A story on NPR the other day (listen to it here) combined with an experience I had while driving in Harvard Square prompted me to reflect a bit on the idea of racism and its implications for various generations of Americans.*
First, the story: the Talk of the Nation segment was discussing recent media hype over comments made by Supreme Court Justice Nominee Sonia Sotomayor and whether or not those comments could be classified as "racist". Most of the callers on the show were older Americans who had lived through the civil rights movement, and many asserted that the worst thing in the world anyone could call someone else was "a racist."
Now, the experience: I was driving through gridlock traffic right in the heart of Harvard Square. When I finally got the much needed opportunity to make a left turn, just at the critical moment, a man stepped out into the crosswalk (against the light) right in front of me, causing me to slam on my breaks at which point the light turned red, the walk signal began to chirp and I was stuck in the middle of the intersection swarmed by annoyed pedestrians. Now I must confess that in my frustration I made a face and gesture at this young man (made more awkward by the fact that it was beautiful out and all my windows were down). But in the midst of my gesturing, I realized that this man was Arab. I was immediately filled with guilt and shame, and the first thought that popped into my head was "oh my gosh, I'm so........racist!" I seriously considered trying to reconcile with this man (and would have were I not stuck in the middle of an intersection surrounded by commuters on foot), to shout something about how I wasn't thinking, or to confess to some neutral, non-culturally oppressive deity.
This incident came flooding back to me when I listened to the NPR story, and caused me to wonder about the differences in the way my generation and that of, say, my parents' views race and racism. I see that my generation (or at least my sub-cultural section of my generation) has grown up with the idea that political-correctness is to be valued about all else. As a child, I learned never to judge, to believe that all viewpoints were valid, and to understand that everyone was different and to be valued. But I wonder where this trajectory has led us? What have we lost in advocating the religion of political-correctness? How ridiculous is it that I feel racist for being upset with someone who annoyed me just because that person also happened to be part of an ethnic minority?
A quick survey of friends my age revealed similar issues: one friend felt racist because she didn't like salsa music. Another had been called racist because he didn't like hummus. I wonder if this type of self-reflection is really helping anyone at all. I would be willing to wager that it isn't. Of course not all viewpoints are valid: knowing that is what allows us to say no to violence and oppression, to real racism when we see it.
Several callers on the NPR show wondered whether or not racism had to be connected with power or judgment. Did you have to exercise power to be racist, they mused? I'm not sure whether or not I agree, but I do appreciate the sentiment that we need a deeper investigation in this country about what racism is before we can confront it and understand the real ways it still works.
I didn't think that the man crossed the street against the light because he was Arab, I thought he crossed the street against the light because he was an idiot. And idiocy, fortunately, can be found in every race. So maybe I'm not too racist after all.
If you're concerned at all about you're own racism, watch this youtube video to know you're not alone.
* This subject matter might seem strangely heavy compared to the normal WUJ content. But don't fret, more hilarity is coming soon!