Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, a federal holiday. We remember Dr. King as a civil rights leader, a rousing speaker,and an advocate of non-violent resistance. Best remembered of all his works, though, is his “I have a dream” speech. King dreamed that one day, race would be irrelevant to an individual’s opportunities in life.
That hasn’t happened, not in the United States, and not anywhere else. Although the blatant racism of the past — the lynchings, the Klan rallies,the pogroms, the concentration camps — are no longer acceptable in most societies (though they keep rearing up with troubling regularity — consider Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Guantanamo Bay), race and racism are still factors in most people’s lives, and still create barriers to many people’s ability to succeed.
This affects us all. When a child is denied access to a top-notch education because she belongs to a despised minority, or because it’s assumed that his group just isn’t smart enough, or even that it’s pointless to waste resources on children who will not be able to make use of it because of racism, we as a society lose out on the particular talents and strengths that child might have had to offer if given a chance to develop them. When leadership is associated with the qualities of one group, we as a society limit the possibilities for innovation and new direction. (Take a look at the US Senate if you want to see how Americans think of leadership. Ask yourself what innovation you expect of these 88 white men, 11 white women, and 1 black man.)
Race and racism affect our personal lives, as well, even if we’re not in the minority. Take a look around you next time you go to a place where people socialize. Chances are you’ll see little clumps of similarly-colored people — whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Asians with Asians, and so on. Even today, it’s rare for a person to have more than one or two people of differing race (if any) in their circle of friends.
When I ask my students why this is, they tend to say something like, “It’s natural for people to want to be with people who are like them.” They’re probably right — but why do we think people of our race are the most like us, instead of, say, people who share our values, or people who share our profession, or people who share our taste in books? And why are certain kinds of music, movies, literature, clothes, and so on still associated with people of specific races?
Was this Dr. King’s dream?
I say, we still have a long way to go to make the dream a reality. While some change will have to be legislated, there are lots of things each of us as individuals can do to minimize the amount and effect of racism in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
- Stop lying to yourself: People like to say they’re “colorblind” when it comes to race. This is not only dishonest, but it wouldn’t solve anything even if it were true. There are real differences between people; denying those differences means dismissing a person’s culture, heritage, and experience — the very things that make them a unique person instead of a representative of their race. Pretending to deny it is even worse, because not only are you refusing to see someone as a whole person, but you’re also refusing to claim responsibility for addressing the real injustices that still cause people harm.
- Engage people directly: Approach each person as an individual, not as an instance of their race. Even well-intentioned people seem to find it easier to read books, watch movies, and attend classes about minority people than to actually get to know them in person. It makes us vulnerable to interact with someone in a real, genuine way and to really get to know them; instead, we retreat into stereotypes that act as a shield between us.
- Don’t wait for others to educate you: Take responsibility for understanding the world around you and the forces that shape less privileged peoples’ lives — and your own role in it. If you’re a member of a privileged group, few people are going to tell you that your words or actions are hurtful to them; take the initiative and think about the possible effect of your actions before you carry them out.
- Forget about categories: Knowing what race, ethnicity, gender, age, class, or any other category a person fits into tells you nothing about that person’s life — and may lead you badly astray. Recognize that “race” is a part of someone’s identity, but not the whole of it.
- Learn and respect history: Americans, especially, like to “let go” of the past and pretend that historical forces can be easily overcome. But the events of 30, 75, even 200 years ago still shape people’s lives today. Consider: the most common source of wealth in the United States is home ownership. Practices such as restrictive covenants (which forbid the sale of homes to blacks, and sometimes to Jews and other minorities), mortgage redlining (where mortgages are denied to people who live in neighborhoods regarded as risky, regardless of the borrower’s ability to repay the loan), and steering (the practice of showing minority house buyers homes only in minority neighborhoods) have severely limited home ownership — and thus wealth — among minorities. These practices were still legal in my lifetime (and some, like steering, are still widely practiced even though illegal). As a consequence, home ownership is still greatly imbalanced among the various ethnicities that make up American society. Denying that this history has an effect might feel more comfortable, but that doesn’t make it true, and it certainly doesn’t help those whose lives have been affected by it.
