Politics  •  September 10, 2017

Why People of Color Aren’t the Authority on Racism

It’s easy to see why if we considered another complex problem like the financial crisis of 2008. It is certainly important to listen to how people suffered, particularly those who lost their homes, but if our goal is to prevent another crisis of this nature, just listening to the stories of suffering isn’t going to help. We need to understand the underlying mechanism of the collapse. For that, we need to engage the bankers in our public debate. If we create an environment where the bankers are afraid to speak, we would be sabotaging our own hope of preventing another crisis. Just because someone suffered something, it does not mean that he is the authority on how it happened and how to prevent it.

Today, we have an environment where white people are afraid of speaking up. If we ask a white person for his opinion on racism, he might say something like, “What do I know? I’m a white man.” While such self-deprecating comment may seem like an appropriate expression of modesty, it also means they are not willing to seriously engage in our public discourse about racism. As members of the dominant group, they can afford to just listen to our complaints, even apologize, and go on with their own lives.

In the book “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, there is a chapter titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” It describes how uncomfortable the idea of talking about race is for white parents, so much so that many dropped out of one research study when they realized that they couldn’t bring themselves to talk about race to their children. Their fear is that they might botch it and their kids might start making highly offensive and embarrassing remarks in public. But the book argues that not speaking to children about race simply leads to them forming their own misguided opinions about it. In this way, white people’s fear and discomfort about discussing racism have many negative consequences in our society.

In our racial dynamics, white people have become submissive. Most of them would never dare contradict any black person. Independent and critical thinking about racism does not exist. Today, William F. Buckley Jr. would be labelled racist and white supremacist if he made the same argument he did against James Baldwin at Cambridge University in 1965. White people today are more interested in avoiding trouble than in solving the problem of racism. Expressing any original thought is highly risky because there is no guarantee that it won’t be misinterpreted, so they only share opinions expressed by others that have already received positive reactions. The risk of being called a “racist” is high in expressing untested ideas. Since racism is not their problem, why take the risk? Let the people of color work it out. So, the only white perspective we hear is coming from white supremacists or white nationalists because they are the only white people who dare to think independently. We should be alarmed by this situation.

The people of color created this problem by relentlessly talking about how evil white people are and how much people of color suffer because of them. White people are so scared of the topic of racism that I often receive private messages saying they agree with my view that challenges the conventional view of racism. They are not going to, for instance, publicly “Like” or agree with my criticism. They know better. They are too scared to say anything publicly.

It’s true; people of color, particularly blacks, are treated unjustly and suffer greatly. I’m not here to minimize their suffering, but let’s ask the hard question: What exactly do you want to achieve by talking perpetually about how much you suffer and how evil white people are? Does it solve the problem of racism? True; life is unfair, but saying so doesn’t make it any fairer. Let’s get real and pragmatic. Calling someone “racist” doesn’t solve the problem of racism. There is even some research to prove it.

Before we can make any progress, we need to create an environment where ordinary white people can express themselves honestly without the fear of being called racists. Many white liberals read books and articles written by black people. They watch a lot of documentaries about black history. They even travel far to participate in public demonstrations to fight racism. But these are not true engagement even though they may look engaged in appearance. They are not staking anything of their own. They are just motivated by the sense of belonging. “Did you read that book? Cool. I did too.” “Did you go to that demonstration? Cool. I did too.” And so on... It’s just a way for them to strengthen their social bonds. As soon as we ask them to offer their own unique perspectives on racism, they freeze, especially if we asked them to do so publicly. Many of them don’t have any because they are just passive consumers of other people’s opinions. They are not engaged because they don’t see it as their problems. In contrast, if we asked them for their opinions on parenting or dieting schemes, each of them has a unique perspective, because they are engaged in those topics.

Being engaged is like betting real money on a stock, instead of just researching about it, or having your own child instead of babysitting someone else’s. If you don’t invest your own unique and independent opinions into the public discourse, you have no skin in the game. If you are truly engaged, the problem becomes personal. You are no longer a passive observer. You care about the outcome. We need to encourage white people to be engaged in the problem of racism. We don’t want them hunkering down until the storm passes. If we continue the current state, the storm will never pass because they are a big (or bigger) part of the problem.

Today, most of the mainstream books and articles about racism are monologues coming from the people of color who pretend as though they are engaging their opponents (like Trump supporters) but their opponents are not even paying attention. As an example, take this article, “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who is his audience? On the surface, it sounds like he is talking to Trump-supporting white Americans. After all, it is their behavior Coates ultimately wants to change. But, he can’t possibly think that they would read this and go, “Oh, he is right. We are evil racists. Let’s change our behavior.” So, the purported audience is different from the real audience. Who is the real audience? The white liberals.

Now, why would the white liberals read this? Do they really need to hear that this country is racist? No. They already know. Do they need to hear more stories about how much blacks suffered in history? No, they already know. If they already know, why are they reading it? And, how does their passive consumption of other people’s opinions help in solving the problem of racism?

This type of dynamics between blacks and whites have become so extreme that it looks to me like a sadomasochistic relationship where black writers can feel better by venting their anger, and the white readers can feel better by alleviating their feelings of guilt by being whipped. If both are deriving pleasure from this relationship, why would they want anything to change? Our goal isn’t for white people to feel guilty and apologize; it is to solve the problem of racism by getting everyone involved.

I believe the current rise of white nationalism is a backlash from the years of suppression where every black person’s argument was accepted as true and authoritative, and every white person’s argument was dismissed as false and illegitimate. People who contributed to creating this environment should ask themselves what this ultimately achieves.

