The Racism Spectrum and Barometer
We tend to pay disproportionately more attention to racism’s mangled bodies than to its ‘invisible’ manifestations.
In a 1965 interview with Alex Haley, Martin Luther King, Jr. called the then governor of Alabama, George Wallace, “a demagogue with a capital D” who symbolized in America “many of the evils that were alive in Hitler’s Germany,” “a merchant of racism” and “perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today.” By identifying Wallace as one of the most rabid embodiments of racism, King was placing him at the extreme end of the spectrum of American racism.
Dr. King identified other types of racists, such as the “polite” racists or “white moderates” who, “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” were a greater obstacle to the Black freedom cause than was “the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.” Accordingly, King evoked the “need for the type of liberal who not only rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood, or join his professional association, or secure a top position in his business.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum to such extreme racists as Wallace, or Adolf Hitler and Hendrik Verwoerd, there are ‘innocent’ racists like my daughter’s 5-year-old classmates who would not play with her because she was Black. While we must admit that the little girls who ostracized my daughter were victims of toxic parenting, racism, no matter the form it takes, carries within it the germ of a great malady. As Hemingway put it, “all things truly wicked start from an innocence.”
There are, indeed, many ways to be racist!
Racism is a disease. And like all diseases, it exists and manifests in many forms and in degrees of intensity. There is the common cold and the flu. There is coronavirus, and HIV-AIDS. There is cancer. A disease and its symptoms can range from mild or moderate to severe or critical, from acute to chronic, and from visible to invisible. Regardless, if left to fester, it has the potential to destroy its host and anyone else it touches.
We tend to pay disproportionately more attention to racism’s mangled bodies than to its ‘invisible’ manifestations. We can do well to remember that every bloodbath is preceded and underwritten by a longstanding tradition of innocent verbs and microaggressions.
Just as it is possible to have a disease without realizing we have it, we may be racist without knowing we are. We could be asymptomatic racists walking around, comfortably spreading the virus to our friends and family. Or sleeper-cell vector-racists waiting for the right moment to be activated. Sometimes we suspect we have a disease, but deliberately avoid confirming it. In any case, early detection and acknowledgement of any disease is the best way to stop or manage it. And no matter how innocuous the disease may appear to be, there is no good reason to hold on to it once you know you have it.
Am I a racist? No one likes to be called a racist by another. Self-diagnosis could therefore be a kinder alternative to knowing! The following set of questions, by no means exhaustive, comes out of my own deliberate attempt at self-reflection.
— Do I consider my race superior or inferior in any way to other races?
— Do I harbor prejudice against someone simply because of their race?
— Do I make racially insensitive remarks and jokes?
— Do I discriminate against or show preference for someone because of their race?
— Am I unwilling to denounce race supremacists?
— Do I get upset at the phrase ‘black lives matter’?
— Do I vote for someone who I know runs on a blatantly racist platform?
— Do I blame people for the misdeeds of any member of their race?
— Do I conclude someone got a job or admission into a prestigious school solely because of their race even when they are qualified for it?
— Do I tolerate someone because I see them as an exception to their race?
— Am I outraged by the destruction of property during anti-racism protests, but not by the murder of the person that instigated the protests?
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” Cliché advice from Polonius to his son. Yet timeless in its relevance. It is up to me where I place myself on the racism spectrum based on one or more yes answers to the above questions.
We are the children of centuries of bigoted education and socialization, raised on a constant and consistent diet of race superiority and race inferiority. This makes all of us, regardless of our assigned race, vulnerable to the contagion of racism. Consequently, you can find white people who reject the racist politics of whiteness and people of color who embrace the culture and politics of white superiority.
Fortunately, a diagnosis of racism is not a death sentence! It is but the first step toward a possible cure. As Mandela reminded us, if people “can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” Even George Wallace, that inveterate segregationist of yore, renounced his racism and asked for forgiveness from his erstwhile victims.
For every disease, a cure! Even if we are yet to discover it. For this reason, we can never treat our fellow human beings, even the most racist amongst us, like a scourge to be exterminated. We can never give up on others or on ourselves. We can never let the hope to be better die in us.