- Don’t be a bystander: Stand up for minorities when you hear others making disparaging remarks, when you see people discriminating against them, or when you see someone targeted for their color. It can be scary to risk offending people by standing up against them, but it’s the only way real change is going to come about — even if that change is only that people are less willing to be openly racist when you’re around. (If you still aren’t convinced that racism is alive and well, ask why people feel so uncomfortable confronting racist behavior when they come across it.)
- Re-examine what you “know”: It turns out our minds are full of racist stereotypes, even among the most saintly people. We act every day on things we “know” are true, without realizing that those “facts” are grounded only in stereotypes, not reality. Consider:
- The lowest violent crime rates in the US are found in Hispanic neighborhoods.
- White teens are more likely to use and sell drugs than any other teenagers — even drugs like crack that we associate with minorities.
- Almost all school shootings have been carried out by white students.
None of these facts conforms to our expectations, which are shaped more by the stereotypes we’ve internalized and the sensationalist media than by actual experience.
- Think community: Kant’s Categorical Imperative states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. What he meant in a nutshell was that you should act the way you wish everyone would act. Don’t just ask yourself if your behavior is in your own best interest, but if it also makes your community better (which, if you think about it, is also in your best interest).
- Question racist jokes: Confront people with the assumptions behind their racist jokes. One strategy is to simply ask them to explain why it’s funny: “I don’t understand, are you saying black people are stupid?” or “Is that funny because Jews are supposed to be stingy?” We tend to think that jokes don’t mean much, but ask yourself how comfortable you’d feel in, say, a workplace where, every day or so, you heard someone make a joke at your group’s expense.
And by the way: just because it’s funny when Chris Rock (or Carlos Mencia, or some other comedian) says it, doesn’t mean it’s harmless when you say it. For one thing, Chris Rock doesn’t represent all black people any more than anyone else does; for another, Chris Rock is a professional satirist of people’s racist assumptions. Comedians force us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and one uncomfortable truth is that racial divides are still quite wide in our society. That kind of skill and talent isn’t as common as your racist office joker thinks it is.
- Watch your language: For some reason people feel put upon when someone suggests that phrases like “Indian giver” might be offensive and hurtful. Standing up for your right to be offensive and hurtful isn’t really very heroic; why not just try to avoid saying things that offend. Humans are born with an amazing capacity for creative language use — I’m sure you can figure out a way to say what you mean without perpetuating stereotypes.
- Forget local news: Local news coverage thrives on the use of simple-minded racial stereotypes and sensationalist violence. We deserve better — but we’re not going to get it so long as we keep watching.
- Avoid positive stereotypes, too: Stereotypes like “Asians are good at science”, “black people are great athletes”, and “Jews are super smart” might not seem harmful, but they do the same thing negative stereotypes do: they reduce living, breathing individuals to images imposed by others, preventing us from seeing and interacting with them as individuals. Most of them have roots in racism, too: black athleticism is tied to the idea that black people were strong, violent brutes; Jewish cleverness was seen as destructive and dangerous to civilized communities. The idea that Asians are good at math and science is not rooted in racism, but is tied to a specific wave of highly educated, affluent immigrants that came to the US in the ’60s and ’70s — and prevents later waves of immigrants such as Southeast Asian refugees, some of whom make up the poorest groups in the US population, from being seen for who they really are.
The problem of racism is a big one, but it’s not an impossible one. Here are 12 things you can do — not always easy things, but ultimately doable things — to start making a difference in your the world around you. In the end, they boil down to “respect others” and “know thyself”, good advice for most situations. It doesn’t take a huge number of people to start making a difference — after all, Martin Luther King made a difference and he was just one person. Just like you are.