Some Thoughts on Race

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Race is an exhausting topic, which up to now has led me to avoid blogging about it head on.  But now we have the George Floyd protests and the election and Father’s Day coming up, and I’m feeling a lot of pressure to get more articulate about race.

I’ve only written two sentences and already I have explaining to do — this is why it is exhausting.  The scrutiny and potential to be misunderstood can feel intense.  There isn’t much expectation of sympathy surrounding racial opinions.  Even “racial opinions” sounds kind of edgy — is there really room for differences of opinion here?  One opinion is that the races are all equal and a now-in-power race is oppressing other races — are there other valid opinions contrary to that?  Dear reader, I can feel you scrutinizing me.

But yes of course there is room for different racial opinions.  Racial equality is a truth embedded in nature, but it doesn’t naturally manifest in society.  Racial oppression manifests in society, more naturally than not.  Any excuse for oppression is going to naturally manifest in society, and race is just such an easy one at hand to use.  We are all scared and miserable in the presence of other people (i.e. in society) unless someone makes us feel “safe and at home.”   So, we team up, and “take care of our own.”  When everyone is the same race, we find other ways to team up against each other.  We need something, a race is skin color and skin color is obvious and human behavior, in its preference for efficiency, tends to be guided by the obvious things.

Which brings us to the point that society’s racial groups are indeed constructed by way of group consensus.  People’s skin color (and other features) varies a lot, from very light to very dark.  But, we only have a few group labels that we eventually use to organize everybody–white, black, brown, asian, other.  If you’re in between, “racially ambiguous,” people want to know which group you belong to.  The question sometimes feels like “which team do you play for?” and given how people are with each other, the answer is pretty consequential.

On what I just described, I don’t actually think there is much room for opinion.  So, where do legitimate differences of opinion come in?  Well, this has more to do with the stark racial inequality we see in society across a variety of metrics — incarceration rate, high school graduation rate, unemployment rate, etc.  What causes these differences?  Are those causes unjust?  Can we do anything about them?

I already mentioned oppression (which, my point was, is always looming) so let me now sketch another interpretation of what is going on, which can be distilled into a single word: mindset.  This one has roots going back a long ways.  The thinking goes that lots of people with the right mindset are able to persevere through adversity, to triumph over the odds.  Getting in the way of this right mindset is the focus on race, because you don’t want to focus on the difficulty of your obstacle if you want to overcome it.  Just like in any trial or ordeal, you need to get your mind off the pain, and focus on the opportunities that are available to you.  Ultimately, your mindset is your responsibility.  If a large group of people are all apparently stuck in the wrong mindset, then you can draw your own conclusions about what is going on there, but the point remains — which is to say, “you don’t have to think that way, and you could be more successful and do more good by getting your head right.”  Remember this scene from The Matrix?:

Little boy: Do not try and bend the spoon.  That’s impossible.  Instead . . . only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Little boy: There is no spoon.

And there you have it.  And in a way, when the circumstances are right, this is very good advice.  Remember Jesus speaking to his disciples in Gospel of Matthew: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”  Move on, stay focused on your mission, and you will succeed.  God has your back: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

This is an ethos for perseverance, and one that has a long and strong presence in the American mindset.  To obsess on one particular difficulty in your life can be seen by many as un-American, un-Christian, and even contrary to the wise words from the little spoon boy talking to Neo — or in other words, generally un-wise.

Many times I have heard similarities to this view expressed by people who have overcome a lot of adversity in their own lives.  So, if perseverance and the right mindset worked for these people, why can’t it work for everyone, and if so, isn’t it counter-productive to keep depicting things, like discouragement from encountering racism, as impossible to overcome?

Now here comes the counter-point to the mindset argument.  We can give ourselves too much credit for our own perseverance, which is based on 3 weak assumptions.

Assumption 1: Things worked out super well.

People that have been through hell and have little patience for the complaints of others tend to forget how bad things still are for themselves.  Well, not forget exactly, but part of the way they have survived is to *just not focus on the bad.*  The bad part of this is it turns you into a Grinch.  A survivor, but a Grinch.  Instead of telling others not to complain so they can survive the same way you have, you could change your mindset and help fight for more justice for them and yourself, and potentially end up much better off than you are right now.  Yes you survived, but maybe in the process you blinded/inured yourself to things you shouldn’t have.

Assumption 2: Perseverance is the only reason things worked out.

Everything gets taken for granted when we focus on our perseverance.  Every benefit of birth is forgotten, and even some of the challenges are forgotten.  Only those things that seem to have been persevered through are allowed into the story.  It becomes a tale of light conquering the darkness, and the light is this virtue of will and perseverance.  Does it accurately reflect what really happened?  Just like families and nations construct their own survival narratives that tend to be selective with the details, exaggerating the virtues of the heroes and the vices of the villains, so too does the rugged individual in telling his or her own story.  In truth, those that successfully persevere in their own mind often have a lot to be grateful for, and should have no reason to think that they have less to be grateful for than anyone else that is struggling.  Indeed, maybe luck had more to do with how things worked out, in the end.  Could be dumb luck or some sort of divine favor, but things often happen at key moments that make or break a person that are really not within that person’s control.

Assumption 3: Perseverance is something we alone deserve credit for.

Let’s assume that I, your humble author of this blog post, seem to possess perseverance.  Why do I have it?  Where did it come from?  What fed it all this time, keeping it alive?  I can’t help but think that had I grown up in an alternate-universe America, where the now-in-power majority race was the black race, and every president but 1 recent one had been black, and most wealthy neighborhoods were black neighborhoods, and the white incarceration rate was above the other races, as well as the unemployment rate, and the high school drop out rate, and the college incompletion rate, all looked particularly bad for my race, the white race — then I wonder how much perseverance would I exhibit.  The exact same amount?  Even more?  We also have to add in all of the experiences of racism I would likely encounter, from childhood and school days, even if I ever hoped to overcome the odds.  Encountering black people in positions of power, preferring to help other black people at my expense, with them partly justifying doing so by stereotyping me and assuming based on these metrics and history that the white race was a bit inferior, and so that I just wasn’t probably as good as black people for careers and education and general slack and open-mindedness.  Would I still have the same perseverance?  Even more, you say?  Say my family and friends all had really soured on life from mistreatment, prejudice, indifference from the majority, now-in-power race that was exercising authority everywhere you turned.  No money, no connections, no real sense of a clean slate or a fresh start anywhere I went.

Do you really think I’m still trying to bend the spoon, in that alternate universe?

I doubt it.

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