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POV: Let’s Stop Playing the “Who’s Racist” Game

Prejudice isn’t just about what you say or do

43

A recent BU Today article about racial microaggressions effected an important, though fiery, conversation about race. Many of the individuals who commented stated that the article and the quoted parties unfairly portrayed white people as being racist. As one of the quoted parties, I’m here with a simple request: let’s stop playing the “who’s racist” game and look at the big picture.

The United States of America is racially and ethnically diverse. The idea of an open and welcoming nation is a powerful one. On the surface, the numbers seem to corroborate the idea that the United States is indeed a beacon of diversity. Among the more than 300 million people in the country, 20 per cent speak a language other than English at home, and nearly 13 per cent were born in a foreign country. But an examination of the presence of difference alone does not help us understand the country’s continued uneasiness with race.

The racial diversity of the United States is a product of its history, which includes enslavement, immigration quotas based on race, and the subjugation of groups of people. While it may seem that the country has left its racism in antiquity, the legacy of the policies is still very much alive. We need to understand our racial identities, including our attitudes and feelings towards race, in the context of this history. Unfortunately, most people have not spent enough time in honest self-examination to fully appreciate their place in a society that continues to struggle with race.

This lack of self-awareness creates an unhelpful environment for a conversation about race. The comments in response to the BU Today article are indicative of this, and they’re a sign that we need to change the way we talk about race. We need to stop trying to find racist people or to immediately deny being racist. It’s a misguided way to fix a problem that far exceeds what happens between two individuals. Racism is a systemic problem that requires all of us, of all races, to participate in creating a more equal and open society.

Racism at large has been so detrimental to our unity as a country that we remain a racially divided country. Even in light of our racial diversity, the United States ranks as one of the least tolerant and most segregated nations. Due to the policies that shape our daily lives, we are still separated, and this fuels the fires of racial conflict. Our country cannot continue to exist with such disparate racial experiences.

What does this all mean for our day-to-day interactions? It simply means we need to start focusing on the bigger picture. When someone states that what you may have said or done is offensive, be open to listening actively and speaking honestly. If you can’t be open to having a difficult conversation about an interaction between two people, how can you expect to learn about something as insidious as a systemic problem?

Christian Cho, assistant director of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, can be reached at ccho@bu.edu.

43 Comments

43 Comments on POV: Let’s Stop Playing the “Who’s Racist” Game

  • Tatiana on 07.10.2014 at 7:38 am

    Our schools are more segregated now than back before integration…think about that

    • Bruce J. on 07.10.2014 at 11:44 am

      Well said and very helpful, Christian. Thank you. A couple of thoughts: racism is a common and personal and painful experience for people of color, but a much-less-common and not-personal, less-painful experience for those of us who are Caucasian. These very different experiences make racism a difficult topic to form a consensus about, and a difficult phenomenon for Caucasians to recognize sometimes. I’ll call this “sensitivity,” for lack of a more accurate word. My second thought is that “sensitivity” can lead people of color to believe that things that aren’t being said are being implied; that isn’t always the case.

      • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 12:01 pm

        It’s one of the subtle ways that racism also hurts White people. Racism, as a large cultural and socioeconomic force, puts White people into a position of both social privilege AND defensiveness. Once we acknowledge how White people are also placed at a disadvantage in this way – I’m careful here to articulate that I believe that White social privilege does exist – we can have a conversation.

        • Bruce J. on 07.11.2014 at 9:13 am

          Social privilege certainly has a racial dimension among many other dimensions — economic, occupational, educational, ethnic, even geographic. The racial dimension is relative, not absolute.

  • George on 07.10.2014 at 7:51 am

    My experience goes like this in Washington ED.

    Female Georgia Congressional Staffer: Where are you fron?

    Me: From here.

    Staffer: You are not originally from this area are you?

    Me; No. From Honolulu.

    Staffer looks puzzled.

    Me: Have you been there?

    Staffer: No. Is it in India?

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 9:29 am

      That’s troubling on so many levels. How did you handle it?

