racism

Why I No Longer Call Out “Racists”

I was born in Africa, immigrated to the US as a refugee, was sponsored by an all-white church in North Carolina, completed junior high and high school in the deep South (Alabama), went to college in one of the most culturally diverse states in the US (California), and became a father to two mixed (half-black/half-white) boys. I cannot escape the topic of race. Race-related issues in the US have been a part of my reality since the day my family stepped foot in North Carolina. So, I try to get a balanced perspective on the issue of race and racism. It’s important to me that I judge rightly and not instinctively. Instincts can lead to errors.

I learned this some years back while backpacking in Belize. I arrived in Belize from Guatemala, a country that reminded me about the concept of white privilege and black disadvantage. So, I was on high alert for racism. I met a white couple that was looking for a restaurant. I pointed them in the direction of one, and later in the afternoon, I saw them at that same restaurant. They thanked me for the recommendation and the man invited me to join them on a road trip in the countryside. I got the impression he made the decision to invite me without consulting his partner. I accepted anyway. They told me they would pick me up in 15 minutes. So, in 15 minutes, I went downstairs to wait. A whole 45 minutes went by and no sign of the couple. My irritation turned to anger. Really, don’t you hate it when someone wastes your time?

During the wait, I came up with an explanation: “The woman doesn’t feel comfortable having me along for the road trip because I am black. That was obvious from the way she reacted earlier. On the way back to their hotel, she told her partner there was no way I would join them and they went without me.”

That was the most believable explanation for why they never showed up. They were racists.

Fuming, I went up to my room. About 30 minutes later, I heard a knock on my door and there’s the same lady. We went on a short road trip and during the car ride, I came to find out that not only were they not racist, they were two super liberal progressively minded siblings from New York City. I was too embarrassed to tell them about my assumptions.

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How could I jump to that type of conclusion from just a few minutes of conversation? Was I simply over-sensitive or just a terrible judge of character? In my defense, I had experienced overt racism in Guatemala…like when a boat captain gave life vests to a well-dressed white couple but refused to give me and a native Indian family similar vests. Sometimes, one experience we have bleeds right into the next, whether we mean for it or not.

That experience taught me to avoid going with the flow or taking a stance on a race issue simply based on optics. It also helped me to develop my own framework for defining racism. Racism is not simple to define, no matter how much we would like it to be.

But here it is:

  • a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
  • prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

You’ll notice that the main point in the definitions for “racism” is this belief that my race is better than your race. My people are smarter and more hard working; or your people are lazy and violent and extremist…so on and so forth. In American society, there is general consensus that these types of claims and beliefs are inappropriate. You express them in any way and you will lose votes, you will lose friends, you will lose endorsements. It’s a wrap. In mainstream society, there is no place for them. Zero tolerance. It would appear that, as a society, we run a pretty tight ship here.

Yet we continue to be engulfed in racial controversies, dramas, and plot lines. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing and still ongoing protests is a perfect example. We are fixated, oftentimes rightly so, on transgressions that are usually against people of color. But are we using a broad brush to identify these “transgressions” as “racism” or “racist”? Are there nuances that could help us more rightly judge?

To be clear, the facts of the case in Ferguson do not seem to imply any nuance to explain away what happened. Furthermore, the issue goes beyond race to other matters such as police militarization, aggression, and lack of accountability…all of which are beyond the scope of this discussion.

To me, racism is best understood through a continuum of attitudes to matters of race that begins with the “color-blind” Kumbaya, “we-are-all-the-same” sentiment on the left all the way to the white sheet-wearing hatemongers and neo-Nazis on the right. I like to believe that most normal, sensible people do not have values on either of these extremes.   Instead, the average guy and girl on the street is somewhere in the middle. But what is in the middle?

There are three categories of people that occupy the middle. And, instead of clear demarcations between categories, blurred lines separate the three.

