A Question About Racism

Paula-Deen-2013profileOn my ongoing list of blog topics, I’ve had a question about racism for quite some time. In the midst of a summer seemingly full of racism in the news (Paula Dean, Trayvon Martin, Riley Cooper, Aaryn on Big Brother, etc), racism has been on my mind a lot, but I don’t really know how to write about it.

But I’m going to try. I sincerely hope this post isn’t racist in any way.

My question is grounded in my viewpoint that there are two types of racism:

  1. Saying or writing racist things.
  2. Treating someone differently because they are a specific race.

Now, there’s certainly some overlap between the two–when Paula Dean directs the n-word at someone, she is treating them as less-than. But my question is specifically about areas where there is very little overlap, at least in the moment. For example, on one hand we have Riley Cooper, who said at a concert, “I will fight every n-word here.” This was caught on video, and it’s clearly a chest-puffing moment–Riley was not offering to fight a bunch of people at the concert.

On the other hand we have an employer (this is hypothetical) who decides not to hire someone because they’re black. Nothing racist is said–it’s simply a matter of one person not hiring a talented candidate due to their race.

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering, something I don’t even know if I can ask, but I think it’s worth asking: With all the press that the first kind of racist gets (saying a racial slur), are we not paying enough attention to the second, arguably more important type of racist (treating someone differently because of their race)?

Even that question is somewhat of a generalization, because the Trayvon Martin case–which most would consider a prime example of the second type of racism–got plenty of press. But for the most part, I think the second type of racism is way more pervasive and detrimental than the first kind, but you don’t hear about it nearly as much.

Now, I want to be clear that they’re both examples of racism, and they’re both terrible. Also, I’m white. Although racism against white people is a thing, it’s nowhere near as bad as the racism that other races experience. So I don’t know if I’m really equipped to say that one type of racism is worse than the other.

This is all a roundabout what of saying: What do you think? Is the second type of racism worst than the first? If so, why does the first kind seem to get more attention?

6 thoughts on “A Question About Racism”

  1. Yes the second type is far worse and more damaging in a lasting way. The first type is nothing to scoff at, since it shows an attitude which means they are probably also doing the second.

    The first kind of rascism is loud and out there and obvious to everyone. And in this world where people prefer not to think below the superficial, morality is not something that matters to most people. Was it wrong that someone didn’t hire that talented job candidate who happened to be of a different color skin? Yes. I believe most people think if they get upset about it then they might be ostracized for having an opinion, and their morals aren’t that important to them.

    In short it’s a societal problem that will not be easily fixed.

    • I can write an entire essay about this since I’m both a minority and a woman but I will refrain. I think asking this question poses a false dichotomy of sorts. It’s easy to say that one is worse than the other, i.e. individual racism versus institutional racism but what is more scary to me is how insidious and pervasive racism is. It’s more obvious in the case of saying racist things but I don’t think it less pernicious because it’s less obvious. These kinds of words not only hurt but can incite violence and hate crime. See Vincent Chin as a perfect example. Racism across the board, no matter its form is never a good thing but acknowledging one’s prejudice is at least a step on the right direction. And what about affirmative action?

  2. The first leads to the second. I don’t think we should stop covering the first because the second might be more detrimental, I firmly believe that when the majority of the world or our country agrees that it is not okay to even simply say something, there will be fewer instances of acting on those words and ideas. Words have so much power and reinforced attitudes through language, even casual, are how racism is formed.

    Do I want to see more attention to the second type you mention? Sure. Do I think we should see less of the first? Not necessarily.

    Also, racism against races other than white is not “more bad”, but arguably more pervasive. Racism is racism and none of it is worse than others, in my opinion.

  3. Emma, I was going to say the same thing about the first leading to the second. Thankfully, we seem to be headed in the direction of more and more people understanding and heavily criticizing people that publicly use that kind of language. For instance, Paula Deen lost a ton of endorsements, Aaryn got fired, and Riley Cooper got fined, but each of these people also had far more supporters justifying the use of their language than I would like. I think that’s sad and scary, and it’s that kind of attitude that allows the “closet racism” to occur. Even if a hiring manager never utters a single racial slur, they’re easily able to see that others feel the same way they do, validating their opinion and making it seem like it’s ok.

    The very core of racial slurs is that you’re treating someone differently. You see them as lower than you somehow, and you’re reducing them down and dehumanizing them simply because they have more pigmentation in their skin. You’re just being more vocal about it, but the treatment is still there nonetheless.

    I think it’s harder to address the 2nd type because it usually isn’t 100% clear that discrimination is occurring. We can speculate and know deep down that something isn’t right, but that doesn’t count for a lot when you’re trying to address or stop the issue.

    So what can we do to address it when it’s behind the scenes like that? By shaming those who are openly bigoted, I suppose. I’m torn between wanting media coverage about people who use racial slurs and not wanting to give a voice to those people. But we can’t hide the issue and pretend it doesn’t exist, because that’s exactly what allows it to continue. I think it’s good to continue addressing it, and the more we make it known that the behavior is disgusting, the more people will hopefully understand and change their ways. But as I mentioned, it’s really disheartening to see that so many people just don’t get it.

    Personally, I’d almost rather someone be openly bigoted so at least I would know to stay away from them. Those words are awful, but I feel like at least you know that the person is disgusting, rather than being denied an opportunity and always wonder what the real cause was.

  4. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts about such a sensitive topic. This has been a really interesting conversation for me to follow.

  5. Interesting topic and timely. Apparently Law & Order is coming out with an episode in which a character LIKE Paula Deen shoots a character LIKE Trayvon Martin. Where’s George Takei when you need an “ohhh myyyy”.

    I think both are harmful – and it’s not just race but any type of judging. I was told by my supervisor at a previous job that I could not take a morning off to attend Ash Wednesday mass and if I went before work I should wipe the ashes off. Her words were “I think the Pope will forgive you if you miss it. Did you see that movie, ‘Luther’, and all the ways those poor peasants were mistreated by the priests?” She was from Texas, recent transplant to St. Louis, and probably not used to the sight of 1/3rd of the workforce coming in with ashen foreheads.

    But you asked about racism specifically, so let’s keep it there. I agree with Katie’s thought that it’d be nice to know exactly who is racist and – perhaps more importantly – when someone isn’t being racist even if the results are unequal. Statistics alone aren’t enough. At my workplace we have very few African-Americans, maybe less than 5%. But if you go to a conference, a meeting, or even visit the liaison department of our clients, it’s the same thing. I’ve been in hiring discussions and interviews, and we just don’t get many African-American candidates. Yet if our company were compared to others say, within the Russell 1000 group of companies based in St. Louis, we’d compare very unfavorably. From my own experience, African-Americans with the quantitative and technical background my employer requires tend to go into higher-paying fields than ours (engineering or computer science, rather than research).

    I also agree with Jennifer that racism is insidious no matter the form it takes and one should examine him or herself carefully to understand what prejudices he or she brings to the workplace, church or community.


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