“At the heart of racism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when he brought some people into being” – Friedrich Otto Hertz
HAVE YOU EVER had one of those moments?
One of Those kind of moments.
Maybe you had one in a department store. Or in an elevator. On a sidewalk.
Or in a restaurant.
Or if you’re the President of the United States….
One of those kind of moments when you have to stop and ask yourself
It’s pretty easy to spot a racist or an act of racism when a person is dressed like this:
But, you see, racism is sometimes difficult to figure out.
Is a seemingly racist incident an unintentional micro aggression or a full-on David Duke-style PDR?
Quick quiz: Is this a Public Display of Racism?
Are you thinking the answer is definitely yes
…. or are you thinking that the question is debatable?
A couple of weeks ago, while shopping at the local KMart
Because layaway is wonderful.
I was perusing the home entertainment section when an elderly white woman approached me and asked if I had seen the movie 12 Years A Slave in the DVD section. She explained how she loved the book and wanted to watch the movie to see if it is a good as Solomon Northup’s memoir of his life as a free man wrongfully enslaved.
Asking a fellow customer if they know the location of a product isn’t unusual. I’ve done it plenty of times myself.
I think the reason why she specifically asked me had a little something to do with my complexion.
I assumed that the reason why the woman asked me, and not any other person in the home entertainment department (including store employees) if I knew where 12 Years A Slave was, was because of one thing.
One, elephant-sized, melanin-soaked, thing.
Now, here’s the problem: I don’t know if the woman was racist.
I have only what I assume to be true of the woman and her state of mind.
Based on my prima facie assessment of the situation, I made three assumptions about the elderly woman.
The elderly white woman asked me where to find 12 Years A Slave because:
1. She assumed that because of my race, I had not only seen the movie 12 Years A Slave, but I also knew the location of the DVD in the store ( possibly an unintentional microaggression).
In case you’re wondering, a microaggression is:
the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
B. The elderly woman was merely asking the nearest person in the area.
3. The lady was a full-on racist who assumed that I had not only seen the movie 12 Years A Slave, but I also knew the location of the DVD in the store.
You see, despite my epistemic prowess, I don’t know what the lady was thinking. I can only assume to know – and even then, my assumption is just an assumption. Even assuming that the woman’s inquiry was made with the best of intentions doesn’t mean that my perception of racism wasn’t actually racism.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that it was, either.
In The Souls of Black Folk , W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
If you’ve spent any time paying any attention to the media, you’d know that in the 21st century race is still a problem.
That fact might have something to do with this:
It’s obvious that we spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing (and often arguing about) race. And we think we have a grip on exactly what race is.
Wait a minute. I’ve been talking about the term “race”.
The philosopher in me says it’s time I define my terminology.
Generally speaking, race is defined as a set of characteristics that differentiate groups of humans. Race is viewed as an indicator of certain inherited attributes of which traits like skin color physical features, body type, hair color and texture, provide an indicator of supposedly biologically based attributes such as mental capacity, and moral aptitude. The concept of race has evolved over time, but the practice of classifying people is as old as history. Civilizations have always defined and separated themselves according to tribe, language or religious practices. In the Bible, God distinguished the Israelites from the Gentiles. The Greek philosopher Aristotle differentiated the “civilized” Greeks and the Persian “barbarians” and wrote, “This is why the poets say ‘it is fitting for Greeks to rule barbarians’”.
Our modern concept of race is a relatively new idea. The modern concept can be traced back to the 15th century (a.k.a. the Age of Discovery). European exploration of the New World is significant for two reasons: 1) European expansion led to the colonization of newly acquired territories, and 2) contact between fair-skinned European explorers and the darker complexioned native populations of Asia and Africa led to the development of racial categorization based on physical characteristics
… or phenotypes.
The concept of biological race developed as exploration of the New World and the need for labor required a justification for the enslavement of indigenous peoples and European colonialism. As a result of the enslavement of indigenous Americans and Africans in the New World, the world’s population was divided into three primary races:
the Caucasian race
the Mongoloid race
and the Negroid race
The white race, according to the race of European colonizers, is superior, while other races (in particular enslaved Africans) are considered inferior.
The 2008 election and the 2012 re-election of President Barack Obama was supposed to have ushered in an era of American “post-racialism”; the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a society where individuals are judged not by race, but by the content of their character.
Race, in this era of post-racialism, is supposedly not an issue.
Or so we’d like to think.
