I was in a bible study with men and boys one night when an unusual event took place that got me thinking very heavily about racism. A black cat crept up behind two of the boys and one of then was suddenly startled by seeing it in the corner of his eye. Of course, watching a young boy being surprised by a cat is funny and we all laughed and various friendly jokes were made about the cat being a lion and how it was going to eat him and all of that kind of good-natured fun. Then, the youngest of the boys (my son) said something that was unusual. He said “He’s going to eat you because you’re black.”
Now, this is certainly an odd thing to say. Although, coming from my son, it really didn’t surprise me much at all. This is because he’s known to say completely nonsensical things when he wants to be part of a conversation but doesn’t have the right words to do so. But these two boys didn’t know each other at all and the other boy responded with “That’s racist!”. He didn’t really seem offended, just surprised, and my son didn’t really know what he meant but knew he had said something wrong so he did what I’ve taught him to do. He said nothing, and the conversation moved on.
Maybe I should have dealt with it right then and there but I didn’t feel there was an immediate urgency or conflict between the boys and it’s such a big hard topic that I wasn’t sure I could handle the layers properly right then and there. These two boys had stumbled across a larger problem that I have only been somewhat aware of. I would like to break down what I think happened here, show where I see it repeated throughout our society, and voice some concerns about where it could go.
First, I think it’s safe to say that if my son had said “He’s going to eat you because you’re wearing yellow shoes.” it would have been laughed off or ignored because everyone would have realized that it was a nonsensical statement. So really, the issue here was that he said “you’re black”. When it boils down to it, that was the “racist” statement. Now, I don’t see that as being a racist statement, but this young boy did. Having raised a couple of children who use words incorrectly semi-frequently, I’m fairly certain I know what the problem here is. The problem is that he and I don’t have the same definition of “racist”.
My definition of racism, if one were to ask me, is hating another person because of their race or skin color. According to Dictionary.com, racism is:
- a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
- a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
- hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
So, apparently my definition is at least one of the recognized definitions and I certainly recognize the other two points as being a more complete answer. And yet, by that definition, I still don’t see my son’s comment as being racist, but the other young boy did. Why? My suspicion is that he has a slightly different definition of racist.
So the question is, what is that definition. If I look at the part of the phrase that obviously was offensive I see something interesting. My son said “You’re black”. Now, as a stand-alone statement this is true, and very obvious to any young boy. He could just as easily told the other boy “You’re tall” or “You’re bigger than me” and it would have been just as true and not offensive to the other boy at all. But for some reason, pointing out his skin color was offensive enough to reply with “That’s racist”. From this interaction I would think it’s safe to say that this boy’s definition of racist is something to the effect of “Anyone who isn’t black, pointing out that I am.”
That conclusion hurts my heart because I feel like it must come from a shame about his own skin color that ought not to be there. But I see echoes of this on a larger scale. For instance, it would not go over well in some circles for me to say that my neighborhood has as many black as whites and a growing number of Hispanics. I could, however, say that live in a “diverse” neighborhood. In my neighborhood I hear many African-Americans calling each other disparaging names in a friendly manner that would not be tolerated for me to say. It’s almost like we all are supposed to pretend there are no physical differences, or cultural differences, and call that politically correct and race equality. Meanwhile, by making these obvious topics off-limits between the races I think we unintentionally engender a shame or taboo of diversity.
So, what should I tell my young son, who is not old enough or mentally strong enough yet to understand the complexities and intricacies of “race relations”? Should I just tell him “Son, when you talk to someone who’s skin color is black, don’t mention the color of their skin.”? That would be like saying, “When you talk to someone who has red hair, don’t mention the color of their hair.” It is a ludicrous statement in any other context. And of course, as young children do, he’s going to ask “Why?” How do I answer that? I guess the simplest and most honest answer I can provide is “It might hurt their feelings.”
Racist is an ugly word. The people who are correctly described by that word are ugly in spirit and I do not associate with them. We must be careful though, not to misuse this ugly word or it will lose its potency and we might forget how awful its real meaning is. But I also worry that in creating all of these politically correct words and ceremonies to get around mentioning skin color or ethnicity we are, in fact, fostering a hostility in those groups by making the mention of their physical properties “taboo”, as if it were something to be ashamed of. That right there, it seems to me, could cause true racism against whoever is seen as having implemented such a taboo on something as unalterable (and irrelevant) as skin color. So the unanswerable question I am left with is, “Could society as a whole be unintentionally increasing the likelihood of racism in the name of “tolerance?”