    • Istvan on 07.10.2014 at 3:46 pm

      If being asked stupid questions by a clueless Beltway staffer is actually racism, can’t we admit that it’s a completely different form of racism than the systemic exclusion of whole groups of people from positions of influence in their communities on the basis of their ancestry?

  • John on 07.10.2014 at 8:12 am

    I didn’t really get the point of this article, and you don’t do a good job defining what racism is. Did you mean racism in an academic setting, like the article you’re responding to covered? Or do you mean day to day racial prejudice? Bear in mind that both exist here at BU.

    Furthermore, do you have some sort of solution in mind that actually tackles racism at its roots? Because I think the problem is more than just a lack of discourse. Visit any dining hall and notice the racial cliques that immediately start to form(white tables, Asian tables, that one black table…)

    For such a diverse school, I think BU doesn’t mind turning a blind eye to this sort of thing. Whether or not that’s an issue is another discussion altogether.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 9:23 am

      John,

      Thanks for the feedback and questions. There are two I’d like to address.

      - Why are we okay with groups of people forming racially homogeneous social groups?
      In a diverse and democratic society, people are free to form social groups as they please. While it’s not ideal for those groups to be drawn along racial lines, there are some legitimate reasons for this. Commonalities of culture and language help bind groups together and while culture isn’t defined by race, it’s closely tied to it. As far as what BU is doing…this is exactly why I work at the Howard Thurman Center. We support students to find comfort within their social groups, but we’re also driven by Thurman’s philosophy of the search for common ground. We can’t force students to come to the HTC to learn more about us and to engage with our programs, but we’re here to help those who want to break barriers.

      - What exactly is racism?
      Racism is a system in which the racial prejudices of one group are codified into laws, policies, and practices of wide-reaching institutions that have the power to shape the everyday lives of all racial groups.

      I hope this helps. I’m happy to discuss this further with you, whether on here or one-on-one.

      • Ben on 07.10.2014 at 10:27 am

        Christian – that is the definition of Institutional Racism not racism.

        • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 10:48 am

          I define racism as such because I don’t like to use the word to describe behaviors or words. I’d rather use “prejudicial”, “hateful”, or “bigoted”. Those words are much more clear and leave little room for interpretation.

          • Ben on 07.10.2014 at 11:03 am

            But this is a problem and I have been encountering it for decades now. I am sure you are not aware of it but I am sure you have inherited it – it has always been a clever attempt to tell whites that any person of color does not have the ability to be racist. But based on the actual definition “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

            Racism is primarily a personally held belief. Therefore anyone can be racist. Racism exists in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Anyone can be racist. We do not have institutional racism anymore. We have personal racism and community tribalism. So the only issue to be discussed is personal, not institutional racism.

          • Jonathan on 07.10.2014 at 3:45 pm

            Ben, I am curious how you came to determine that institutional racism no longer exists in the US. I can think of one instance of institutional racism right off the bat. There is a common belief in this country that the majority of welfare recipients are either in the system by choice or they engage in fraud (the so called “welfare queens”). Policy makers use this generalization to appeal to voters to dismantle the entire welfare system. To me, this is blatant racism. Since more than 60% of welfare recipients are minorities, if one assumes that the socio-economic system in the US that minorities and whites participate in is not racist, then the implication is that whites, either culturally, or genetically or whatever, are superior in some way to minorities since fewer of us wind up on the dole. If the races are equal, and the system is inherently fair, then we would expect welfare recipient numbers proportional to the demographics of our country. Since this isn’t the case, either the races are equal and the system is not fair OR the races AREN’T equal and the system is fair.

    • Bryant on 07.10.2014 at 9:35 am

      Firstly, Asian is not a race. The example you are using pertains more so to culture. Cultural norms and cultural familiarity are a separate entity from race, and require more than a comment box to explain.

      The solution you may have missed: be more self-aware, self-reflect, challenge yourself and have that difficult conversation.