Racism is a specific manifestation of prejudice. In order to solve the problem of racism, we need to study how prejudice works, just as we need to study how our financial system works if we want to prevent another crisis. Race then becomes just one of many manifestations of the same problem. This is another reason why blacks, or people of color, shouldn’t be automatically considered the authority on the subject. Race is secondary to the problem of prejudice. Every opinion should stand on its own and we need to evaluate it on its own merits regardless of who said it.

In Japan, there is a group of people called Burakumin and discrimination against them still exists to this day. This YouTube video explains the overall concept pretty well. What is interesting here is that biologically Burakumin are identical to the rest of the Japanese. So, they need to keep written records of them in order to discriminate against them. A similar type of discrimination exists in Africa as described in this article about the slavery in Mali. There too, no obvious biological markers exist. People descended from slaves are deemed properties of their masters.

Now, in combatting these types of problems in Japan and Africa, would it make sense to treat them as entirely different problems from “racism”? No. The underlying mechanism is the same even though there is no “race” involved here. If we were to focus exclusively on race, we would be missing the forest for the trees. Furthermore, focusing on race when there are so many other forms of prejudice would be yet another type of prejudice (i.e. prejudice of prejudice). For instance, the prejudice against albinos receive unfairly little attention in our culture.

At the core, prejudice is a psychological (or phenomenological) problem. Here is an example of prejudice in an elementary form. If we asked people to paint a glass of water, most of them would use blue paint. If water was actually blue, we wouldn’t drink it. Water is clear, which means, if we are to paint water, we need to be painting the objects that we see through its distortion, which in turn means that there are many colors and that they change depending on the context. Interestingly, some kids naturally paint the colors they actually see in the glass in front of them instead of automatically picking up the blue paint. The latter is a learned behavior. They have to be taught that water is blue in order to make the assumption that the color of the water in front of them is blue. Why do we think water is blue? It’s coming from the fact that water often reflects the sky which is blue.

So, part of the problem of prejudice is learning. This has interesting implications. It means learning history can exacerbate or compound the problem of racism. In the US, the racial tension is greatest between blacks and whites. Why? It’s largely because of history. Recently I was debating with a black woman who was quite angry about the fact that white people wouldn’t apologize for slavery. Why should they? The white people who live today never had slaves. Why should they apologize for the crimes committed by others just because the color of their skin is the same as that of the criminals? I asked her, “So, are you willing to apologize for the crimes other black people committed? Isn’t that how racial profiling works?”

Because she does not see the underlying structure of prejudice, when she herself is racially profiling others, she doesn’t recognize her own prejudice. She is blinded by what she learned. The history of slavery makes her see what’s not there, just like the color blue in the glass of water. The long, dark history of slavery in the US prevents blacks and whites from seeing each other for what they are today. Just like the book of Burakumin, they keep all that history in their heads and project them onto each other. If all the Americans suddenly forgot the entire history of slavery, overall, the tension would ease and the problem would lessen because they can then focus only on the problems that exist today. They will see that the glass of water is not blue.

For some of us, this problem might be easier to relate to if we think about our childhood friends. Even though we have all changed dramatically since we were in school, some of us still insist on treating each other in the same way we did in our childhood. The images we have of each other from childhood get in the way of seeing who we are today. The same problem can be observed among siblings and between parents and children. Unconsciously, we try to hold on to the power dynamics we have established in the past. These are different manifestations of the same underlying structure of prejudice. If we are oblivious to how prejudice works at the psychological level, learning history can make our problem worse.

Prejudice is a deeply psychological problem and the solutions can be counter-intuitive. Here is an example from NurtureShock:

“Dr. Walter Stephan, a professor emeritus at New Mexico State University, made it his life’s work to survey students’ racial attitudes after their first year of desegregation. He found that in 16% of the desegregated schools examined, the attitudes of whites toward African Americans became more favorable. In 36% of the schools, there was no difference. In 48% of the schools, white students’ attitudes toward blacks became worse. Stephan is no segregationist—he signed the amicus brief, and he is one of the most respected scholars in the field.”

That is, uncritically placing your kids in a racially diverse school would have negative consequences. I have personally observed this too. Although my daughter received a lot of education about racism in her primary school, now in her middle school, all of her friends have self-segregated. The teachers are trying to break up the racial cliques to no avail.

The problem with educating kids about race and racism is that not much research has been done on it. Despite the enormity of the problem, very few longitudinal studies have been conducted. So, a well-meaning teacher could be creating more problems than solving them. Here is another example from NurtureShock:

“But if [minority] children heard these preparation-for-bias warnings [that the world is full of racists] often (rather than just occasionally), they were significantly less likely to connect their successes to effort, and much more likely to blame their failures on their teachers—whom they saw as biased against them.”

A different research study I found on the web has a similar example in workplace environments:

“Using data from 708 workplaces, Kalev et al. (2006) reveal that programs targeting managerial stereotyping through diversity training and diversity evaluations are not followed by increases in diversity at the workplace. To the contrary, diversity training is followed by a 7% decline in the odds of attaining higher status in the workplace for black women, and an 8% decline in the odds for black men across time, compared to workplaces that did not use diversity training.”

This illustrates how unpredictable and complex the problem of racism is. Most people assume that venting their anger in public demonstrations against white supremacists and teaching kids about the history of racism are all good, but it’s not that simple. Those efforts may even have adverse, unintended consequences. We need to be a lot more critical than that. Each of us needs to think more critically and independently, and contribute our own perspectives, instead of just echoing what everyone else is saying. We need to think more like psychologists than political activists; the latter obviously hasn’t worked in the many decades since Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s time we step back and reassess our strategy. The constant moral accusations have white people pushed into their own quiet library. We need to start listening to them even if their opinions sound offensive or misguided. We need to watch our automatic reflex to be offended. If we do care about actually solving the problem of racism, it is more important to get them involved than to vindicate our righteousness.