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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
This project started by focusing on individual traits and differences, and asking each person to look in the mirror and label themselves. From the beginning, this proved easier for some and harder for others as people strove to find, embrace, or claim their place in the larger world. The first exercise called for some people to make a stand, and say, I am this or that, or critically, I don't fit the mold for this or that because I am me. What's interesting, though, about claiming the right to be "me" is the difficulty in keeping this label while moving through societies that seek out ever wider ways to label and contain its members. Check here if you are this. Join this queue if you belong to this group. For some time, societies around the world have used a host of arbitrary and specific differences to mark people as members of privilege, or to place people outside of the system. To be told that you have no rights to freedom because you do not look, talk, pray, or express yourself like others is oppressive. It also may be motivated by racism. We've talked around this concept without giving it any teeth. I want to give one rather vague definition from Albert Memmi that should help spark some understanding of the term. Remember, though, there are various theories about racism percolating amongst theorists of race, ethnicity, and politics. What Memmi offers is both a narrow and a more expansive understanding of racism that should be accessible for everyone no matter how much schooling or reading you may have done on this topic before.

According to Memmi, "racism in the 'strict' or narrow sense of the term […] makes reference to biological differences for the purposes of subjugation and the establishment of certain privileges and advantages" for one group over another. In this sense, the devalued group is subjugated in order to protect the dominant party. What's key for Memmi is that those who engage in racist behavior, and those who use racist thought as a cultural and social tool, wholeheartedly believe that race is biological. Another interesting scholar recently traced some of the thoughts and beliefs about races from the nineteenth century and showed how all sorts of people believed that race was encoded in the senses. For example, during criminal investigations, people whose houses were robbed stated quite emphatically that the burglar was African American because they could smell the color of the individual. Additional writers and thinkers believed race was something even encoded within the soil, marking places like Africa and even Asia as continents where the traits assigned to the people erupted in the environment. This may sound outlandish to many of us today. Yes, times have surely changed. And yes, people have evolved in their thinking, but questions about race and difference remain hidden in the shadows affecting how some people process information and understand the world around them.

Memmi also gives a more expansive definition of racism that goes even further. He states that "racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary." He suggests that there is a purpose to racism. It seeks to justify all kinds of behaviors and strategies that clearly are generalizing value judgments about people based on some category of difference assigned to them as negative racial traits or characteristics.

Okay, that all sounds good, but you may still be wondering what is racism. This is where it gets tricky because it is possible to have racist thoughts, racist philosophies, and racist anxiety underlying attitudes, beliefs, and behavior that may not manifest itself as overt racism. As a result, a person can ride the train and decide to move to another car without causing any alarm, with the underlying motivation being their belief that the different people riding with them all share a negative trait-in this case, perhaps, criminality. And it gets even more difficult to "see" racism because as I have stressed in other places, racialization has taken various different forms around the world at various different times. What may be assumed to be a racially superior group today may in fact have been a racially inferior group in the past.

Although racism may be hard to see, it can be felt. Go back to that moment on the train, for a minute. Now, imagine that one of the supposedly "different" passengers on the train noticed the movements of the passenger who thought no one saw her exit to the next car. Would it be wrong to think that racism was involved? What if the passenger who moved did not tell herself that the other passengers had negative traits, but instead, told herself that she was simply moving to a less crowded train? Would you still consider her motivations racist? And therein lies part of the considerable problem concerning racist ideology. Racist ideology can be so pernicious that it actually starts to rationalize other types of behavior. The woman could tell herself, and even believe that she wants to move to a less crowded train. Unless forced to confront her shadowed thoughts, she could continue to imagine that she does not hold any racist thoughts. She could continue to imagine herself as one of the "good guys" while never having to probe her underlying motivations too carefully.

Of course, it is really possible that this woman simply wanted to be on a less crowded train, but if she even for a second imagined the other people as having negative, inferior traits, something else is at play in her desire to move than simply needing more leg room.

