It was back in 2012, earlier than the election, that I read on Facebook what I considered an extremely racist comment made by a man I did not know. In reply to him, someone had called his comment racist, to which he objected strongly and then reversed the charge by saying the person who had raised the issue of racism was the true racist. That illogic led me to check the man’s homepage to see how he presented himself to the world on Facebook. There it was. His profile picture was a red circle with the familiar red slash of negation through it. Within the circle was a picture of President Barack Obama, and beneath it the admonition, “Don’t re-nig in 2012.” But that man, according to his own assessment, was not a racist.
Recently I finished reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land, subtitled, “Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.” Hochschild is a sociologist at Berkley. Her book is complex (though not hard to read), and so are my thoughts and feelings in reaction to it.
At the heart of what she learned from her new friends in rural Louisiana is what she calls their “deep story” or “the feels-as-if story” of their being caught in a cultural squeeze. Racism is by no means the whole story, but Hochschild discovered, “Race is an essential part of this story.”
But the people, all white, she came to know, respect, like, and in some ways admire rejected the label of racist imposed upon them by people they believed were misjudging them and trying to shame them. She writes:
When the topic of blacks did arise, many explained that they felt accused by “the North” of being racist – which, by their own definition, they clearly were not. They defined as racist a person who used the “N” word or who “hates” blacks. (146)
Even by that definition, the Facebook man with the “don’t re-nig” slogan seems to fit the charge he denied, but the definition itself is interestingly self-protective because it leaves out so much. Hochschild offers a definition she and others in her field use.
As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom. By that definition, many Americans, north and south, are racist. And racism appears not simply in personal attitudes but in structural arrangements – as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white. (147)
I might add to Hochschild’s definition the tendency to assign certain negative attributes to another race as though characteristic of that race and the tendency to generalize negative perceptions from one person of that race to the whole of the race. The former is, “They’re like that” (by racial definition). The latter is, “That’s what they do” (because one person was perceived as having done it). But the contrast remains. People who refuse to admit to their own racism excuse themselves by severely limiting the definition, which seems to work for them, convincing them they indeed are not racist and so are wrongly accused by people prejudiced against them (in their eyes, the true bigots).
This bogus defense makes helpful, healing conversation about race and racism (personal and structural) nearly impossible. My own contention is that it is impossible or nearly so to grow up in America without at least some tinge of racism and some feelings that accompany it, and the feelings may be stronger and harder to shake off than the beliefs themselves. But how can we manage such feelings and come together in mutual respect if we defend ourselves by denying the reality of the problem and our roles, active or passive, in it? On the other hand, how can we come together in mutual respect if we merely point out each other’s faults but remain conveniently blind to our own? My questions, of course, assume a desire to come together in mutual respect.