  • BU SOC student on 07.10.2014 at 8:30 am

    Excellent Mr.Cho!!! Couldn’t have said it better myself! There is no use in attacking individuals when the real problem is institutional racism.

  • Betty J Ruth on 07.10.2014 at 8:34 am

    As someone who spent 25 years teaching about the implications of racism in the social work profession, I have to respond by saying “YES!” Thank you for a thoughtful editorial.

  • XYZ on 07.10.2014 at 8:37 am

    Let’s also stop thinking that what you say doesn’t mean anything as long as you don’t “feel” racist or bigoted. It sets an example for anyone within earshot of your comment that it’s OK to say these things AND to mean them. Others don’t know your intentions when you use this kind of language.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 9:26 am

      That’s the distinction between intent and impact. There may be good intention – or at least a lack of sinister intention – but the impact is just as important. We have to be able to acknowledge both equally and to have a conversation that examines why so often these two things seem mutually exclusive.

  • Megan Sullivan on 07.10.2014 at 9:25 am

    What I like a lot about this piece is that it provides helpful examples of how to talk about race, and it reminds readers that racism is very much a systemic problem. I believe the following observations will help me in future conversations: “our country’s continued uneasiness about race” and “lack of self awareness creates an unhelpful environment for a conversation about race.” Thank you, Ms. Cho.

  • african american upset bu student on 07.10.2014 at 9:41 am

    For starters poor journalism. You present one sided opinions and most likely have never experienced such hatred but I have and to be so inconsiderate to those who have gone through dealing with hatred and racism on many levels in the past and present time. A great deal of people turn a blind eye to what continues to happen in our society and these matters continues to go undressed. Step outside of your little bubble for a moment and look at you black student, staff and faculty population and tell me do you think it is because there are not enough qualified minorities to fill these various positions or is there a bigger problem. So before to tell an interesting country that is filled with a great deal of hard working educated minorities to get over racism and forget about… think twice. Be mindful of who your audience consist of and who you may offend in the process. It is disappointing that an article with NO substance was given a second look and was able to make it in the BU Today paper. Christian Cho you have a lot to learn about people and the diverse society that God has given you the opportunity to be a part of. I wonder how you would feel if you were black and or any other race that has dealt with inequalities.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 9:57 am

      I’m not sure what I wrote that makes you think I’m telling people to get over racism. I’m asking people to start changing the way we talk about race so that we begin to acknowledge and address systemic racism.

      To your point about filling positions with qualified Black students and employees – there was nothing in my POV that mentioned that. I’m deeply troubled by how BU’s population doesn’t accurately reflect the world as a whole, but how we frame it and understand it is what I’m addressing.

      The continued and ongoing inequalities that exist between groups is a systemic one that cannot be fixed by addressing things like microaggressions. Those are two separate problems that need different solutions.

      Also, if you would so carefully look at my name, you’ll know that I am Asian. I’ve dealt with inequalities, too. People that look like me weren’t allowed into this country for many decades. The success of people who look like me is used to bolster racial inequalities. There are many times I feel unwelcome.

      If you are a student, I welcome you to continue this conversation with me. I’m sure you want to remain anonymous, but I am actually very much interested in hearing about what bothers you at BU.

    • african american BU Student as well. on 07.10.2014 at 10:16 am

      I would like to say there is racism everywhere it is noticed more by those on the receiving end. I agree about the lack of minorities employed, enrolled and educators here at BU. It begins with the organization recognizing there is a big problem that needs to be addressed. I agree there should be more open dialog but a significant amount of individuals are fearful of being retaliated against for saying something. This is bigger than one article. This stems from a Broken society who spend very little time addressing the issues at hand. What happens to the minority students who are not given an opportunity because of lack of connection because that does not happen at BU. What about staff and faculty that were not given an opportunity to be hired or promoted. What are we saying to the children preparing for tomorrow. What Message are sending to our future leaders. As I said it is bigger the BU. It runs deeper than one article. I experience racism on a daily basis and it is alive and well throughout this campus. When I first arrived to campus and saw the Martin Luther King monument I felt as though I was going to be a part of something special and bigger here at BU. I thought of many of his speeches and the sacrifices that Dr. King and many others made for this country to become a better place. I wanted to contribute and be a part of a movement and a family/society that understood equality for ALL was mandatory. Or do we just exist and a broken over and under educated society.

      • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 10:49 am

        You may not want to do this, but I strongly encourage you to come to the Thurman Center. We have conversations like this on a regular basis. In particular, you may be interested in a program called Courageous Dialogues. Either way, know that we exist to give you the space to think about this freely and to voice your opinions without retaliation.

        • african american BU Student as well. on 07.10.2014 at 11:06 am

          I would love to attend. .

      • nathan on 07.10.2014 at 1:36 pm

        Please consider that those on the receiving end include “white” people. Many immigrant “white” people have been the objects of racism by other less recently immigrant “white” people.

        As a “white” person with roots in this country going back over 200 years, and other roots less than 30 years, growing up in a prominently “black” and “Latino” neighborhood, I experienced a lot of physical and verbal abuse based upon my race.

        At the same time, I experienced a mixture of preferential and discriminatory treatment from business owners and city employees.

        - – -

        This is not to say “poor me.”

        It is to say, please don’t assume you already know my racial experiences and biases. just as I won’t assume I know your racial experiences and biases.

        I was blessed with parents who never showed anything I saw as racism. Yet there were a few phrases they inherited from their parents that I later discovered were based in racism.

        There are behaviors I have based upon personal experience (for example a life threatening attack by Samoans) which could lead people to think I am acting based on racism – when I see it as a fear based response to personal experience.

        I acknowledge this as a form of prejudice in myself.

        - – -

        Racism, sexism, and ageism are corrosive forces.

        However,

        I agree with Christian Cho in the assessment that the word “racism” isn’t the most helpful word for us as individuals to develop in a nuanced, thoughtful way that helps build a better society.

  • Istvan on 07.10.2014 at 9:45 am

    In one breath, you seem to address the valid distinction between personal prejudice and systemic racism. But then you ignore that distinction by equating an interaction between two people and an insidious systemic problem.

    Racism is the sum total of systemic inequities in our society that’s the legacy of centuries of slavery, disenfranchisement, and policies that inordinately disadvantage populations that are already marginalized. It might be easier to pretend that shaming people for personal slights and “microaggressions” is doing something to remedy real racism, but that just shows how difficult it is to combat these systemic ineqities in an effective way.

    I try to be as sensitive as I can to people’s feelings and cultural identities in my personal interactions with them, and I would feel bad if someone told me I had offended them by insensitivity to their race or gender. But I don’t pretend that being nice to people either makes systemic inequities go away or makes it easier for us to confront them effectively.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 9:59 am

      I don’t equate interpersonal racism with systemic racism. What I’m asking people to do is not get wrapped up in interpersonal racism only because it distracts us from seeing systemic racism. That’s kind of the whole point of this POV.

      • Istvan on 07.10.2014 at 10:13 am

        Christian, I’m adept enough at reading that I’m pretty sure I can recognize the way you contradict yourself here. In the last paragraph of this article you say we should focus on the “big picture.” But then you caution that people should listen when being chided about a personal slight, because “If you can’t be open to having a difficult conversation about an interaction between two people, how can you expect to learn about something as insidious as a systemic problem?”

        My point is that making an effort to be courteous to people is important, but it’s a completely different issue than acknowledging the extent of systemic inequities in our society.

        • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 10:54 am

          Maybe I could have written it better. I just want to say that I agree with you. My point is that people need to be open to talk about racism in all of its forms. I’m imploring people to expand their understanding of racism so that it’s not just about what happens interpersonally.

