Racism is Insecurity and Ignorance

by Sandy L on January 16, 2011

In honor of Martin Luther King day, I thought I’d just give me and Babci’s take on racism. Unfortunately for me, my dad was a big fat racist so I had a lot of exposure to this mentality.  This meant I constantly had to hear about his opinions on the Blacks, Jews, and the Puerto Ricans around town.   He would often link people’s actions to their race and point those links out to me.  Look, that Puerto Rican is paying for their food with food stamps. All Puerto Ricans are lazy. (There were white people who paid with food stamps too, but he didn’t point those out).   This drove me nuts because he also didn’t allow me to play with any of the kids in the neighborhood that weren’t white and there weren’t many of them.  It was pretty lonely and confusing  because I really didn’t understand the link between skin color and someone being bad or good.

Babci on the other hand was not what I’d call a racist, but she often uses race as an adjective to describe my friends. She has a very strong tie to her Polish heritage, so to her your background is a very important part of who you are as a person. I think a lot of immigrants do this.  She’d say, how’s  your Jew friend Karl?  She loves Karl. He’s a fun loving guy who’s good looking and in great shape. His grandfather was a Polish Jew, so he was fascinated by my mother and gave her a lot of attention when he visited her.  One time she was teaching him how to make pierogies and the two of them had a blast. As he was leaving she said “ba, bye, Karol” (Polish for Karl) and then smacked him across the butt.  He, being the funny guy he is,  jumped way up in the air and squealed in a very exaggerated fashion.  This made Babci blush. Just then she realized that grabbing my friend’s rear was  probably inappropriate. Karl and I still joke about it today.

MLK Courtesy of US National Archives

Racism is Insecurity

Now by some standards, people would think that both my mother and father were racist but I think there is a distinction between the two.  When you go out of your way to generalize about a population of millions of people in a negative way, I think it’s a sign that you are an insecure person. I liken it to the coworker who throws someone under the bus to make themselves look better. Polish jokes were very popular in the 70’s and 80’s and it was pretty common for a person to call me a dumb Polack.  If I go back in my memory banks and remember the boobs who used to say that to me, they were some of the most dim witted dolts in our class. How they didn’t stay back was beyond me because their report cards were littered with D’s and F’s.

I don’t think it’s necessarily the right thing to try to homogenize our culture and pretend like cultural and racial differences don’t exist for people.  I really do think our backgrounds define much of who we are.  It’s okay to have pride in your race and try to maintain the traditions and values that define you as a people.  So, for me, I think it’s okay to generalize certain positive values about a culture (Latinos have strong family ties and family is a  #1 priority to many in that culture.) On the flip side, it’s not okay to generalize in a negative way (Insert Derogatory Slang pump out babies without thinking about how they will take care of them).

Negative generalizations about people are self serving and have no value. I personally don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge someone’s background as an important part of who they are.  I think that’s why Babci always describes my friends in terms of their race or heritage. She knows that if they were raised with a different color skin, gender, sexual orientation or heritage, they would be different people.  I also think that extends to socioeconomic standing as well. I don’t think people really know what it’s like to be rich or poor unless you’ve been there yourself. That being said I’ve never heard Babci describe people as rich or poor because one can move in and out of that classification several times in life.  It’s more of a fluid trait that doesn’t define who you are, but just a point in time.

Racism is Ignorance

The other thing I often hear is people who assume things about a population of people because of their lack of exposure to them. When I was in South Africa, one couple we were talking to tried politely telling us that the black people there are not very bright.   I told them that my manager was black and he was plenty smart, so they concluded that American blacks were different from African Blacks. In my head I was saying “Um…I’m pretty sure you didn’t allow the native people to get educated until very recently, so I’m not surprised that they haven’t caught up yet.”  There is definitely a difference between intelligence and lack of exposure to education.   Assuming people can’t function because they haven’t had the same exposure to education is ignorant.

Another form of ignorance is not being exposed to the minority within a certain racial group.  Growing up, all of the minorities I knew were poor and struggling to survive.  If I stayed in my neighborhood for life, I might have assumed that that was the case everywhere.  It wasn’t until I started my professional job where I became exposed to very successful and ambitious African American and Latino professionals (along with many other races too).  Even though many minorities may have had a rough start, there are people out there who have risen out of poverty despite the additional hurdles and hardships.

One of my first managers who became a long time mentor was African American. He took me under his wing and was very patient with me. He answered lots of questions because I was really curious about his background and upbringing. We traveled a lot together and he would point out things like the people who stared at us in airports. I was totally oblivious to the fact until he pointed it out, but if you’ve been black all your life, you notice when people stare at you, especially if you’re not with another black person. Wow, it was really eye opening seeing the racism that I never noticed before.  I’m really blessed that I’ve been exposed to a company that embraces and values diversity.  It’s made me a much more interesting and compassionate person as a result.