So, what do we do about ideology, thoughts, and beliefs that may be hidden from view? The first thing that I want us to do is probe our thoughts. Memmi suggests that racist thoughts and beliefs are often associated with fear. Fear of change, the unknown, of a changing political or religious landscape, or even just fear that one has lost power or control can be strong motivators for the emergence of racist ideology. It is then through the ideology that fear can be squashed and order maintained to the benefit of the person wielding racism. But something interesting can also happen. Because not everyone experiences fear of change, or fear of strangers, or the need to control the world around them, some people fight against racist ideology. They have heard all sorts of things about people, but they work to not let these thoughts dictate their actions. I want us to get there as a community. But first, I need people to get outside of their comfort zones. We need to probe our thoughts and get real.

How? By placing ourselves in situations where we are the Other. Now, I am sure some of you will claim that this is your existence everyday. If so, then amp it up. In my scholarly work, I study something called intersectionality which looks at the ways race intersects with other things like politics, class, or gender issues. You may need to be in a situation that intersects these issues in order to feel the effects of difference outside of your normal everyday experience. I don't want anyone to feel embarrassed, harassed, or angered; however, I do want people to feel a bit of tension or anxiety, and be surrounded by other people. That is the moment of import here. What is going through your mind during the moment? What is going through your head about the people who surround you? What do you perceive will be their treatment of you? How do you act in response to all this stimuli?

Of course, where you go will be critical to this exercise. I would suggest that you go to religious places of worship, libraries, schools, or even clubs where you can LEARN about others and about yourself. Part of the process here is to start the critical work of unlearning teachings and cultural beliefs that we have simply absorbed into our makeup. The other reason for this exercise is to LISTEN to our own hidden fears rise up and speak. We often tell ourselves things that help us like ourselves. I don't want to scare anyone, or force people into a funk. Instead, I want us to lift up the veil and see truth because I truly believe that until we can do that, we will never learn to fight for a world of social justice and equality. You can do it.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Greetings, everyone...

I wanted to take a few moments to provide everyone with a few additional instructions regarding this exercise. Some of this information will be repeated in an upcoming podcast on this issue. I've included them here, though, in order to continue to encourage everyone to work hard on this very critical and serious issue.

So, in no apparent order:

1) Continue to ask tough questions of yourself

This is hard. I understand. But I need you to not just say or think things, but to criticize and analyze your thoughts, and more importantly, to figure out where your ideas are coming from.

The main point of this exercise is not to look at others and wonder about them, but to look at ourselves and try and figure out where our own internal warnings and fears are coming from. We are products of so much confusion that it is essential that we try and weed away this (dis)information and try and get to the heart of the matter. Remember, you may be engaging with other communities, but this exercise is still about you and your own thoughts.

2) Learn and listen

It's easy to pass judgment on others, but it's harder to put one's self in the position of learner. In order for you to learn, you need to place yourself in situations where you can gather and obtain information. Learning that occurs from a distance won't help you. In my podcast, I also suggest that people avoid going to places that are dangerous, or simply driving by or through communities that reflect the diversity of this country (or your own). The places that I am encouraging you to visit include: libraries, community centers, specific festivals, religious institutions, musical events, or even cultural performances. You have to immerse yourself in these spaces in order to truly listen and learn about others. It's not fair if you do this from afar, or if you never learn about the other people that live within your community, or a neighboring location. The next thing to do is listen. In order to listen, you may have to ask questions, or simply be receptive to information.

If you cannot find a cultural venue in your community, consider the internet. There are a number of sites devoted to specific organizations or issues. Be aware, though, that this exercise will be more successful if you actually take the time to immerse yourself, take it all in, and....

3) Reflect, reflect, and reflect

I know that this point is covered above, but I would like to just reiterate it again. Remember, this exercise is about how to learn, listen, reflect, and discover some of the truths about ourselves. That can only happen if everyone takes the time to dig deep and trudge through potentially discomforting thoughts and feelings.

We may have a ways to go before we can look around us and appreciate the diverse people that surround us without animosity, insecurity, or suspicion. This too may be the case in your country or commmunity as well. But I, for one, would like to live in a world where I am not pre-judged because of the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my accent, my spiritual beliefs, or my street address. I would also like to live in a world where joy pervades. In many ways, this may sound wishful and overly optimistic. However, I am hopeful not just for me, but for my children and yours.
 
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