  • JB on 07.10.2014 at 9:53 am

    I agree with the spirit of this article, but some of the claims are not substantiated. The segregation discussion is well-defended, but extending it to include the larger issue of tolerance seems to be extending it too far. Most significantly, I’m interested in the data that supports the assertion that “the United States ranks as one of the least tolerant and most segregated nations”.
    According to a 2013 Washington Post article by Max Fisher, the United States ranks among the most tolerant nations (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/15/a-fascinating-map-of-the-worlds-most-and-least-racially-tolerant-countries/).
    While the United States will certainly always have room to improve its racial tolerance, I believe there is strong evidence opposing the view that the country is lagging the international community on this issue.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 10:20 am

      When I originally wrote the POV, I actually linked to the same exact map. With a closer look, I see that I read the map wrong. You’re absolutely right. The United States may be one of the most tolerant, but it’s still one of the most segregated. In fact, that means that the problem lies with systems, not the prejudicial comments and attitudes between people. That’s my point.

  • Lara on 07.10.2014 at 9:53 am

    Just look at patterns of interracial dating and coupling in Boston alone: white men with Asian women, black men with white women, and… that’s it. You rarely see it the other way around. There’s a reason for this: tied up with our racial prejudices are ethnic and sexual stereotypes we use to navigate the world, and that includes dating and relationships with other people. In other words, the stereotype that white women are more “ladylike” and desirable, that Asian women are pretty and submissive, that Black men are “more manly” than white men, manifest in the choices many of us make in dating and relationships, even when we each insist we are “not racists.”

    It is precisely the belief, especially among middle and upper class white folks (and especially in Boston), that they are “not racists” that perpetuates racism – each of us is unwilling to see how his/her white privilege works for them, even if they don’t like having that racial privilege. If we want to create change, we have to all be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable and question some of our most ingrained beliefs. This is what Christian Cho is asking us to do. I would add that part of the solution to ingrained racism and ethnic stereotyping is addressing misogyny in its many forms, since racism and sexism are inherently linked.

    So, Mr. Cho, thank you for giving a thoughtful and honest response to the (sometimes misguided) reader commentary for the earlier article. While there might be many who still respond defensively, I trust there are many out there reading your piece and seriously considering the positive ways we can each make a change.

  • Ben on 07.10.2014 at 10:25 am

    All countries have subjugated minorities and oppressed others. The only real difference in the U.S., the most diverse nation in history, is that we love to hate ourselves for past sins. Even though we have done everything we possibly can legally and institutionally. We constantly look backwards and wring our hands about how awful we are no matter what good we do. We psychoanalyze everyone to see what their real motives are and we love to be victims. I am the son of immigrants who were among the most persecuted people in history but I am not a victim because my family and ancestors were victimized.

    We all have cultural/family/religious etc. difference that define us as individual. There will always be bad people and good people. Bigots and non-bigots. We can legislate laws but we cannot legislate thoughts.

    Perpetuating a victim culture of for everyone who is not white (because white people apparently have no problems and cannot ever understand what it means to be victimized) only brings society down and frankly it is adolescent. We have come a long way – the rest is up to each individual and family not professional victims/race baiters.

    In short we all need to grow up.

    • Christian Cho on 07.10.2014 at 10:52 am

      There actually is historical differences in how racism played out in the United States. The U.S. has a very long and detailed history of racialized laws and policies. In many other countries, that isn’t the case. If you have an hour, watch “Race: the Power of An Illusion”, Part III. If you’re local, you’re welcome to come watch it in the Thurman Center.

    • Jonathan on 07.10.2014 at 4:05 pm

      Ben, are you sure we in the US have done “everything we possibly can legally and institutionally”? You are absolutely sure that racism never plays a part in the decision of a judge, or senator, or even president? I would say that is a pretty bold assertion. I can’t imagine any problem so complex as race relations being “solved”.

      I don’t think examining racism is looking backwards. I think it is addressing a problem so the future doesn’t have to deal with it (as much) and therefore is very much a process of looking forwards.

      And a discussion about racism does not deny problems a white person or white people can have. You made that assertion, not the author of the article. You created a straw man in an effort to invalidate the very real racism that many face to this day. Just because it doesn’t happen to you, or somehow doesn’t effect you when you do experience it, does not mean it doesn’t effect or hurt others. When you say “We all need to grow up” after spending paragraphs separating your experience from others who have experienced racism, you are really saying “Everyone else except me needs to grow up”.

