Racial Narratives

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This will be the third of four (content) posts in my series on liberal views on race. As I mentioned in my explanatory post, I'm talking about the kinds of (white) racism I see as alive and active in the American context right now, at least the most significant ones. What's noticeably absent are the ones I think are pretty much gone or kept bottled up and relegated to parts of the Internet few travel. These are real problems, and any progress in race relations will have to deal with them. Conservatives too often ignore them and focus on other legitimate problems, but this stuff needs to be on the table first.

My first two posts talked about normative whiteness (whiteness as the norm because of significant elements that remain of white dominance in society, which often makes non-whiteness seem abnormal and makes whiteness seem as if no race is involved). My second was on white voyeurism (the tendency of white people to appreciate the exoticness of other races without seeing the people for who they are and without coming to invest themselves in the other people with a two-way interaction; unfortunately I failed to develop the media profit aspects of this, but I think a look through the post and its comments one can make those connections).

Now I want to talk about what critical race theorists would likely call racial narratives. These are the stories (or myths in the classic sense, which doesn't mean falsehoods) that give meanings to the everyday things in our lives. These stories guide how we see people, what we expect of people, how we understand ourselves, what we appreciate and long for, etc. They're not literal stories that anyone tells, but they're more of a whole way of thinking about the world, often unconscious. Some examples will help clarify what I mean.

One group of narratives affects how we see and interact with people of different accents. Northerners are trained to hear someone speaking with a southern accent as stupid. After all, people who speak at a ridiculously slow pace in Massachussetts are usually mentally retarded. When some southerner then enters a northerner's world, the unconscious effect is to expect the southerner not to be very intelligent. Shows like the Dukes of Hazzard don't help, since they portray people in the south as not too quick. This has little to do with race but shows that accents can make a difference, and the unspoken cultural stories continue that effect from generation to generation.

How does this affect race? The most obvious way in the American context is what happens when white people hear someone speaking what linguists call black English (which is not its own language but merely a non-regional dialect of English that spans the whole country, with slight variations). To the ear of a white person, someone speaking that dialect is assumed to be unintelligent. That's almost a natural reaction. It's not that the white person is thinking this consciously, but there's no expectation that the person is intelligent, and it will usually surprise the white person. This goes for black people in general, but I think white people are less surprised if they hear the person speaking in a way that sounds more the way white people speak (or if it's a foreign accent).

The issue of bank loans still comes up today, at least sometimes. No one can really tell how often, since it's illegal to discriminate, so there are no data. What this reflects is that people care who lives next to them (or at least the banks think people care). Why? Black people are associated with crime. It's not as if statistics don't bear that out, but is it right to expect someone to be a criminal simply because the person is black? I shouldn't feel unsafe simply because I live next to someone who is black. (I especially shouldn't, since I live with someone who is black, but I'm speaking generally here!) It's an unfortunate situation that anyone should, and so the passing on of these fears from generation to generation, even if it's getting less so, is still a racist effect, possibly even an unintended one.

We all have expectations for who we will marry, who our children will marry, what our children will look like (whether genetically related to us, adopted, or with a sperm or egg donor). I'm fully aware of the arguments against interracial marriage in certain contexts, and I have some sympathy for two of them:

1. trying to preserve cultures that are dying out, which I think can be done whether you marry someone in your culture or not
2. trying to provide men who will marry black women, which won't happen if black men all marry white women, but if white men also marry black women then it's not a problem, so it's not intermarriage itself that's the issue

Ultimately both fail to convince me. The other arguments I've heard turn out to be really silly, outright racist, or relying on gross misunderstandings, so I won't even mention them. The result is that interracial marriage is a good thing. Just as Prince Charles provided badly needed outside genetic material for an inbred family by marrying a commoner, many interracial marriages can do the same thing for cultures whose genetic diversity has gradually been eroding.

For Christians especially, we should seek to represent in our lives the unity in Christ spoken of as the spiritual reality of the church. That means we should seek to be involved with the lives of anyone, regardless of race, as racial barriers are removed in Christ. The call to pursue depth of relationships across these racial barriers should in many cases include marriage. It's a moral imperative that the rate of intermarriage should be increasing. It's not a moral imperative for every individual to intermarry, but I think the numbers should be going up (and the good news is that they are, especially among Christians my age and younger, but black-white intermarriage, especially between white men and black women, is way behind all other kinds, and I think that's a very bad thing).

Stereotypes in general are part of this whole phenomenon. We expect black people to be good at basketball (and therefore give the impression that we don't expect them to be good at other things), Asians to be good at school, black people are poor, etc. Now the statistics may make such expectations likely to be true, but that doesn't mean the narratives our society tells should lead us to expect these things. People break the mold often enough, and we should seek to understand people for who they are. I've seen people get really insulted when others assume them to be a certain way because most people in the group they belong to are that way.

The one-drop rule (something that was never in any narrative that shaped my understanding but I'm told is still at work in most places in this country) assumes that someone with a black ancestor is black, even if the person looks like the average white person. This is scientifically insane, since the best evidence we have tells us that we're all black according to this criterion, but most versions of it give a set number of generations that determine it. I think one law had it set for 10 generations. That's a long way back, enough that no color genes may remain. That just sounds silly. In Haiti, it's actually the reverse. They have a one-drop rule for whiteness, since blackness is the top of the hierarchy there. This shows that it's a bit arbitrary where we draw lines when it comes to mixing. The fact that we do it the way we do (which I'm somewhat skeptical about, at least in the northeast, since I had to learn about this as late as graduate school) suggests that we have a view about blackness. It infects the genes, taking over even if it's hidden visually. This is bad. Anyone who's tempted to think in one-drop rule ways is negatively affected by a racial narrative with no basis in truth that has all sorts of negative consequences.

I should also mention that I think racial profiling is a part of this, but that just shows that sometimes these racial narratives can be necessary to deal with real problems. If heroin trade in inner city black communities kills thousands of black people a year, it may be worth targeting young black punks for random drug/weapons checks. The same goes for some targeting of Arabs in combating terrorism. There's a limit to this, and the limits should reflect how likely the people we're looking for will look like the people we stop. The New Jersey Turnpike case shows that sometimes law enforcement officers are wrong about this (blacks were no more likely to be breaking the law while driving on the highway than whites were, in that location anyway). This can be a problem, but it isn't always.

Other suggestions of racial narratives, ways they affect us, or consequences they have are welcome. In my final post I'll talk about potential solutions that have been offered for these problems and what goals we should have. Then I'll move into the next post series on problems with race stemming from the side of the group historically oppressed.

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