Racism does exist, even today. I still see it and feel it and I’m always paranoid that some part of my dad’s upbringing has soaked it’s way into my subconscious. One of my other minority colleagues told me that racism is so ingrained that most of us don’t even realizing we’re doing it. So if I did that in this post, I apologize in advance for my subconscious.

So that’s my outsider’s honest and open take on racism.  It’s one of the more simplistic explanations. I know it’s far more complex than what I’ve described, but that is my world view based on where I’ve come from.  I’d love to hear how you describe racism and ways to combat it. I’d also like to take a moment to thank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his family for the incredible sacrifice they made during their fight for equality.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole January 16, 2011 at 8:22 AM

Great post!

In my field, the African Americans are in the top of the top percent in intelligence and ability to get things done. That suggests that there’s racism pervading who gets into and completes graduate school in my field. African Americans have to be doing well above the average white to go.

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:05 AM

Nicole – Interesting data point and that in itself says a lot about the discrimination still lurking silently out there.

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The Biz of Life January 16, 2011 at 9:53 AM

I grew up in the segregated south. When I was a young child I remember things like bathrooms and drinking fountains for coloreds only, segregated lunch counters, the last vestiges of minstrel shows, and having books like Little Black Sambo and Br’er Rabbit read to me. Then desegregation hit, forced integration and busing. The country has changed dramatically since in the past 50 years and so have people’s attitudes and behavior.

I don’t claim to have any special insight on this subject. I work in a male dominated profession with few women and Latinos, but there are many Indians, Orientals and Russians, some citizens, some green card holders. Frankly, I don’t care what ethnicity people are, where they come from or anything like that, as long as they can do the job well, know how to conduct themselves professionally and can get along with their teammates— that’s all I care about. I want the best and brightest working for me, people who are energetic self-starters and are motivated by excellence with a strong sense of personal ethics.

I’ve been to a lot of diversity training programs, and they’ve been a complete waste of time. Instead of promoting a color blind society, they push the color conscious society, where everything is viewed through the lens of race and ethnicity, and every act is some subtle form of racism. I do not want to be conditioned to view the world this way, or live in a world filled with victims. I want to judge people as individuals, based on the content of their character, not as groups that need special treatment.

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:12 AM

Biz – I agree that the individual’s personal work ethic and personality trumps all else. I also agree with the victim thing. All people should be treated like equals.

I don’t necessarily agree with the color blind thing. When we get diversity training we learn about things that can be insulting to other cultures, like showing the bottom of your shoe, smelling the food on your plate, or not calling a Japanese person SAN. I think if you work in a global company you have to be aware of some of these small things that can make a big difference in your relationship with a foreigner. I personally like knowing why someone may be acting weird around me and I especially don’t want to be insulting if I don’t mean to.

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Sandy @ Journey To Our Home January 16, 2011 at 11:55 AM

I grew up in rural Missouri- and the only color you saw was white. I went to college at a very diverse university and it was almost culture shock- not just with American culture and races but we had a large international student group.
I have two kids and we have lived in suburbia for most of their lives. We moved to rural Kansas in May, 2010- but I work in the inner city. While our house was on the market we chose to enroll our kids in an inner city pre-school. Out of 100 kids there are 5 ‘white’ kids. Hopefully, this will teach them a valuable lesson to not look at skin color but to look at what is inside people. AND hopefully when they start school in rural Kansas, where the only color they will see is white, they will have some tolerance and a different viewpoint when they encounter someone who is the minority.
In a more diverse setting my children gravitate toward the African American children. It took them about a month after we moved to decide it was okay to play with our white neighborhood kids.
I agree with Babci in that a persons gender, race and even the economic ‘class’ a person is raised in shapes a person.

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:17 AM

Sandy – I’m lucky that my son’s daycare, pre-school and grammar school are all pretty diverse, because as a whole the community is still very segregated from a neighbhorhood perspective. The only thing I’m starting to see in my son is that he’s wanting to play with boys now and not girls. (alot of the neighborhood kids were girls, so those were most of his friends til recently).

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Sandy @ Journey To Our Home January 19, 2011 at 11:15 PM

My son is VERY attached to girls. It is pretty much all he knows. He was in a class with ONLY girls for about a year, and he only has a sister at home. He has a few boy cousins, but is pretty anti-social in most ‘social’ settings.
He’s been in a new room with more boys for a few months- however, they are more aggressive and he still tends to play alone or with the girls.
My only concern with the boys in his class being aggressive is that maybe as they get older they are singling him out because he does stick out like a sore thumb (not to mention his pale skin, he is also a tow-head!)
We are considering a new pre-school for him in the fall, closer to where his sister goes to school and where they will be on the same schedule again.

