Bigotry, Racism and Individuality

We are all to some degree a product of the messages and experiences that make up our lives. My views on racism and bigotry come from the struggle against these forces in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The values espoused in Start Trek were especially significant in the formation of my views on these subjects. Not that I can quote any of it, but none the less the ethos of a kind of individualism is the message I carried away from it.

A bit about definitions and origins of bigotry

Bigotry (of which racism is a subset) is to me an attitude born of human beings natural fear of things that are strange and a tribal instinct to form a personal identity through membership of a group. We love those we are familiar with and fear those who are different. We team up with those who we share an identity to oppose those who share a different identity. Obvious visual queues of identity are the easiest and most readily available. Often group identity begins with family and branches out from there to work, civic association, nationality, and race.

At the heart of bigotry is the urge to make a sweeping judgment of someone based on some means of categorizing other people. Skin color, nationality, sex, and religion being the most common categories but by no means the only ones. Political affiliation, sexuality, fashion, occupation, age, and others all get thrown into the mix as well. The end result is that we make judgments of these people not by the character we know they have, but by the character we presume they have based on our stereotypes of the group we have included them in.

Problems with bigotry

Its dangers are manifest in, at least, a lack of civility, and at worst, war and genocide. As human society has grown and expanded we’ve come to realize the benefits of every growing scale of peace and cooperation. But all the while, the bigotry inherent in our tribal nature wars with the impulse to include others in our tribe and expand its scope and reach. We end up falling into conflict, subjugation, and other evils wrought by bigotry and fear. Slavery, discrimination, murder, genocide, and war are all consequences of bigotry paired with emotions like greed, fear, and anger.

Stereotypes are sometimes based on some kernel of truth (though not always). But the problem with them is that even when they do accurately tell us some trait is more common among a group than another, they do not tell us that any given individual has those traits. And as a result, we end up making unjust judgments of individuals within this category. Our legal system requires that judgments be made based on evidence, and I feel strongly that our personal judgments should follow that model. It is also how I want to be judged and I am a follower of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

My personal convictions

I try very much not to make pre-judgements of anyone based on their affiliations or heritage. I try to make them based on that individual’s actions, statements, and deeds. I do not presume what others think or what their motivations are. When I can, I try to just ask. When I can’t ask, I may make a guess but I keep it firmly as a guess, not a judgment or knowledge of the person. My default is to treat people with trust, kindness, and civility. Exactly as I would like to be treated.

I do make an effort to learn about other cultures, at least at some broad level, and it can be useful in understanding other people. But I never presume that what I have learned in my studies tells me a truth about someone unless they confirm it for themselves. I can study Christianity or Black history until I have a PHD, but any given person I meet may vary wildly in beliefs or experiences compared to what I have studied. I can only know by asking them who they are and what their beliefs and experiences are. My learning only helps me have a common language and frame of reference to discuss the matter.

Critiques of this viewpoint and rebuttals

Some people would call this view “colorblind” and there is a whole line of argument as to why colorblindness is a bad thing. I did some reading on the subject to try and get a feel for the critique of this view. Their main thrust is that if you are blind to color, you are blind to injustice, blind to prejudice, and blind to the actual differences between people. It’s a good point, but I think it misses the mark of what I advocate as an antidote to bigotry. I don’t want to simply ignore a person’s race, religion, sexuality, and so forth. They are all a part of who that person is. What I want to avoid is presuming I know what those things say about a person’s character and value as a human being and a moral person.

When I see a black man, I see a black man, but I don’t jump to any conclusions about what being black means to him, or what kind of a person he is because he is black. My wife is of Filipino heritage, but she was born in Chicago and raised in Seattle. You could make all kinds of assumptions about what that means but you won’t know until you ask her about it. And if you make a judgment one way or another without asking, you are making a fool of yourself and being unjust.

Nor do I want to ignore injustice and racism. I want to stamp it out. If everyone treated people as individuals, by definition we wouldn’t have any bigotry at all. Not that I think that is going to happen, but it’s what I personally am fighting to at least have more of, and it is how I try to behave. When I see racism and bigotry in action, I try to oppose it, not pretend it isn’t there. When I was in a position to hire people in the IT business, I tried to hire women and minorities when possible because I know they suffer from discrimination in the workplace. And because I was outraged at the pay discrepancies I could clearly see, I put extra work into pushing for them to get raises whenever possible.

Critics of the idea of Individualism focus on notions like “equal opportunity” and that individualism seeks to deny the manifestations of racism in outcome. Thus minorities are disadvantaged because of their individual failings rather than racism and bigotry. That is certainly not my view of it. All I am saying is that I should not presume to know exactly what race means to someone as an individual or what traits they do or don’t share with other members of that race. Individualism does not mean we are all equal, it means we are all different in some respect.

It also means that bigotry and racism are not just black and white. It is a whole spectrum and while my status as a white American gives me an inherent advantage in my culture over a black man, that same black man has an inherent social advantage over black women, who have an advantage over disabled black women and so on. Yet there could well be a disabled black bisexual transgendered woman etc… who despite the deck stacked against her can achieve wealth, power, and happiness well beyond mine. That doesn’t mean there is no racism, it means she had other qualities that overcame it.

Nor is individualism enough to eliminate racism. You have to have an ethical core that says all people have equal rights to such things as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And most likely also the right to food, shelter, and equal protection under the law. You could even go so far as to say all people should have equal wealth and power (though I find that impractical). Of course, all of these are far easier to say than to do. But they are ideals to pursue.

Polarizing reactions to racism

One of the problems with bigotry is it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you target some group as the enemy, then you are going to give that group cause to rally together against you and your persecution. The more you try to subjugate and attack them, the more cohesive their solidarity is likely to become and the more genuinely hostile they will become. And they will form opinions of other groups and thus push them into a kind of solidarity as well. Pretty soon the battle lines are drawn and blood begins to flow.

For this reason, I try to fight against polarization, bigotry, and stereotypes. Not because I don’t think there should be differences, but because I want there to be greater understanding and connection between groups. The harder everyone draws the lines, and the tighter they circle the wagons, the less likely it is that individuals in the respective camps are going to find common ground. We don’t need to be the same, and we don’t even need to like one another, but the tribalization and xenophobia that comes from walling off people into groups creates discord, conflict, and separation in places it doesn’t need to exist.

Of course, people should defend themselves. We all have a right to fight for our dignity and to attain the kind of equality I think a just society should afford us all. But as we fight, we also have to seek an eventual peace and that means connecting with others who at one time you felt you had to fight against. And I don’t feel that fighting bigotry with bigotry is really fighting bigotry at all, it is just creating more of itself. There are plenty of other ways to fight that don’t just make more of it.

Final thoughts

So in summation. Treating people as individuals is an ethical and just way to treat people. It does not mean you should deny who they are, or their differences, or the struggles they have had due to bigotry from others. I only means that you should struggle to avoid bigotry and judgment based on anything but a person’s individual character. Doing so does not entitle you to ignore the bigotry of others or the consequences of it, nor the challenges we all face in our lives, some, more so than others.


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