Let’s face it, we think in stereotypes. Thinking of serial killers conjures up images of white guys. Looking of terrorists? Sorry, Arabs. When your neighbor says someone tagged his retaining wall, we think Mexican tagging crew.
That might just be a Californian thing.
You say someone just knocked over car a liquor store (probably to get money to buy crack)? Yep, it probably was a black dude.
None of us likes to be stereotyped, but the justification for stereotyping (or its cousin, racial profiling) is often stated as, given one’s racial and/or ethnic background one is predisposed to certain behavior can provide us with handy shortcut for figuring out what kind of people we’re dealing with and how those people are likely to behave. After all, when we look at other people, race is one of those things we notice.
Race is never a pleasant subject to talk about. It’s one of those subjects that doesn’t usually pop up in a philosophy class (unless the class is specifically about race). I suspect that the reason why race isn’t discussed much in philosophy has to do with the fact that philosophy is dominated by white men. That’s no lie. I was once pressed to name five African-American philosophers. I came up with Cornel West, Ken Taylor and Angela Davis, but after conjuring up three names, I was tapped out of black philosophers.
I was shocked by my lack of knowledge about non-white male philosophers. I thought, “Hey, I’m not just some dude on the street, I actually studied philosophy, and I should be able to name five black philosophers!” Yet I had no idea of the names of more than three philosophers who share my skin tone.
The subject tends to stir up emotions. A lot of historical baggage. We want clear-headed conversations. Naturally, my inclination would be to turn to what philosophers have to say about the subject of race. They’ve actually had plenty to say, just not all of it good.
It should surprise no one that philosophers are partially to blame not only for our inaccurate conceptions of race, but also more than a little bit responsible for racism.
Wanna know how?
Given Aristotle’s sentiments towards non-Greek peoples, we are tempted to assume that modern (keep in mind that “modern” philosophy starts in the 17th century) philosophers would have been immune from the ancient view of classifying people as superior and inferior based solely on the assumed characteristics (of inferiority and superiority) associated with one’s geographical location.
Our assumption, however, would be wrong.
Enlightenment philosophers not only championed reason and science but also the belief that only certain groups of people are capable of rational thought. The Enlightenment belief that only certain people possess the capacity to reason provided the scientific basis for race and racism. Enlightenment thinkers developed the notion that the so-called superior, “civilized” races of Europe were successful because other, inferior races, specifically the African race, lack the capacity for rational thought.
In Immanuel Kant’s essay, “On the Different Races of Man” (1775), Kant attempts to establish a scientific basis for the classification of the races and divides humans into four distinct races:
1. Northern Europe (very blond) of damp cold
2. America (copper red) of dry cold
3. Black (Senegambia) of dry heat
4. Indians (olive-yellow) of dry heat
Based on his observations of the different races, Kant declared the natural moral and intellectual superiority of the white race and stated that superiority or inferiority of the world’s other races depends on its proximity to whiteness. Naturally, the dark skin of the African race, sets it in opposition to the white race.
Therefore, black = inferior.
Kant observes, blacks are “passionate” and “talkative” and lack the capacity for reason. Because blacks cannot reason, Kant argues, they cannot be educated but can only be trained to serve as slaves. Kant agrees with Hume, who also argued that blacks lack the capacity to reason, that since blacks lack the capacity for rational thought, blacks also lack the capacity for talent, as talent necessarily depends on the capacity for reason. Kant writes:
The yellow Indians do have meager talent. The Negroes are far
below them, and at the lowest point are part of the American
So, if observation of behavior leads to stereotyping, we are likely to think that Asians are better at math but make for bad drivers, white people are genetically prone to bad dancing, have a penchant for fair trade coffee, as I am genetically predisposed to having many children and speaking loudly in public places. In addition to stereotyping, as Immanuel Kant and his fellow philosophers demonstrate, we tend to think of our “group” as superior while emphasizing the supposed “inferior” qualities of other groups. It is, then, no surprise to us that Kant declares:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the
trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in
which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the
hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere
from their countries, although many of them have even been set
free, still not a single one was every found who presented anything
great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even
though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest
rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So
fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and
it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour.
Well, while we’re at it, why don’t we take a look at what David Hume had to say about black people:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to whites.
there scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor
any individual eminent either in action or speculation.
Let’s take a moment to read what other great minds and “enlightened” philosophers had to say about black people:
…in memory they are equal to the white; in reason much inferior,
as I think one could scarcely be capable of tracing and
comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in
imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous… never
yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level
of plain narration.
It is hardly to be believed that God, who is a wise being, should
place a soul, especially a good soul, in such a black ugly body…
The negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite
nations so highly value. Can there be a greater proof of their
wanting common sense?
