By Tim Wise, Zmag
January 21, 2004
For those who speak out against racism, learning to deal with people who disagree with you is a time-consuming process, and a talent that must be cultivated. This was made painfully clear this past week when I received an email claiming that people like me should give up the battle against racism, not because racism was good, but simply because it's a part of that oft-conjured thing we like to call "human nature."
To my e-communicant, racism should be accepted since people instinctively choose to associate with those most like themselves. Anti-racists are, to this way of thinking, tilting at windmills, wasting our time, even battling against hard-wired biological impulses that tend towards racial separatism.
Worse in some ways than overt bigots whose hatred can be ascribed to emotional problems beyond the scope of my expertise, the calm reassurances of the "racism is natural" folks always get to me, probably because such arguments tend to be mere rationalizations for the biases already held by the persons making the claim. See, they seem to be saying, "I may be racist, but that's a natural human instinct, so you can't judge me harshly for it."
As white nationalist Jared Taylor put it during our debate at Vanderbilt University last year, "Preferring members of one's own race is no different than having a preference for one's own children as opposed to those of one's neighbor."
Oddly, I've even had ostensible progressives and leftists assure me that racism is to some extent natural, usually as a way to shift discussion to topics with which they are more comfortable and to which they think our activist attentions should be shifted.
But while it's true that internalizing racist views in a racist culture is to be expected, given how such views are inculcated through media, schools, and other institutions, it is not the case that personal racism, separatism, or fear of racial others are normal. Instead, such things stem from the history of racial domination and subordination to which people have been subjected.
That racial separation and enmity are unnatural and learned conditions is proven most clearly not by sociologists but rather by children.
Put two-year olds of different "races" in a room with an assortment of toys and you'll see what I mean. Although certain kids will get along better with some of the rest of the group than others, their emerging affiliations will rarely if ever break down along racial lines, even if the children have never been around "other" race kids before.
Although children that age can discern differences in skin color, they are too young to have typically ascribed value to such a thing; as such they don't naturally fear those who look different, or cleave to those who look similar.
Children encountering other children (at least if they do so before being exposed to too much media imagery or other negative conditioning) naturally gravitate to a common and recognizable humanity. They realize instinctively what grown-ups too readily forget, or have been taught to ignore: namely, that in biological and genetic terms, there is no meaningful difference between so-called racial groups.
That racism and racial bonding are socially conditioned responses should be obvious from history. Had it been natural for people to "stick with their own kind," in the racial sense, there would have been no need for segregation laws to compel separation or ban so-called "race-mixing." It was precisely because separation was not natural enough for quite a few (beginning with slave masters), that states felt the need to limit contact between whites and people of color.
Furthermore, throughout American history there have been many examples where people of different "races" overlooked those differences to make common cause.
In the 1600s, it was fairly common for black slaves and poor Europeans (especially indentured servants) to join forces in rebellion against the colonial elite. Recognizing their common economic interest, they fomented insurgencies that prompted the gentry to develop more intense forms of racial division so as to foster separation where it had not existed before.
For example, only in the wake of cross-racial uprisings like Bacon's Rebellion did elites begin to develop the concept of "the white race." Previously, lower-class Europeans had hardly been seen as part of a common family with the aristocracy. But in order to unite the masses behind the economic engine of slavery and solidify their position at the top of the nation's hierarchy, elites began to speak of "white people" united by a common culture, all of whom should be granted certain rights and privileges above all non-whites.
By granting the right to participate in white supremacy to persons at the bottom of the caste structure (via such mechanisms as slave patrols), the ruling class offered a stake in the system to those without a pot to piss in. It wasn't much, but it was enough to divide and conquer those who previously had worked together for common interests.
And it wasn't only for rebellion that blacks and whites commingled. Indeed, the residential proximity of Italians to blacks, and the comity that prevailed between the two groups in places like New Orleans, often led white elites to viciously repress the Italian community, so as to punish them for their transgressions against white bonding.
Likewise, though Irish immigrants were implored by their leaders at home to join the anti-slavery cause and ally themselves with blacks, political circumstance and the desire to enter the circle of privilege caused most to abandon solidarity and cast their lot with the white establishment.
Simple logic also compels a rejection of the "racism is natural" school of thought. Though people may feel more comfortable with those who are like themselves, this fact fails to establish that racial separation, let alone racism, is a natural condition. After all, there are many categories that the human mind could choose to prioritize as it goes about the business of deciding who is "like" and who is "unlike" oneself.
One could make weight, height, or some other attribute the primary dividing line of who is "in" and who is "out" when it comes to the circle of the accepted. Skin color (the attribute traditionally used to mark "race") is not any more natural as a dividing line than any of these other points of demarcation. As such, the two related decisions--first to place race above all other things, and then to delineate races by such outward appearance differences as skin color--are indeed decisions, not instinctual responses.
And when it comes to feeling more comfortable with those like oneself, how can any white American suggest they have more in common with a refugee from Central Europe (perhaps a Serb or Croat) than with those African Americans whose families have been in this country for generations and who share many elements of a common culture?
Far from natural, racial bias stems from propaganda. If people are told repeatedly that certain folks make bad neighbors, drive down property values, or bring crime to a neighborhood, they will likely come to believe these things, with or without first-hand evidence for such beliefs.
Even those who think their experiences justify their prejudice can only say such a thing because of selective memory: the decision to discount experiences that run counter to stereotype, and recall only those that confirm what they have been encouraged to believe. This is why whites can continue to fear blacks even though most of us have been victimized far more often by other whites, whether it is as violent attackers, shifty landlords, or pushy bosses.
Interestingly, those who claim racism and racial separation are natural often say other things that undercut their position. For example, I'm often told by these types that the reason they dislike or fear people of color is because of bad experiences with such persons in the past.
Putting aside the obvious irrationality of judging a group based on the actions of an unrepresentative sample of its members, there is a more important issue as regards the question of racism's "naturalness." Namely, if experience led us to feel the way we do about certain groups, then our feelings are not natural at all; they did not exist prior to the experiences we claim animate our current fear, dislike, or discomfort; and the fact that they exist now only attests to the experiential and environmental influences that engender feelings of racial amity or enmity.
Furthermore, if racial bonding were as natural as some claim, one would expect the process to play out roughly the same in all "racial" groups, though it doesn't. Blacks, for example, express significantly greater desire than whites to live in racially mixed neighborhoods, with the most commonly desired mix being about 50-50 black and non-black.
Most whites, on the other hand, say they prefer no more than 10 percent people of color in their neighborhoods. Likewise, when asked by pollsters, whites are 45 percent more likely than blacks to say that it's best for people to "stick with their own kind" in the racial sense.
Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos too have high rates of intermarriage with whites, and rarely seek to avoid whites the way whites seek to avoid being around "too many" people of color.
On college campuses, where students of color are often criticized for "sticking together" and ostensibly self-segregating, the fact is that it is whites who are most likely to racially separate themselves. Black students are 2.5 times more likely than white students to dine or study with persons of a different race; Asians are three times more likely to do so; and Latinos are nearly four times more likely than whites to dine or study across racial lines.
Indeed, it was in part the openness of African and indigenous American cultures, and their relative lack of racial "consciousness" that rendered them vulnerable to conquest, enslavement and colonization. In other words, some folks appear more likely to engage in racial "othering," and those most susceptible (at least in the U.S.) are white.
Even the notion that preferring members of one's own racial group is no different than preferring one's own children to the children of others is absurd. After all, since when have "whites" thought of ourselves as one family? We certainly didn't think that way in Europe, when the English were slaughtering the Irish; or when the Normans set out to vanquish the Saxons.
The notion of a white family is a concept with a very short pedigree, concocted for the purpose of defending the oppression of non-Europeans, and for no other reason.
That some choose to exclude others from their circle of family or friends on the basis of race, or prefer to live amongst only those of their own race, is not, in other words, a benign and natural process. It is not akin to looking over a menu at your favorite restaurant, and then choosing the pasta dish over the filet mignon; and those who proclaim it is are guilty of the crassest rationalization for prejudice ever devised: the notion that they just can't help it.
To whatever extent we experience our racially-exclusionary "choices" as natural, we must yet come to realize the ways in which our choices have been circumscribed by material forces set in place long before we were born. Those forces are not our fault, but learning to confront and overcome them is our responsibility.
If there are some who prefer to maintain the divisions established long ago by others, so be it, but they should at least have the decency not to insult the rest of us by calling their own pathology normal.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hate mail, though not appreciated, will nonetheless be graded for originality, form and grammar. Extra credit will be awarded for the most creative death threat, most colorful use of the phrase "race traitor" and/or "Dirty Jew," and most inventive suggestion as to what the author can do to himself.