Thursday, August 14, 2008

Are people inherently racist?

Recently the Spanish Olympic basketball team got in trouble for posing in a national Spanish ad for a courier company in which they're making "slanty-eyes" with their fingers (surrounded by other obvious references to the Olympics in Beijing).

I'm not watching the Olympics cause, uh, if you haven't noticed, sports aren't really my thang, but there has been toooons of debate on whether the Olympics should have been held in China, a contentious country known for its various human rights violations. Even though the US, and every other country for that matter, has its own boatload of inhumane practices, I still think this is a valid complaint to consider.

But that's for another day. I don't really have much of an opinion on that because,'s not so easy. I feel bad for how the citizens of China, so proud of their country for hosting the Olympics, are being equated with the Chinese government's corruption. You can't blame them for their government any more than you can blame liberals (or even some conservatives) for George Bush. (And seriously, don't blame me for that shit.) But still, at the same time, to give all this attention, money and support to a country with such a long history of human injustice doesn't seem quite right.

What this Spanish example has me really wondering is what you all think about human nature. Are we racist by definition? I happen to think that racism, though terrible, is a very instinctual gut reaction to feeling threatened by some defined "other". We have socially constructed the idea of "race" to categorize people just like we categorize a tree from a shrub or a fruit from a vegetable. It helps our brain organize things. So, since we are social beings, we strive for human connections and most closely identify with those like us (unfortunately, often by such superficial criteria as skin and hair color) while we see those unlike us as "others". Nothing solidifies group identity like defining who's excluded!

From what I've seen, incidences of racism seem to increase when people come into hard times, whether it's anomie caused by lack of cohesive identity or simply economic depression. So now, France has problems with Muslim immigrants, Spain has problems with North African immigrants, and the US has problems with Mexican immigrants. And isn't it a bit overly coincidental that it's always the ones with darker skin who are seen as less worthy? Even in countries where ALL the native residents have relatively dark skin such as Jamaica and India, those with lighter-than-average skin are seen as more beautiful and of higher status. This latter phenomenon may very well be socially constructed, possibly due to the infiltration of Western imagery because of globalization. Jezebel just did a piece wondering if the "most beautiful women in India" had their skin photoshopped to be lighter in a magazine feature, and don't even get me started on that Beyonce thing.

Though I think racism is a "natural reaction", I don't think that makes it okay by any means. I personally believe that most humans are evolved enough to resist their inclination to judge others by such superficial characteristics. Part of what differentiates us from lesser animals is our ability to restrain ourselves (otherwise I'd pee my pants at least twice a day...I have the smallest bladder in the world.) I think this applies to thought processes as well. Often, our gut reactions are foolish, and people have overcome these throughout time with the help of increases in education and an emphasis on critical thought.

Last year I brought up my views on this subject with my ex-roommate, who also majored in Sociology and is way more studied on race than I am. To my surprise, he disagreed adamantly and said that the idea of "racism as natural" is a fallacy, an excuse that people make for racism's existence. I can understand how saying it's part of our nature can come across as apologetic, but trust me, I'm not praising humanity here. I'm saying we have it in our best interest along with a moral duty to overcome a tendency towards racism. I didn't exactly understand his reasons for disputing my thoughts on the subject, but I know he was referencing the book "Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistance of Inequality in the United States", which I want to read. I'm fully aware of institutional racism and I think I'll agree with the author on most of his points. I guess I was most alarmed by the fact that my roommate thought I was saying it's okay to be racist. I'm not. It's not. He tends to be a contrarian asshole at times, so I think he was just trying to make me feel like an idiot.

Though I'm admittedly out of my comfort zone here, I want to hear solid refutations of my argument. I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong, and in this case, it'd make things easier if I am. But here's the thing: I am usually the queen of social construction. I think EVERYTHING is socially constructed. Gender roles*, religion and almost any other institution you can name. With this, I'm not so sure. Racism seems so universal. A close (white) friend painted all over his Ecuadorian best friend with white acrylic paint when he was six because he wanted her to be white, too. And I remember reading about the people of Mount Hagan (in New Guinea) who, upon seeing white men for the first time, thought they were ghosts and were thus suspicious of them. Are we to assume that the leaders of this group of people were scheming to denigrate "the white man" before they even knew he existed?

What do you think? Should I just get back to posting about pretty clothes?

(*How I explain my thoughts on the social construction of gender roles is that yes, biological differences between men and women exist, but the degree to which they exist has been blown way out of proportion throughout history by men for their benefit. Thus a natural tendency towards more strength in men was unfairly rationalized -- in a reductionist way -- into meaning that women were powerless second-class citizens more suited for housework, just so long as the men weren't away at war!)

Shame on You, Spanish Olympic Team
Spain's eye-catching faux pas
Spain's Olympic Basketball Team Honors China with a "Wink"
Movie: The Visitor

1 comment:

KATLIN said...

I'm not the biggest sports fan, but the Olympics always get me excited and really emotional too. I think people that don't know much about China are getting a very small view into the developing country. They show the amazing arenas they built, but don't show the farms and run down areas where people can't even watch the Olympics because they don't even have a TV, let alone electricity. It's also amazing to think about how different the lives of the Chinese athletes are from our own. They said that some of the girl gymnasts were picked at age 3 and trained from then on. And they are very status/class conscious, so I can't even imagine how these winning Chinese athletes own lives and their families lives will change after the Olympics.
Oh, and race... the weird thing is that is hasn't been on my mind lately. I've been meaning to do a post about how my thinking about race has changed recently...
Oh, and you ROCK!!! :)