I’m racially insensitive – and proud of it. I came to this realization as a result of conflicting accusations against me. I sometimes write about things involving racial issues, and I try to speak frankly and honestly. I have thus been sometimes accused of being “racist” and also of being “racially insensitive” – sometimes in regard to the same piece of writing. My main point here will be to argue that those two things are precise opposites.
“Racism” involves prejudicially judging people based on their ethnic background, their genetics rather than their individual choices and behavior. This is wrong not just because it hurts people’s feelings, but because it is inaccurate. You may think that the Irish are a bunch of drunks – but there are certainly many Irishmen who would never touch a drink. It’s inaccurate and inexcusably lazy not to differentiate.
But please do not confuse me for someone who is politically correct. A lot of the problem of racism comes because there is a great deal of factual merit to many stereotypes. For lots of reasons, there clearly are racial patterns to human behavior, and you can’t miss that. Some of them are bad and negative, some are very positive, some are more neutral or benign. Some are very strong, some are more marginal or weak. Also, it's easy to conjure up evidence of patterns just because we expect to find them – which is where things start getting insidious.
My favorite benign point of reference for such things is my personal experience working in convenience stores. I spent a year working at Village Pantry stores in Muncie, Indiana. Dealing with thousands of customers, I’d have had to have been blind not to notice that the black folks bought 90% of the menthol cigarettes and non-cola soft drinks. The white folk almost always bought cola or Mountain Dew, whereas the black customers more often bought diverse flavors — grape, peach, root beer.
Then again, fairly often a brother came in just wanting a plain old Coke and a pack of Marlboros. You’d be wrong a lot of the time if you assumed otherwise. That’s not so big a deal when you’re guessing at minor consumer preferences, but it’s obviously not good if you’re making assumptions regarding more sensitive employment issues about work habits or criminal proclivity, say.
On the other hand, it is not at all racist to notice that someone by conscious choice embraces the worst images of their ethnic background. If you have a Negro who embraces gangsterism as their philosophical idea of what being black is all about, it’s not my fault for noticing. It would not be judging Eazy-E (who financed NWA with his drug profits) or MC Ren by their race, for example, to think the worst stereotypes apply. They picked the N-word for themselves, for starters.
But moreover, listen closely and carefully to their work. It’s not a nuanced, multi-layered or ironic Richard Pryor usage of the word. They clearly in fact meant it to consciously embrace the worst possible meanings you could attach to the word. It would in fact be racist paternalism to refuse to recognize these adult men’s freely chosen identities as wicked thug niggers.
This applies all around, of course. I don’t necessarily much appreciate when supposed blue state sophisticates talk in a contemptuous or condescending manner of my rural red state people. But then again, when the cops have to walk around the blocked-up vehicles and past the Confederate flag to get to the trailer to answer their third domestic dispute call at this address in a month, it’s not prejudice or bigotry to think that they’re dealing with white trash.
You can’t honestly be unaware of racial or ethnic behavior patterns, and it’s another kind of intellectual laziness to try to pretend them away. But it is better in the practice and far more accurate to consciously discount them as much as possible in favor of specific observed personal behavior. You’d do far better by other people and have a truer view of the world if you choose to dismiss assumptions or guesses about such things unless there is some needful reason. A cabbie might have to make a split second decision on picking up a potentially dangerous fare, but you can be far more discriminating and take your time in deciding what to think about a co-worker you’re around every day based on what you see them individually doing.
Discounting race will inevitably mean that you’re going to be perceived as "racially insensitive" though – because you will be. Discounting race in part means discounting race-based emotional reactions. If you’re not assuming that a Saudi is a crazed jihadist, then you should also not be assuming that they have great tender sensitivity about you speaking frankly of problems and dysfunctions in Islamic culture.
You can try to be empathetic and nice, but you’re going to inevitably hurt tender and sometimes dysfunctional sensibilities if you’re not anticipating and catering to them, but instead actively discounting them. If you’re not tippy-toeing around someone on the assumption that they might likely decide to childishly get their little feelings hurt over any possible perception of offense, then you’re going to step on a few toes.
That can be very good though – no pain, no gain. It’s infantilizing people to indulge such things, treating them like children who can’t be expected to handle regular frank adult conversation. It increases the separation and sense of not belonging, as someone gets the correct perception that people are not being open and honest with them. In my own experience, I’d ten times rather someone absolutely directly insult me than patronize me with "polite" silence or saying what they think I want to hear, like I can’t handle the truth.
Moreover, catering to or indulging inappropriate and dysfunctional attitudes only encourages more of them. Hard telling how much of such things is something that’s a function of truly hurt feelings versus how much is learned manipulative political behavior. For a classic pure example of the latter cast as comedy, think of the scene from Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy going off on the desk staff about no niggers being allowed in their hotel.
Whereas assuming that people of other ethnic backgrounds are intelligent and reasonable adults to be talked to normally minimizes such things. Axl Foley was raising hell like that in the Beverly Hills hotel because he figured correctly that it would get him the room he wanted. The correct answer at that point would have been for the hotel to have security toss the fool out on the sidewalk. If such things didn’t work, you wouldn’t get them nearly so much – and we’d all be better off.
So then, we should all try to discount race as much as reasonably possible. Also to the end of making that easier, we should all try not to embody the worst stereotypes of our people. Then we can all join hands and sing "Kum-Ba-Frickin-Yah" and, as John Prine would say, we’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue, then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.