This is the ninth and final post in my metaphysics of race series. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. In the last post, I looked at some issues with the language of race itself and how that fits into my short-term retentionist, long-term revisionist proposal. In this post I will move to even more practical issues. How do we live in a way that keeps that project in mind?
How we use racial terms in the way I discussed int he last post provides one example of what I would say not to do and how it connects to what we should do in terms of race categeries. But is that going to get us where we need to go? I doubt it. What kind of practical advice would I offer, then, to help move us toward the right kind of revision without abandoning what we need our race terms to do? What would this short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism look like in practice? What specific things can we do to further the goal of retaining our terms as needed and in all honesty about what they actually mean, while seeking to transform the meaning of them to be what they ought to be? I have a few thoughts, but I haven't spent anywhere near as much time thinking about this as I would like.
1. Lots of careful study has been done in psychology of how we are affected by racial stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. We now know that we all exhibit biases merely from being aware of a stereotype, even if we disagree with the stereotype, and members of the group in question also have many of those biases. We might think a stereotype is completely false, but we still exhibit biases against people along the lines of that stereotype. That's pretty disturbing in itself, but it gets worse. The ways that these stereotypes are reinforced is simply seeing people portrayed doing the stereotypical things. Even if those are done in a proportionate way, this can happen. So suppose I'm watching old episodes of Law & Order. Suppose the creators of the show had calculated out how many criminals to show on screen and how much screen time to give them that portrayed the current statistical frequency of crimes as committed by each racial group. I doubt anyone has actually done that, but suppose they had. Suppose they even did it with stigmatized groups like black men or Hispanic men being shown less frequently than their actual criminal rates per capita. Nevertheless, showing it at all, even at lower rates, will reinforced the stereotype. And of course showing none of it would rightly be criticized as giving an inaccurate picture. So what are we to do? I have no idea. We can't stop doing everything that might reinforce a stereotype.
But when do stereotypes form? Typically we get them at a pretty young age. Psychologists have done some very disturbing studies with children. They will make up a word out of nowhere. They will tell kids that so-and-so is a glub and thus-and-so is a greeb. Then they will say that so-and-so likes fishing, and thus-and-so likes basketball. Then they'll say a third person is a greeb and ask if they would like basketball, and they say yes. They have done it with character traits too, and all it takes is one example, and kids form a stereotype of a moral characteristic of all members of that group. When we get older, it takes more examples, but if you do this with negative traits it happens even faster and quicker and with fewer examples. That's from a general cognitive bias that we all have, which is called negativity bias. It's the reason you hate movies with bad endings that you enjoyed most of the way through. It's why you notice negative characteristics much more easily than positive ones when asked to give an evaluation of something with pros and cons.
Now with that in mind, how should we talk to children about issues involving race? I know there are approaches out there that advocate starting early with talking about race issues, using age-appropriate ways to discuss discrimination, privilege, and so on. Some people even write board books for babies about that stuff. Now think about the goal. We want the next generation to be less influenced by stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. So do we want to be exposing them to these issues at a very young age, when it will just reinforce their stereotypes that they will eventually get from society by rooting them more firmly? As I pointed out, it doesn't matter if your views are contrary to the stereotypes. Just being aware of them does its damage, and the earlier it happens the worse it is. We should not be encouraging people to read such books to their children. We should be avoiding at all costs any kind of racial terminology being used around small children. I have five children of mixed race. We raised them in environments where they had regular contact with people from many backgrounds. They saw different external looks on people as part of the normal range of humanity. But we never used racial terms with them when they were young, not really until they came home from school talking about the categories everyone else was using. We did what we could to put off their exposure to language that leads children to essentialize racial identity until society forced it on us, and my hope is that the later exposure to that will reduce the effect on them.
2. But take the other side of that last point. We did refrain from using racial labels with our children when they were young. We did not raise them in a color-blind society. We talked about people's skin colors being different. We raised them amidst diversity of people. We recognized the different colors of skins, and they were among people of various shades and backgrounds in their daily life. Lots of careful study has shown that the more intimate your relationships are with people of other groups the less affected you will be by the biases that occur from being exposed to stereotypes and stigmatized elements of racial identities. My kids have been in relationships, in close friendships and in family relationships, across many cultural, ethnic, racial, and national lines. That is especially important if we want the next generation to be able to move further in revising our racial notions to be (a) more accurate and (b) less involved in the ways that our cultural practices further racial problems. Integration is important and not just to have people of different races side-by-side with each other, as happened when schools began to be integrated in the 1950s. When people work together and form common identities together, that makes much more of a difference than merely having to be around each other. When they can begin to recognize someone across any line as one of them, that's what leads to real change. We need to pursue connections across racial lines in ways that lead us to feel connected with each other, to see ourselves as together, as united, as having something in common that is part of our very identity.
3. One important element of any path forward is that we need to be willing to listen and understand those who have different experiences and understandings than we do. This is even more important because so many disagreements are simply over how to use language. When some people use "white supremacy" to refer to the doctrine that white people are in fact superior, and other people use it to refer to the factual situation that occurs when white people have advantages over non-white people, what happens when you say that someone's opposition to affirmative action is white supremacy? Most opponents of affirmative action do not think positions of power should be restricted to white people, but that is in fact what most people will hear when you say that opposing affirmative action is white supremacy. You are tying them to the worse of all racists by speaking that way. Yet it is extremely common in academic and activist circles to use the term exactly that way. It doesn't mean the view that white people should be seen as superior. It simply means that white people are disproportionately in power.
