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What is Racism, Anyway?

I’ve lived in New York City pretty much my entire life, though I was a college freshman at the State University of New York at Geneseo — over 6 hours away from home — on 9/11.  Like every other American, I was consumed by this event, and I was especially focused on who flew those planes. I saw their faces on the news… often. Osama bin Laden’s face, too. Those faces were etched into my brain for a long time.  

Then I came home for Winter Break. I got on the subway as I normally did before 9/11.  It felt weird seeing so many police and soldiers holding large guns. Just being back in NYC was weird, but I certainly was not afraid. I attribute that to being a New Yorker; raised in the South Bronx, folks like us are tough.

I remember sitting in a corner seat on a subway train one day during this home visit. A man of Arab descent with a very thick beard entered the train at a stop, and sat directly across from me. Another man going somewhere, just like me. Yet I couldn’t help but start thinking about those hijackers again, and bin Laden. I felt guilty that the man reminded me of them. He looked uneasy, hyper-alert. Jittery. It only made me focus on him more. It only made my imagination run wilder.

It got worse, because as the train started moving, the man closed his eyes and began mouthing something to himself. A prayer, perhaps. This is not unusual. In fact, as an actor who will practice his lines whenever he can, I MYSELF do this on trains. But this was months after 9/11/01, and this man reminded me of bin Laden.

I was afraid. I can’t remember all the thoughts in my head, but I clearly remember one thought: “This guy looks like he’s about to do something, I’m the closest guy to him.  If he acts, I must act.”  My heart rate was racing.

Nothing happened.

Years later I shared this experience with a friend, and he said to me, “That was pretty racist (of me).” Was it? As a black man, I find it racist when I’m followed around in stores, or when a white person crosses the street upon seeing me approach them, or anytime people seem to get uneasy around me with the only apparent explanation being my physical attributes. I recognize that it’s not simply about the color of my skin, but about what my skin color sparks in people’s imaginations. 

We sometimes find ourselves perceiving people in ways that make us uneasy, not necessarily because of that particular person, but because we’ve projected our assumptions onto them. I don’t think that white person crossing the street believes with certainty that I’m a dangerous person, but I do think they irrationally believe I could be, and for them it’s not worth taking the risk of verifying this by staying on my side of the street. Similarly, while I didn’t know this man on the subway, I projected Osama bin Laden onto him because of his looks, and some define that as an example of racism.

Notice I said some define it as racism; others would not. Ask ten people how they define racism, or what they would make of an experience like mine, and you may hear ten different opinions. When we talk about racism there’s an assumption that we see it through the same lens, but it is essential to identify the differences if we hope to have a constructive conversation.

So, what is racism, anyway?

Racism is such a complex and vast term that even Wikipedia wrestles with it. As stated on the site: “There is not a wide agreement on a single definition of what racism is and what it is not” (Part of this, they point out, is that racism is often used in cases where there is a more appropriate term that exists, such as prejudice, bigotry, etc.).  At the same time, I believe this country needs to find a way to have a national conversation on racism as a shared experience where the masses can participate and be engaged (like at a nationally televised townhall meeting with our nation’s leaders, but I digress…).  

In my research, I found two recurring and common, yet somewhat conflicting, definitions of racism in America.  One is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” While I don’t remotely find myself inferior or superior to anyone, let alone a stranger of Arab descent, my reaction to him praying can seem to allude to this definition. In any case it’s oppressive for anyone to know that they could invoke such a reaction in someone for doing nothing wrong.

A second common definition defines racism as “a condition in society in which a dominant racial group benefits from the oppression of others, whether they want such benefits or not” (ie white privilege). Under this definition, what’s implied is that 1) it’s impossible for an American minority to be racist (though there is a term describing instances where minorities oppress the majority — “reverse racism”) and 2) all members of the dominant racial group — white people — are inherently racist. In my liberal habitat of NYC, some white people embrace this definition while others don’t.

While these definitions of racism may overlap, the outer edges make folks look like they’re speaking different languages when trying to discuss issues of race. It’s essential that we all — in pointing out the different ways racism exists today, or perhaps seeking to prove that racism doesn’t exist, or justifying how we ourselves are or are not racist — understand the full scope of this term before we can say we know what we’re talking about. As this concept of “race” in itself is so convoluted, the concept of racism is even more-so.

I invite readers of this blog to share their thoughts. I only ask that you be honest AND respectful. Those two terms, unlike the many definitions of racism, are in fact 100% compatible.