Alexis de Tocqueville:
I do not think that blacks will ever mingle sufficiently completely
with the white to form a single people with them. The introduction
of this foreign race is anyhow is the one great plague on America.
If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours… it is
at least inferior. They are not capable of any great application or
association of ideas, and seem formed neither for the advantages
nor the abuses of our philosophy.
President Gerald Ford Administration cabinet member, Earl Butz, said to singer Pat Boone:
Pat, the only thing coloreds are looking for in life are a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.
Well, seriously, who isn’t looking for that?
Unfortunately for Hume, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Kant, (not to mention the Social Darwinists), and the aptly-named Mr. Earl Butz, a close examination of race reveals: A) philosophers don’t know everything, and second: there is no biological basis for race.
Most scientists agree that race is not a matter of biology, but is a social construct.*
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates contends, all humans can trace their origins to 50,000 years ago to Ethiopia in Africa. Unfortunately for Immanuel Kant, one’s physical appearance (or even supposed inherited genetic qualities) is not a reliable method of judging a person’s character, moral aptitude, or intellectual capacity.
We can’t assume based on one’s perceived race that this person is inferior
Or assume based on perceived race that this person is superior
But here’s the thing: it’s not entirely our fault that we stereotype groups of people. Scientists theorize that our tendency for stereotyping is the result of a biologically engrained need to classify people and objects and to form tribal connections with other, like humans. To successfully operate and adapt to our environment, humans make associations between objects and actions (not too unlike Hume’s view on cause and effect). We associate objects and actions – for instance, lemons and sour, bees and sting, or black neighbors with higher crime rates. If we observe a group of people and a particular behavior, we are likely to assume that all of the members of that group also behave in a similar manner.
Funny thing, race is. Despite the fact that plenty (if not all) of us know that race is a social construct, when we inquire about someone’s race, we’re still looking for some indication of who a person is. And when someone doesn’t act according to our notions of how that race should act, we’re often perplexed. We observe that such and such or so and so doesn’t “act black” or that a particular person acts like an “Oreo”, Uncle Tom, “Twinkie”, “banana” or “wigger”.
There’s a nasty little idea floating around that people who do not act according to how their race should act aren’t acting authentically.
But as any scientist will tell you, the fact that one is biologically a particular “color” or race does not infer that one’s behavior or cultural race conforms to our perception or expectations of how an individual of that race or color should act. The philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams distinguishes being racially (or biologically) black and being a black person. A racial personhood, according to Robert Gooding-Williams, is one’s racial identity – how we choose to identify ourselves.**
It’s worth noting that on the 2010 U.S. census form, individuals were given a choice of fifteen racial categories: American Indian of Alaska Native, Black, African-American or Negro, White, Native Hawaiian, Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, other Pacific Islander, Other Asian, and some other race. There is some degree of satisfaction that the ability to choose one’s racial identity from fifteen races is a far cry from the three race categorization (Caucasian, Asian, and Negro) that dominated racial thinking for centuries, however, having more choices hasn’t necessarily cleared up our definition of race.
The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are specified on the U.S. Census form as an ethnicity, not as a separate race. However, if asked to specify a race a person may identify himself as Latino or Hispanic, but racially he may be categorized as Caucasian, Asian, or black. …. Just in case you were wondering.
I’m not a fan of Metallica. It’s not for lack of trying. I’m not saying that their music sucks or anything like that. I appreciate the band’s role as a seminal hard rock/metal band that has influenced and continues to influence many other rock bands. And their 2009 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is well deserved. It’s just that Metallica, musically speaking, is not my cup of tea. Well, that’s only partially true. Really, it’s not even that I don’t like Metallica; I’m actually not supposed to like Metallica or any other hard rock band.
Metallica and all other musical artists who fall under the rubric “metal” is generally thought to be “white guy music” – angry white guy music – off limits to folks like me. Music, like everything else, is categorized. Or, more to the point, there’s music we’re supposed to like and music other people are supposed to like.
Listen: I like the angry white guy music. I read David Sedaris books. I watched The Daily Show (and truly was heartbroken when Jon Stewart announced he’s leaving the show), and not only do I thoroughly enjoy watching The Colbert Report, I think that Stephen Colbert is sexy (in a snarky kind of way). I listen to National Public Radio. I love This American Life. I have a Liberal Arts degree. I recycle. I write a blog. I drink bottled water. I’m even a fan of Noam Chomsky.