The same thing happens with terms like "systemic racism," which is a synonym for "institutional racism" and "structural racism," and all three refer to whatever forces lie behind disparities, whether they are caused by actual racism or not. The disparities might be inadvertent effects of unconscious biases, long-delayed effects of past racism, or even just the way a system of bureaucratic policies leads to a result that has more harm toward one race than another. It isn't racism in the usual sense of that term in every case, and that was the original point of the concept. It was meant to show that there may not be any actual racists doing any actually racist stuff, but it still involves problems we ought to concern ourselves with. The concept behind it is real, and it really exists. But when people question the existence of systemic racism, what are they really questioning? They are questioning whether it is racist in the classic sense of the term. They are suggesting that maybe it isn't caused by overt and explicit racism. And of course those who believe in systemic racism are not saying it is caused by overt and explicit racism, since that was the very point of systemic racism, that it might not be caused in that way. So the two groups are affirming the same proposition and then seeing the other side as racist or evil or factually challenged, all because they are talking past each other and not realizing that they are using their terms very differently. We need to listen to each other, charitably and with a goal to understanding where they are coming from, not with a goal to showing them wrong. We need to hear each other, and this needs to come from both sides.
There are people who don't listen. They can't hear what someone else is saying because of a preconceived idea of what they must be saying. I encounter that at least several times a week on social media. But some people even have an explicit view not to listen. It comes from a misunderstanding of a genuine point. The genuine point is that different people have different experiences, and sometimes those experiences allow some people to see something that others won't see. Sometimes this happens along race lines, and those who experience discrimination can notice it when it occurs to others, when those who are even engaging in the discrimination might not even notice it if it's unconscious. We certainly don't always notice if the things we do can negatively affect someone when the thing we do is just something we see as normal, and someone who does not see the thing we do as normal is much more able to notice it. When my college friends (mostly not native Spanish speakers) spoke Spanish around me, and I don't understand Spanish, they didn't understand how that left me feeling at the margins of such social interaction. It was the person who was pushed to the side who would notice it. They were just speaking Spanish, which they understood. The same thing can happen and regularly does happen along race lines. White people are less likely to be aware of ways they are engaging in seeing something as normal when it is not the normal experience of other people, precisely because it is normal to them.
So it seems correct to say that people who are marginalized, discriminated against, stereotyped, stigmatized, or disempowered in various ways are going to notice things that others don't see. But one thing we cannot do if we hope to make any progress racially is to adopt some policy that when we disagree, we automatically have to favor the person who is less empowered. We can't institute a command that white people need to shut up and listen, at least if that means they are expected not to contribute to a conversation so that both people can understand each other. I see that kind of language regularly on social media. Certain voices get to part of the conversation, and others do not. Even if the ones that do not are wrong, it will not allow us to have any progress if those voices cannot have a conversation. I can't even explain what's wrong with someone's views if I won't let them talk. I also need to know what they think in order to see that I am misunderstanding them when I do so. I will be misrepresenting them otherwise, and then they will just dismiss me as someone who doesn't care about the truth, and they will be right to do so, because I will have demonstrated that I have no interest in the truth or in engagement with my fellow human being to try to make progress and break down the divisiveness.
4. I think the most important thing of all, however, is that we need to be willing to support actual change, which starts with recognizing the problems. When someone points to problems, we can be skeptical of them and dismiss the assertion instantly, or we could seek to have a conversation about it. There is a truth to the white fragility notion of Robin DiAngelo. White people can sometimes be defensive and can dismiss what people are saying about race. But of course it's not specific to white people. People of any other group can do that too, and the suggestion that this is something particular to white people (and her notions of whiteness that I discussed in the previous post) is one reason (along with the "shut up and listen" mindset) that I would never recommend her book to anyone. But what she is right about is that in race conversations we can form our views and then dismiss anyone saying anything that disagrees with those assumptions. It is not white fragility to want empirical support for a claim that a black person might make about some racial problem, despite DiAngelo's claim that it is. But it is immoral defensiveness and belligerence to refuse to listen to someone who is saying something very different from what you are taking them to be saying (see the examples above). We will not have progress by saying only one side can speak, and we will not have progress not listening to the one side that says that only they have a right to speak. We need to hear the presentation of problems as reported by both sides, and then we can do empirical study to see if the claims are accurate. You will likely find that a lot of assumptions both sides have about systemic issues are not true. But you will also find that there really are systemic issues that sometimes do and sometimes don't line up with how they are often talked about on either side. We need to be willing to do careful studies to show what is true and then to be thinking hard about what we might do about the things we identify as problems. Much of what I have said in this blog post is heavily informed by empirical research, and a lot of it was stuff I didn't know when I first started working on race issues. It is my conviction that any way forward has to be sensitive to careful study in multiple fields. We need to hear from psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, biologists, and even philosophers. Then we need to take those results into account as we think through how we respond.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.