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Deidre @ TransFormX January 16, 2011 at 3:30 PM

Wonderful post! My ex-husband’s family is very racist and predujicial. It used to drive me nuts and I would not tolerate any such language or comments when I was around them.
The first time I heard him talk that way I took exception to it and reprimanded my ex’s dad. It took him completely by surprise and angered him. After that he no longer viewed me as ‘part of their family’ but I did not care. I didn’t want it around me or my son and did not want to be associated with that type of behavior. It took them a couple of years but eventually did not speak in such a manner of I or my son were around.
Certainly it was one of those things I did not miss after my ex and I divorced!

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:20 AM

Deidre – sounds terrible..plus racism is so confusing for kids.

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Moneycone January 16, 2011 at 5:10 PM

Racism is never cool. As a new parent that is one think I want my kid to understand. As generations go by, it is very easy to forget what people had to endure.

Thoughtful post FGA!

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:21 AM

Thanks moneycone. I think things are better but we should continue to be mindful of it.

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retirebyforty January 16, 2011 at 11:51 PM

Sandy, a great articulate post! I could never write such a lengthy piece sharing my core belief. Hopefully someday we can all live with less prejudice and discrimination. I think we’re slowly getting there.

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 6:22 AM

RB40 – I may not be an authority on the subject but given that I have a blog, it’s the least I could do to honor MLK’s memory.

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Squirrelers January 17, 2011 at 12:14 PM

Very good post. I find interesting (and agree with, by the way) how you discerned Babci’s comments from true racial comments, understanding that hers were just more of a way of speech and being descriptive. You do a really good job of describing Babci in a way that’s vivid and makes sense, actually.

Anyway, back to the main topic: I know that plenty of real racism still exists. That said, I imagine that this country is a much better place to live now in that regard than it was back in the times when Dr. King was fighting his brave battles. I was not alive in the 1960’s, but can only imagine how far we have come since then. Being born in the 1970’s, I know that there has been progress made since then.

It’s great that people are taking time today to reflect on Dr. King’s life and more importantly really his great work and his legacy.

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Sandy L January 17, 2011 at 2:40 PM

Squirreler – yeah, I was born in the 70’s too, and I’ve seen progress in even my lifetime, so thank you Dr. King and all that have come after him. Babci still has a sense of innocence to her when it comes to talking about race. She definitely hasn’t gotten that walking on eggshell thing going on that many people do as a way to try to cope without offending. I think it’s kind of cool to embrace people’s differences if it’s done in a positive way.

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Aloysa January 18, 2011 at 2:40 PM

What a great post! You expressed yourself so well and so vividly. I really enjoyed reading it. I don’t think we will ever have a world without racism in it. Unfortunately. I do hope it will be better though.

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Molly On Money January 19, 2011 at 9:07 AM

My father grew up in the south during segregation. He was lucky enough to move a bit North when he entered school but his families views were racist. He was the silent outsider. When we were young my parents decided to move to the SW. As an adult I realized much of it was to get away from his families views. Unfortunately NM has it’s own form of racism. The old families that came from Spain hundreds of years ago feel they are much classier than the Native Americans and Mexicans.

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KemetDescendant June 30, 2012 at 10:40 PM

It really touches my heart to hear NOT all non-african americans are racist. Unfortunately, racism, in my opinion, is alive, still very strong (in different forms with “justifiable reasons”) and it will never get better or end; I am African American, 23, female and I have experienced and witnessed enough racism to know that. If you dont dress, act, or talk with a prefered dialect people (non african americans) treat us in an insulting way. We get followed around stores; if when exiting a store at the same time as other non african americans, the sensor goes off, we are the first and sometimes only ones approached, despite the fact we JUST made a purchase; if we dont “look” like we have money we get ignored in stores; just walking down the street with a hoody on, or a certain type of tennis gets us all kinds of negative attention (especially with the police); subliminal messages are all over the media that we are inferior, subhuman, ignorant, ghetto, child like, uncontrollable lustrous, self hating animals. Commercials that depict beauty never have more than one black female ( most of the time she’s fair skinned)… The centuries of hatred on our kind has become internal… Our own people joke about ignorant matters, rappers disrespect and degrade the women and even say they prefer lighter females (“red bone”, “yellow bone”, “white girl”), and the females that society/media as not so pretty, just wants some attention and to be declared beautiful but goes about it in the most degrading way… Its been programmed in our culture for years that we are not equal and will never be equal, so sadly, thats how most of us act… Its shameful, but hey what can you do. These are my thoughts and opinions assd on what Ive seen and experienced… Racism is alive and throbbing… It will never end.

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