Well, more of a fan of Chris Hedges than Noam Chomsky.
All of these traits (at least according to the website Stuff White People Like) are associated with white people.
People like this:
Not people like this:
But, if we know that race is nothing more than a social construct, the fact that Cornel West suggests that Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim is a blues man, or why Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, identifies as a black woman or why Latino kids living in East Los Angeles are some of Morrissey‘s most ardently loyal fans, and why I, being nowhere near being an angry white guy enjoys the snarky humor of The Colbert Report and am proud to say that my favorite musical artists are The Beatles, Steely Dan, The Cure, and nine inch nails.
Given my druthers, I would rather dress like this:
Than like this:
The truth about race is that a particular frame of mind or set of characteristics is not innate and does not belong exclusively to one racial group.
W.C. Fields once said, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to”. Contrary to what Kant, Hume, and Jefferson believed, our race does not determine who we are and what we are capable of. Every individual is capable of dictating his own course in life, according to what each person determines is the path to personal happiness. For many of us, race is irrelevant when it comes to who we are. We are who we are, regardless of what we are.
…..Which brings me back to the old lady in Kmart.
I think that the elderly woman who asked me where to find the movie 12 Years A Slave was suffering from making an assumption about another individual based on hundreds of years of misguided (and often pernicious) thinking about race. She may not believe the racist ideology of Kant or Thomas Jefferson, but we’ve certainly been reared in a culture grounded in the Enlightenment philosophies of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and the Founding Fathers. And in that way, we may believe or act upon certain beliefs and stereotypes about a particular race without ever making the conscious effort to adopt a racist world view.
So, although I could have reasonably yelled at that woman:
I also have to acknowledge the possibility that philosophers really are as influential as every philosopher
bitches and moans wants them (us) to be. Many of us practice Kantian philosophy –
Just not the right kind of Kantian philosophy.
Besides, in the end, our race does not matter; what matters is that each of us finds a way to live authentically.
Well, it matters if you’re an existentialist.
Wait, Kant wasn’t an existentialist, was he?
*I’d like to state here that the philosophers that I am quoting (Kant, Hume, etc) spoke about all races, not just those of African descent. I am singling out their opinions on blacks for selfish reasons and secondly to demonstrate how wrong many well-regarded philosophers have been (and sometimes are) on the subject of race. In fact, some nationalities and ethnicities are now categorized as “white” were not only excluded from the white race, but also subject to racially-motivated stereotyping, such as Eastern Europeans (including Poles, Slavs, and Jews), natives of Southern Italy, Germans, and the Irish.
** This does not just apply to black people but to all races. According to Gooding-Williams biological race is not equivalent to cultural race.
1. Census racial categories from: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2009/questionnaire.aspx.
2. Aristotle. The Politics. Trans. Carnes Lord. p.36.
3. Matthew R. Hachee. “Kant, Race, and Reason” https://www.msu.edu/~hacheema/kant2.htm.
4. Kant quote on the difference between the talent of Negroes and Asian “Indians”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_racism#Immanuel_Kant.
5. Hume’s essay “Of National Character”. http://www.philosophicalmisadventures.com/?p=6.
6. Thomas Jefferson. “Notes On the State of Virginia”. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. 1975. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. NY: Penguin Books. pp.188-9.
7. Great Treasury of Western Thought: A Compendium of Important Statements of Man and His Institutions by the Great Thinkers in Western History. 1977. Eds. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. NY: R R Bowker Company. p.756.
8. Great Treasury of Western Thought: A Compendium of Important Statements of Man and His Institutions by the Great Thinkers in Western History. 1977. Eds. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. NY: R R Bowker Company. p. 759.
9. Voltaire quote on race is from Voltaire’s essay “The Negro” . http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=666&chapter=81914&layout=html&Itemid=27.
10. “10 Questions”. Time. February 16, 2009. Vol. 173. No. 6. p.6.
11. Siri Carpenter. “Buried Prejudice: The Bigot In Your Brain”. Scientific American Mind. May 1, 2008: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=buried-prejudice-the-bigot-in-your-brain.
12. Kant’s statement on the inferiority of blacks is from “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime” (1764) http://www.philosophicalmisadventures.com/?p=20.
13. Francis D. Adams and Barry Sanders. Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African Americans In A White Man’s Land, 1619-2000. 2003. NY: Harper Collins Publishers. p.92.
14. Paul C. Taylor. Race: A Philosophical Introduction. 2006. Malden, MA: Polity Press. p.112.
15. Gilbert Ryle. “The Concept of Mind”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 178