First, starting on the left, we have the racially insensitive. These are people who may make crude remarks and jokes about people of another race, but do so with no malice. They may even feel comfortable making these comments to people of the race they ridicule. E.g. “Bob (a black guy) tends to make off-color jokes about Chinese people from time to time, but he is married to a Chinese and loves Chinese culture.” I confess. I have been racially insensitive from time to time. And I challenge anyone to wag a finger at me…anyone except the Kumbaya color-blind people.   I don’t even think they exist. If you’ve ever assumed the black man in a tux was a waiter, when he was a guest just like you, you’re racially insensitive. If you’ve ever said, “all white people look alike to me”, you’re racially insensitive. Racial insensitivity is not always conscious and typically is not malicious; just a by-product of the extremely diverse and divided America we live in.

Next, we move right on the continuum to racial wariness. This is the first sign of trouble. Because, now, we have people shying away from people, simply based on how they look. In a sense, racial wariness is more a survival tactic based on stereotypes than anything else. As a society, I think we can handle insensitivity, as long as it is contained. When it creeps into wariness, we feel judged by others; we judge ourselves for our fears; distrust sets in. And, once again, I will boldly admit that, from time to time, I exhibit racial wariness. If I am standing in line next to an Arab Muslim with traditional Muslim garb, I will wonder if they sympathize with Al Qaeda or ISIS or Hamas, or any number of terrorist groups; or if they actively fund these groups; or, maybe they are jihadists, in the extremist sense of the word. If the terrorists on 9/11 had been Alaskan Inuits, I would be wary of just about any Inuit I pass on the street. That’s how it works. Again, I challenge anyone to throw rocks at me. If you have driven through a neighborhood looking for a new home and decided against the neighborhood because the kids playing in the streets were black, you’re racially wary.

After the whole Donald Sterling drama unfolded, another NBA owner, Mark Cuban, made some pretty candid comments where he labeled himself as sometimes prejudiced or bigoted. His description of decisions he makes based on race is precisely what I define as racial wariness. Most of us are racially wary and we would be better off accepting that in ourselves, being as self-aware as Cuban, and addressing it instead of denying it.

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And, finally, we get to the ugliest of them all – racial bias. Racial bias is especially ugly when we use it to make decisions that negatively impact another person.  Racial bias is usually a gateway to plain, old-fashioned racism. At this point, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Yosef, it does not pay to over-analyze. This is all semantics.”

Maybe so. But how, then, do we explain seemingly reasonable people (read “not neo-Nazi or KKK”) making negative decisions based on race?

In this video, hidden cameras from the ABC Television show “What Would You Do?” capture people’s reactions to witnessing a white teenager trying to steal a bike versus a black teenager doing the exact same thing. The white teenage boy gets a pass; the black teenage boy does not. Racial bias is about whom we choose to give the benefit of the doubt to and whom we instinctively distrust and accuse. Oftentimes, it is the inner workings of the subconscious. A perfectly “good-hearted” non-racist can exhibit ugly racial bias.

My sister and her husband live in Belgium and France where people are famous for their tolerance and acceptance…except if you are a Congolese and want to rent an apartment in a nice part of Paris or Brussels. Over time, immigrants, typically Congolese and other Central Africans, have drawn attention for not being good tenants. As a result, white French and Belgian landlords, who attend Youssou N’dour and Habibe Koite concerts, protest against American imperialism, dote over Barack Obama, and exhibit every manner of progressive behavior known to man, will systematically deny African renters and select more “acceptable” white clients. Funny enough, my sister and her husband have had a negative experience renting their condo to a Congolese tenant. But they made a decision to not be biased. Instead they have chosen to implement better controls so that the same bad experience does not repeat itself, regardless if it is with a Congolese or a Czech or a Belgian. A racially biased white French landlord could choose to not be biased and instead be smart. A racist white French landlord could not because whatever negative experience they have with Congolese tenants is a confirmation and affirmation of their deep-held belief in the African’s racial inferiority.

So, what’s my point? People are complex and we gain nothing by describing each other with simple loaded words. Of course, if I am negatively impacted by the actions of a racially biased person, it will not matter to me one bit if I can rightly define that person as being racially biased as opposed to racist. The impact is the same. But, what categorization helps to do is open doors for dialogue.   I personally feel that dialogue is neither fruitful nor possible with a full-blown racist. I cannot engage with such a person. Period. However, if I can keep from instinctively labeling someone who is in the middle ground of the continuum as a racist, and rightly judge him or her, then there’s a chance for communication.

