Racism is ugly and wrong. This may seem inherently obvious to most people, but I have sadly discovered that the obvious isn’t always so obviously understood, and common sense is not so common.
Recently a young man in a university dormitory had an altercation with another student over misuse of the common area. John (not his real name) was awakened in the middle of the night by loud noises in the common kitchen next door, an area that was off limits after eleven pm. Annoyed by the late-night revelers, he got out of bed and stormed to the kitchen. He scolded the rule breakers for being in the kitchen after hours and pointed to the sign that stated the hourly restrictions. One of the noise offenders, we’ll call him Bill, got angry and defiant. Bill told John to get lost. They could do whatever they wanted because John wasn’t a Resident Assistant. John shook his head and disengaged, returning to his dorm room in hopes of getting back to sleep. Bill followed, and pounded on John’s door taunting him to come out and settle things man-to-man. John put in his earbuds and ignored him.
Two days later Bill saw John sitting alone at breakfast and approached him. Instead of an apology, Bill threatened John and told him that if he ever did anything like that again his parents might have to come get him and take him home, and they might not recognize his face. John again ignored the threats, but he didn’t remain passive.
John complained to the university authorities. They called him in for an interview. When John walked into the office, they noticed that his skin color and features were different than most of the students on campus. Instead of discussing how to keep John safe, they lectured him on cultural differences. Instead of discussing the behavior of the threatening student, they told John to be more aware that he was different and should be more tolerant.
Racism begins the moment we stop treating a person as an individual and begin treating them as part of a group. The individual loses their identity and becomes an impersonal member of a crowd, culture, or race. This shift in focus then allows us to demonize them, make them less than human, and rationalize our own bad behavior as acceptable. It keeps us from basing our judgment on their behavior. Sadly, this way of thinking is common practice.
It takes a great deal of introspection to break ourselves of this habit. If we want to stop our own racist behavior, we must start at the moment we begin to classify someone as part of a group. We must not pigeonhole the individual and lump them together with any particular tribe so that we feel justified in then treating them differently. We must strive to maintain the individuality of each person we meet. If we succeed at that, we succeed in judging each person on their individual merits and their individual behavior. We no longer see black, white, brown, yellow, or anything in between. We see a person, another human being.
Strangely enough, if you succeed at maintaining the individuality of the person, you can then recognize their differences without passing judgment. You begin to see their individual features, their individual personality, and their individual humanity. You will be able to pick them out of a crowd, because you recognize their differences.
With the polar opposite ways the media handled the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and the recent beating of the white thirteen-year old on the bus, understanding, and stopping, racism has become more difficult. In the Trayvon Martin case, the media doctored the 9/11 calls to make George Zimmerman sound racist. The media referred to Zimmerman as “White Hispanic” in an effort to polarize and foment hate and improve their ratings. Yet, when three black boys beat the thirteen-year old white student, several media outlets blurred the victim so that his race could not be determined. The bus driver, worried about getting in trouble, stood by and watched it happen.
I was running on the treadmill the first time I saw the attack on the thirteen-year old student. I couldn’t tell the race of the victim. I didn’t care about the race of the perpetrators. My reaction was visceral. I got angry. I ran faster. I could taste metal in my mouth. I just wanted to stop it. My reaction was based on their behavior.
What difference does the race of the perpetrators or the victim make? If it makes a difference to you, then you have ceased to think of them as individuals and begun to classify them as part of a group – the first step to racism. The punks beating up the boy on the bus were wrong and needed to be stopped. If you cared about the race of the attackers on the bus, or the race of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, then you have allowed racism to cloud your judgment. You have stopped judging people on their individual behavior and started to judge them based on their race – the definition of racism.
So, are you still wondering about the race of the threatened young man in the university dorm incident or the threatening student? I’m not going to tell you, because it doesn’t matter. One student threatened another with violence, and the first reaction by the university was inappropriate – period. Fortunately, the university did the right thing and called in the threatening student for counseling. They punished him based on his behavior. John, the threatened student, was satisfied that justice was done, and that he would be safe from harm, but he still wonders how his skin color, or culture, had anything to do with the incident.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at Tuesday, August 13, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .