What is racism?

What is racism? That Martin Luther King Jr. got me thinking. I suspect my views are a little bit different to most because I generally grew up as part of minority groups, and have had friends from many races since I was born. I have experienced racism in various forms numerous times and since entering the ‘real world’ my friends and I have expressed confusion at the way people behave towards each other (growing up as we did we kind of thought that what we had was normal).

To me racism is discrimination and degradation of another human being based on race, but that discrimination on racial lines is just the tip of the iceberg. The majority of discrimination is so much more subtle. It can actually be impossible to distinguish the real reason that something is wrong.

I have read a few conversations around the recent Miley Cyrus performance (I completely agree that it was degrading to all women, especially black women and I agree there is a lot of racism in the entertainment industry) but one point in particular really stood out to me. The writer had some problem with white persons imitating black persons for the sake of their career. This person wanted ‘black culture’ to be hands off for white people.

I actually feel that the belief is racist. Try reversing it: what the hell is that back person doing speaking with a British accent? White culture should be hands off! (We might not even have gospel music after all if different races could not inspire each other, even with music. http://www.scotsman.com/what-s-on/music/black-music-from-scotland-it-could-be-the-gospel-truth-1-1293195)

To me this is counter-productive, merely the insistence on self-segregation. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Many white singers admire the power, strength and independence of black people, especially in adversity, and want to be associated with it. Contrary to commonly accepted belief every person in the world suffers from adversity and discrimination and most do identify with suffering.

Our belief that we are outcast or isolated is not necessarily true but it does play a huge part in our psyche and willingness to accept the fate of others. If we really believed that we were all the same then we would accept the suffering and degradation of others so much less readily. Why didn’t any of the singers do something about the show? Why didn’t the audience walk out? Why did the organisers allow it to go ahead?

I know that racism happens, and that feelings are heightened by the weight of history, but there is only so much to be gained from focusing on that alone. There is also much to be lost because it can alienate people that could be allies. I often try to read about black history or understand a debate but find myself feeling defensive, besides the fact that I don’t actually have any slaves, any particularly racist views or any family history associated with slavery. Even if I did it’s not like I would be responsible. In fact the only thing I have against me is my skin colour. I even get annoyed reading feminist works if they get a bit too man-hating. How are men (the primary group that could learn from them) meant to identify with that?

So, here is my point, finally. Racism and discrimination is really just about separation. I believe that there is only one culture in this world, Human Culture, and that the only way we can grow and learn as humans is to respect that. The mechanisms we need to have in place in our minds to see men as different to women and races as separate to one another are staggering. It’s actually much easier to just ditch them and accept people as they come.

I am not saying that individual groups cannot be different to each other, they can and should be. Our differences are what make the world an interesting place but our similarities are all we have to make sure we can live in it.

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