Apply this framework when thinking about an issue you hear about in the news, or the actions of your co-worker or boss, or the comments of in-laws, or the behavior of the restaurant manager last night. See if it helps you judge rightly. See if it helps you be more understanding without letting go of your principles. See if you can have some meaningful conversations and save yourself mental stress and frustration.

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I look at this world through the lens of a black man. Defining racism according to this continuum is what helps me to not only cope, but also hopefully transcend the built-in bias against the American black male.

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How Coca-Cola’s Controversial Super Bowl Ad Affected Me

When my family came to the US as refugees back in the late 1980’s, we were one of several families sponsored by a small Episcopalian church in Durham, North Carolina.  In hindsight, it is quite remarkable that that small church with about 50 members was able to support multiple families like ours.  They provided places to live, cars for families to commute to and from work, assistance with enrollment of government programs like food stamps, and many other refugee relocation services, all through the efforts of the members of the church.

After we were settled and my siblings and I were enrolled in our respective schools and we all began to get acclimated to the culture, a family “controversy” erupted.  There were different opinions regarding whether or not we should continue to attend the Episcopal church on Sundays…the same church that sponsored us.  We were brought up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition and the Episcopal tradition was new to us.  Those in the family who were proposing NOT continuing attendance made their argument by pointing to examples of other refugee families who were sponsored like we were but had long ago stopped attending the church.

In reality, there was no real “controversy” as there was one person who made ALL decisions in the household – our father.  Our father made it very clear from the moment the question came up that we would all continue to attend the church.  That was the edict and there was no appeal granted.  I remember his argument vividly because it has helped to shape my own personal principles: The members of the church were incredibly generous and kind in what they did for our family.  How could we not show gratitude for their sacrifice by at least accepting their invitation to fellowship with them?

In my experience, this type of gratitude and appreciation is a common sentiment among the vast majority of refugee families and other immigrants to the US.  For many, America represents an opportunity to restart; a respite from turmoil; a protection from injustice.  What starts out as a sentiment of relief transforms to love, appreciation, and pride at being part of the American story.  And then comes the ultimate goal: an invitation to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and become a United States citizen.  That invitation is not only a privilege, but also an obligation.  An obligation that starts with a simple act but translates to a long-term and meaningful engagement as part of a family.  Much in the same way that our attendance at the Episcopal church led to the development of true friendships and bonds that lasted way beyond our time in Durham, North Carolina.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding the now infamous Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl, it surprised me.  Coca-Cola ran a one-minute commercial where the patriotic “America The Beautiful” was sung in 7 different languages.  The singing of the song in any language other than English has apparently upset a lot of people who feel it devalues our American culture and takes away from the true definition of what being an American is all about.

In my opinion, the commercial in itself was not too remarkable.  But since a critical mass of people have decided otherwise, I add my commentary into the mix only because this is a topic that directly relates to my story as an African immigrant to the US.

The commercial was a simple display of unity; not an affront to American-ness.  To those who feel that the definition of “America” has been bastardized, I would simply say that the multi-lingual singing of “America The Beautiful” is not symbolic of the disappearance of American culture.  It is a confirmation of its makeup. 

There was nothing sinister or threatening in the message behind the message.  Every year during the Super Bowl, the spirit of American-ness is predictably teased out and Coca-Cola tried to tap into it to sell some Coke.  I imagine the marketing folks at Coca-Cola are quite pleased with the attention their work has received.  Everyone else, on both sides of this surprising debate, feels pretty bad about this.  I know I do.

I don’t know what to call it.  Is it racism?  Is it xenophobia?  Is it a misunderstanding?  Whatever it is, I get the impression that my story as an African immigrant is a source of derision for some and it makes me wonder what our dear friends at the Episcopal church in Durham would think about all this.  Our successful resettlement in the US became their mission and we repaid their devotion by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and, most importantly, taking up our responsibility as American citizens.

As far as I am concerned, that is how we “pay it forward”.  That and turning around and helping the next family that comes in looking for refuge.

And if someone recites America The Beautiful in their mother tongue…in a consumer product commercial!…it is not a sign of disrespect or subversion or the beginning of the end for the “American way”.  It’s just gratitude communicated by people like me for the countless good people of this country who supported us during a difficult transition period.

Keep Calm…