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Racism and What it Really Means

Updated on October 21, 2016

Video of a young man calling another man nigger.

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people don’t truly understand what racism is, where it comes from, or why it exists. Writer Fran Lebowitz wasn’t talking about racism when she stated “People don’t want other people to have what they have,” but she was talking about a fundamental reflex in the human condition. Slavery in this country began because of economic reasons. It had nothing to do with hatred, xenophobia, or religion. The first person to legally own another person in this country was a black man. However, in order to perpetuate an institution that we know from an instinctually human understanding is wrong, there had to be a rationalization for it. This rationalization took the form of a belief that black people were inherently inferior to white people. This understanding was needed in order for the institution of slavery to exist. Racism actually doesn’t really exist. All human beings are the same race, so it simply isn’t possible. The idea of human beings being of different races is an invention.

When the Civil War took place, the vast majority of white soldiers fighting for the Confederacy did not own slaves. The rationalization many Americans now adopt for the reasons Confederate soldiers fought to preserve the institution of slavery was that they were fighting for their traditions, and for state’s rights. I don’t believe it’s a revision of history to accept that this was at least part of the reason they were willing to fight. However, the most fundamental reason was the fact that they had accepted themselves as superior to blacks no matter how poor, uneducated, or unfortunate their condition. They at least had that part of their identity to hold on to. Their very dignity relied on that fact. Without money or social standing, their entire sense of self as a dignified human being rested in their assurance that there was at least one group of Americans they could view themselves superior to. The proof of this is in the Jim Crow era that followed their defeat.

When we examine the behavior of some, particularly in rural and Southern parts of the United States, we still find echoes of this sentiment. I call it an echo because for the majority of Americans, the idea that they are somehow fundamentally better than another person because of the shade of their skin is ridiculous. But if one’s family and traditions were based on this ideology, it is not difficult to see how and why so many are still living in the past in various forms.

It’s important to note that it is not just white Americans living in rural or Southern states that live within this echo, its many black Americans as well. When Barack Obama ran for president initially, it was black people that were most vocal about the unlikelihood of his victory. It was black people that continued to say to me, “They won’t let him win.” Or “You know if he wins they won’t let him survive his first year.” Or “The country just isn’t ready for a black president.” I heard this from black people at every turn. This thinking has permeated our understanding of our place in this society and it is reflective in the lowered standards that we often expect of ourselves and our communities.

The words this young man spoke in this video, “It gives me every right I f—ing need. You don’t give me the right. God gave me the right. I was endowed by my creator,” speaks to this long held belief and indoctrination that there is a hierarchy in this country and those with dark skin are at the bottom. This young man believes this to be an intrinsic part of his identity as much as he believes his gender to be. Just imagine if this man were told one day that he could wake up one morning and find himself labeled a woman. What if he were told that a new law was written that dictated that if and when that day came he would simply be identified a woman from that day on and must now use the women’s restroom by law. This is what many of these changes feel like to those that hold such a strong sense of identity by what they are labeled. These labels are critical for millions of people and the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the Civil War, to the current battle over transgender restrooms has its roots in this thinking.

This is the challenge that we are facing in this nation. The erosion of labels is startling for millions of people. Even if there is really nothing to lose or gain by it. The merging of cultures and genders incites panic in those that took comfort and solace in who they were based on society’s hierarchy. If you were at the bottom of this hierarchy however, this merging and blending is welcome. The answer is simple yet frustrating for those that fear these changes; accept it. Accept it or live in anger and misery causing yourself and others pain. Imagine how much misery and sadness could have been avoided if the Southern states had simply accepted the changes gracefully. There has been a repeated line spoken by those who are frustrated by the erosion of Confederate flags, and other paraphernalia of the Civil War era, they say, “We shouldn’t try and erase the past, if we do, we can’t learn from it.” I agree completely. If we learn anything from that era, it should be to graciously accept change.


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