  • ChaCha on 07.10.2014 at 12:06 pm

    We do need to change how we talk about race and more so our assumptions and perspectives. We put each other into boxes everyday on many levels and race is no exception. I remember in one of my sociology classes we got into a discussion about race and people were describing what they were: 1/4 Irish, 1/4 Italian, etc… this was an acceptable answer as it should be. Although I am a mixture of many things my skin is brown, culture is African American (whatever that means in this case I grew up in an all Black community)… When I went to describe my background there were many questions from all races in the classroom. It was an informative and honest discussion, however, I am considered Black at the onset… That is it. President Obama is a prime example. He is mixed, his skin is brown, he is always described as Black. This is a fraction of the conversation about what you bring up.. Unfortunately the messages are all around us and they been subliminal and reinforced since birth (marketing, television programming, social environment, narrow scope of what we choose to look at on the internet based on our own experiences, etc…) so it isn’t easy for everyone to recognize or change. The messages are not only about race but appearance in general.. America and probably most of the planet has an obsession with appearances- it categorically means “something” from our experiences/bias, etc… and race falls into that.

  • km on 07.10.2014 at 2:40 pm

    Christian, thanks for the thoughtful article and info on Thurman. I saw Lydia Diamond’s play “Smart People” at the Huntington recently, a great contemporary play on this issue. If you can get the script or see the play, I highly recommend it!

    • Christian Cho on 07.11.2014 at 9:59 am

      I wish I knew about this! I saw Stick Fly a few years ago and loved it. I’ll keep my eyes out for opportunities to see Smart People soon.

  • Amy on 07.10.2014 at 3:08 pm

    Here is a great and relevant TEDx talk by Jay Smooth, titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU&feature=kp

  • Peter on 07.10.2014 at 4:09 pm

    What’s the point? About enlightening as Eric Holder’s 2009 tirade.

    • Christian Cho on 07.11.2014 at 9:56 am

      Are you saying you didn’t learn anything new or that you don’t care about this topic?

  • David Janey on 07.11.2014 at 8:17 am

    Mr. Cho, thank you for serving as a catalyst and commentator and engaging the community in this discussion. Racism, personal and institutional, is far too often regarded as a topic too hot to handle or unnecessary in our so-called “post-racial society”. I commend you for jumping in and inviting public and private conversation. In particular, you comment: “I’m imploring people to expand their understanding of racism so that it’s not just about what happens interpersonally.” resonates with me. As we mature as a nation, I am hopeful that we can develop a deeper understanding of how personal racism (and sexism, and various other isms) infects us all and leaches out even as we are unaware of its presence in our assumptions and attitudes. And, I hope we can learn to recognize the stain of institutional racism when it is sewn (intentionally and unintentionally) into the fabric of public policy. It is all too easy to see the wrongs of the past when legal segregation and discrimination were so overt and obvious. It seems more difficult for some when institutional racism is sewn into the fabric of mandatory sentencing laws and voter suppression initiatives. We have come a long way, yet we have barely started.

  • Cuestam on 07.12.2014 at 9:36 am

    Previously, I always believed that theres no such thing as black problems or white problems, only people problems. But after doing more research, I realized that because of predatory racism, poverty has become a race issue in the US. Even after Jim Crow was abolished, white lenders would give blacks mortgages that they would never be able to pay back and confined them to specific geographical areas (ghettoes) of major cities. Here is an excelent article to reference:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

    However, we don’t have to look at this issue as a race problem and create a organizations like “The League to Defeat Black Poverty.” Such names are a echoes of segregation and shouldn’t not be used or promoted. Perhaps Africans are the most impoverished group in the US, with their historical disposition its no wonder. Even so, economic assistance should go to whom ever needs the most; if it’s an African neighborhood, fine, if its a Caucasian neighborhood, so be it. Treat poverty as a human issue, we are all brothers and sisters of the same species.

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