What do I as a white, Christian, male, American know about racism?
I have been told that I can know nothing about racism. My white male privilege blinds me to the reality. It’s impossible that I could understand it, so I should keep quiet and make whatever pathetic repentance I can muster.
Allow me to decline the full extent of the indictment, before beginning an indictment of my own about how alarming WORLDWIDE RACISM has become.
I am Caucasian, of European extraction, blue-eyed, and male. What’s more, I am American (of the prairieland type) which means I have privileges that were build on deprivation my ancestors inflicted on others, and advantages I take for granted. But I have been a recipient of enough racism to know about it existentially, after 36 years of residency as one of a tiny minority in Asia.
To be clear and fair, racism in Thailand tends to be so non-confrontational many insist it does not exist. As recently as 1967 the dean of an institution of higher education here declared flatly, “There is no racism in Thailand.” That was the year, however, that biracial babies began to be born to US servicemen and their wives. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation had to find adoptions for many of them because inter-racial children were unwanted. (I hasten to add that has completely changed to such an extent that recent Miss Thailands have been proudly biracial. The shift began with biracial models in advertising campaigns and on TV.)
Long-term residents in Asia testify to scores of assumptions made about us, based solely on our appearance. These assumptions make it difficult for us in many ways, every day. The difficulties include double-pricing based on the belief that all foreigners are rich. More subtle and pervasive is the assumption we are incapable of accurate insight into the heart of this culture, language, or religion. Recent opinion has developed that we are rude, arrogant, and insensitive. On the ledger of advantages, we will treat property with respect, we will cause little or no legal trouble, and we are worth having around in limited numbers.
Personally, I love being in Thailand, and I feel quite accepted and unharmed. But the point is that there is racism here in Thailand and throughout Asia. Skin color matters. It is not something I am too privileged here to know anything about.
Racism varies from culture to culture. In some parts of East and South East Asia it is assumed, based on my race, that I am culturally inferior. There are serious consequences to that if I were to try to live in one of those areas. In other parts of this continent I would be considered a cultural equal, but unquestionably an outsider. In some regions it would be taken for granted that I am culturally advantaged, and feared for that.
How real is race? A popular trope is that “there is just one race … the human race.”
But superficially race is real enough to be immediately recognizable. It shows up as skin color, eye shape, hair texture. It shows up in DNA. The other ways race may manifest itself are cultural signals like costume, language, and sometimes body treatment, or cuisine. These distinctions do not hold up under scrutiny, of course, because they are artificial indicating some set of characteristics that apply to only a fraction of those assigned to any particular race.
Assignment to one race or another might be imposed, inadvertent, or voluntary. Tiger Woods with African-American father and Thai mother chose to be American and therefore Black. That is, he integrated into American culture. He could have been Thai (he wouldn’t have been alone here as a bi-racial Thai person) and he would not have been thought of as Black. On his first trip back here as a sports hero he disappointed his sponsors and Thai fans by paying almost no heed to his Thai heritage. Barack Obama is Black, too, with a white mother and African father from Kenya. In the USA, the choice is not entirely free. In Australia there is a substantial group of mixed-race citizens who are oblivious of their distant aboriginal ancestor. Others know and are bemused or nonplussed by it; recently it has become a matter of pride. Mongol blood runs in the veins of a lot of Central and East Europeans.
Assignment may be calculated or capricious. “Red and yellow, black or white, we are equal in His sight…” so goes the Sunday School song. But the fact is almost nobody is really any of those colors. Almost all of us are some shade of brown, with tinges of pink or pallor. Hair color is more dramatic, and entirely unreliable as a racial indicator these days. Indeed, racial assignment is so haphazard that pseudo-races are simply invented. It is a red-flag warning when one of these terms emerges into acceptance. “Jewish” has been used for millennia, but when “Jewish race” began to be bandied about trouble was close at hand. When 19th century anthropologists began to try to differentiate types of Caucasians as separate races, they described the Alpine, Dinaric, Iranid, East Baltic and Mediterranean races. The Nordic race, they thought, was superior. Eugenics and racial harvesting were on the way. Just recently the term “Mexican race” has made its way back into the US national discourse. That will not lead to anything good.
This morning I was reminded of racism at its worst.
President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson wrote, “… I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree' off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency. Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children. According to one source, Mary was 'stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.' God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history. It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.”
That’s what racism will do, and it’s on the rise. It occasionally rises to that crescendo, as in the pogroms in Russia, the riots in Nazi Germany, rampages in Bosnia, and the unfinished elimination of Palestinians in Israel. That’s what is at risk when US politicians play the race card in the run-up to the national election in 2020.
Racism is a cultural invention. It includes acts of appalling atrocity, beguiling paternalism, absurd disrespect, and sometimes abject neglect. But it is subject to cultural intervention. What a culture does it can stop doing, although it takes the power of a mass movement of almost consensus proportions to stop it. That or a catastrophe.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.