Racist? So What?

I think I might start putting up an occasional entry about my graduate class. This semester, for the first time, I’m teaching the course “Race and Media” and it’s actually going really well. I keep waiting for the conversation to die down, but each night it seems that there are more and more questions and issues thrown around in the discussion.

I had a class on race and media at the University of Iowa. It was taught by Tim Havens, who did a great job keeping a discussion going without going the traditional discussion leader route. That said, I also had a race class taught by the irreplaceable, essential Mary Campbell. I’ve tried to combine the two approaches, while adding in a number of readings I’ve picked up over the years and, like I said, so far it’s going really well.

This week, one of the readings came from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism Without Racists, and this particular excerpt really stood out to me. In this chapter, Bonilla-Silva is examining the oft-cited phenomenon of people declaring tolerance, but harboring beliefs that suggest otherwise (in other words, “I’m not a racist, but…”). I talked about it with my race class and I think the discussion went well, but I just can’t stop thinking about it:

“First, readers need to be reminded that I see racism as a problem of power. Therefore, the intentions of individual actors are largely irrelevant to the explanation of social outcomes. Second, based on my structural definition of “racism,” it should also be clear that I conceive racial analysis as “beyond good and evil.” The analysis of people’s racial accounts is not akin to an analysis of people’s character or morality.”

This could easily represent a fundamental disconnect between academia and the “real world”–if I call you a racist, you’d probably get offended. However, I think the distinction is an important one.

If I know that a certain stereotype exists (e.g., “White people like sour patch kids”), that doesn’t mean I believe it. Hell, I can understand the wonderful complexity that is Santa Claus, but I don’t think he’s climbing down our non-existent chimney anytime soon. In other words, my ability to recognize that stereotype doesn’t mean I’m going to buy random White people delicious sour patch kids.

That said, can you really separate recognition and belief when it comes to race? When Bonilla-Silva writes that analysis of racial accounts is not akin to an analysis of people’s character or morality, I have to question that, at least on some level.

This was further complicated by, of all things, an episode of House. No, this isn’t a diatribe against the steep decline of a once-great show (though after a weekend of watching episodes from a few seasons ago, I could write volumes on the subject. I’ll let the A.V. Club handle it). I was watching a rerun on USA and the patient-of-the-week was a woman who had turned into a functioning psychopath. They were quick to point out that not all psychopaths or sociopaths are killers, but I couldn’t help but wonder why not. I mean, the symptoms are all there–aren’t they just waiting for opportunity?

Yes, I understand the compartmentalization of these kind of issues, and I get that there is a difference between understanding stereotypes and internalizing them. But if you understand stereotypes, haven’t you already internalized them, at least to a certain extent? If I’m at the store and I’m supposed to buy a snack for some White person and I don’t know what they like, if the first thing that pops into my mind is sour patch kids, doesn’t that make it an issue? Of course I would shrug it off and dismiss it as a stereotype, it feels like the damage is done. There are a number of fascinating studies (with fascinating methodologies) showing that people tend to respond faster in an emergency if the victim is of the same race. If my schema instantly connects White people and sour patch kids, in an emergency, doesn’t that make me a racist? And shouldn’t there be some sort of consequence for feeling that way?

I realize there are more questions here than answers, but I’m fascinated by the discussion, and I hope I can find an answer (or what might help explain this anyway) by the end of the semester.