fork, or to love football, or to say please and thank you. But instead of being raised to have good manners, he was raised to have contempt based on skin color; and contempt is a close cousin to hatred and oppression.

Yes, racism was his "family value" -- which he embraced with a shrug of defiant indifference: If it doesn't matter, why should he bother to change it?

But racism isn't a "family value". I'ts not a "tradition" any more than child abuse is: Just because parents do it doesn't mean its OK to abuse the next generation!!

Racism is a destructive belief system -- even when it's latent -- that affects everyone in a culture: We may not be acting directly on destructive and hateful beliefs, but those beliefs influence other aspects of our behavior, as well as those around us ... who may be more inclined to act directly.

And that is important -- something for our all of us to care deeply about. 

As we have seen.

Regardless of "how we are raised" we must not unconsciously absorb the beliefs and values surrounding us.

As adults, we have a responsibility to test those values against our developing conscience. If we find ourselves holding a hateful belief, at least question it; don't chalk it up to it being "just how we feel." 

Because, while we may not be able to control how we feel, we might examine those feelings and the needs behind them. 

More importantly, evaluate how much these feelings affect our attitudes and actions, and ask: Do these beliefs harm others or ourselves? Do they cause us to hold others in contempt, to consider them less-than? If so, why would we cling to such a belief? 

To start, just ask the question... 

It is not OK to blindly perpetuate harmful attitudes as though we have no choice in the matter, as though it's "just how we're raised". We need to care and we need to choose our values.

But the only way to truly have a choice is to recognize that the beliefs we are hold are chosen, to look at why we have chosen to hold them, and acknowledge that we have the ability to un-choose them if they are harmful.  

But to do this takes honesty, introspection, and a willingness to change.