I was born in 1970, a relatively good year to be born in our nation’s racial journey, despite the loss two years before of Martin Luther King, Junior, and Bobby Kennedy, both champions of civil rights for all. I grew up in mostly “white” rural locations, though there were exceptions, when I lived in a couple suburbs. I knew primarily “white” children until high school, when I met a few students of different races and ethnicities. I enjoyed doing so, having felt stifled by the homogeneity I had known. When I went to university outside New York City, I finally enjoyed the diversity of civilization. My very first dormitory suite contained one student each from Israel, the Phillippines, Korea, and Iran. To me it was wonderful, but I saw them as individual persons first and foremost. Unfortunately, my “white” roommate was racist. He said he was glad he got a “white” roommate. When I moved out to be with other friends, he said if he got a “black” roommate he would beat me up for leaving.
My father was racist. I heard it on a daily basis. (I have more than one vivid quotation burned into my mind, but I will refrain from repeating them here.) I think that when one is born into injustice, one either adopts it or opposes it all the more passionately. My father, in attacking minorities, showed me the injustice of the majority and created in me far more sympathy for the underdog than he ever knew. The casual nature of his comments showed me he did not think about it at all. This disgusted and revolted me. My first serious girlfriend was dark-skinned, from Guyana. We took flak but not too much, being at a university with many international students. When I told my father I had a girlfriend, his first words were, “Is she white?” I told him no, and he had to deal with . . . what, I don’t know. I’ve always seen people as people, beautiful, different. He disowned his oldest son, my oldest half brother, for marrying an African-American woman.
It was at university, in the spring of 1990, that I learned that “white” and “black” were racist terms designed to divide human beings. We are all on a continuum of brown and pink. I have never seen a white person or a black person, though there are a few human beings on Earth who come close to one or the other. It doesn’t matter; the terms were not created for those select few. They are not applied only to those select few. They are applied to millions of persons for whom they are not accurate descriptors at all. I have not used them since then, except on occasion as shorthand during quick discussions when I am sure to be understood, since we are swimming in a racist society even to the point of using racist terms just to discuss racism and justice. We need a whole new lexicon.
That spring I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Portrait of the Anti-Semite”. I have yet to read a better study of the racist mindset. Racism is a voluntarily self-inflicted mental disorder chosen by those who cannot accept their own place in the human species. Unfortunately, entire institutions have supported this mindset throughout history and in our own country to this day.
I am sure, having written all my life, that I would have cared about words regardless of my father, but my father’s carelessness with words made me care all the more. I had seen and felt the harm his words caused.
The Word “Race”
In 1988, my Anthropology class taught me the main racial groups on Earth. So as not to be racist, I used the scientific terms I had been taught until even using those got me in trouble. One person thought I “wanted her to go back to Africa” because I mentioned she was African (of the African Race, not personally from Africa, as I thought myself Caucasian, not personally from the Caucasus). To this day she thinks me racist, when I was being antiracist. Race is not physical but a social construct. The social construct exists and must be dealt with. The social construct has obviously affected me (and everyone else) since birth. Yes, there is more genetic variation within a population than between populations. That is not the point. The point is that whether it is one gene or twenty, small variations that produce a phenotype difference is enough to give rise to all manner of abuses, and the need for all human beings to live peacefully with each other regardless of phenotype must be addressed. Again, we need a whole new lexicon, as this cannot happen until we agree on terms. In the mean time, our terms are so confused as to cause all manner of misunderstanding. I do not care what the terms are, but we need them desperately, to prevent further misunderstanding and harm.
A friend of mine informs me that climate (not geographic isolation, though the two might roughly coincide) is the primary factor in superficial adaptations of populations. It is these superficial variations that gave rise to the term “race”.
We’re all human beings. “Race” is just a word to apply a social category to infinitesimal differences that don’t mean much. When I say “Race exists,” I mean the social construct exists, so we must deal with it. When people use “white”, “black”, or “African-American”, they mean race . . . the thing they say does not exist even as they use it.
The following online exchange, which occurred on June 9, 2020, illustrates our current linguistic deficiencies:
Me to online acquaintance: “What is your social construct?”
Him: “I have no idea what you are talking about. My social construct?”
Me: “I meant ‘race’.”
Him: “My race? I’m white, if that’s what you mean.”
We are barely able to communicate due to a lack of mutually agreed-upon terms, and I am continually forced to employ the society’s racist terms if I am to be understood at all.
The Phrase “White Privilege”
I did not care for the phrase “white privilege”. I did not feel that exercising rights was a privilege, merely what everyone deserved. However, I did understand that privileged persons and groups enjoyed life better than others. To me that was not a matter of rights but luxuries. A privilege, to me, was good fortune above and beyond that to which one was entitled by law, usually something that was earned, for example, “the privilege of wearing an Eagle Scout badge”. Then I became familiar with the new usage, and I understood it. It is now used to describe the ability to exercise one’s rights when others cannot exercise theirs. That is not the meaning I knew, but I did not begrudge the new meaning too much once I understood it. I don’t fight language changing, contrary to popular belief.
When it comes to these matters, we are in desperate need of language change.
The Slogan “Black Lives Matter”
Being privileged and immersed in language, I did have trouble with the phrase “Black Lives Matter”. I did not see the forest for the trees. My first issue was with the word “black”, of course, but I overlooked that. My second was with whether they mattered. Of course they mattered. All lives mattered, and to me that meant “black” lives mattered too. I felt it was a terrible slogan, because it gave wrong impressions to the majority group and ammunition to troublemakers such as Rush Limbaugh, who live to misrepresent things. I felt it should be “Black Lives Do Matter” or “Black Lives Matter Too”. It took months of discussions for me to appreciate that is what it meant. (The word “matter” should be italicized.) I then realized it was my privilege (or “cultural status”) that caused me not to understand the phrase at first.
My primary concern was with opposing racism and how best to do so, but my semantic objections were less important than supporting the movement as it arose.
From my childhood until now, I have seen how the culture and the government do not treat all persons fairly. I have spent my life calling out racists, from my father on. I will keep doing so, until we can all walk down the street feeling deep in our souls that our government honors all citizens equally by nature, not merely under threat of lawsuit.
I have seen how one political party in the United States has fanned the flames of racism for no purpose but electoral advantage, completely disregarding harmful consequences in its pursuit of power. Much has been written on politicians keeping people down by turning them against each other, and President Lyndon’s famous statement on the matter sums that up rather nicely: “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Worse than racists in my mind are those who aid and abet them for their own power. My own father was their victim.
We all have been adversely affected by racism, just in different adverse ways.
We cannot force someone to love someone else, but we can strip evil of power and treat it with the law and judgement it deserves. Until we are all free, no one is.