Racism is easy

Nobody talks about it, but racism is efficient. That’s why it’s so common.

I’m not talking about burning crosses or shooting up supermarkets. I’m talking common everyday racism.

Should I hire her? I don’t know if customers would relate to somebody who looks like that. I’ll hire him instead, he looks like a better choice.

Which day care? Maybe not the one with the teacher with the headscarf. Who knows what they do all day. My kids will be more comfortable with that other teacher.

Who’s that bunch of people at the end of the sidewalk? Let’s cross over to the other side of the street, just to be safe.

This guy looks suspicious. Better unclip my holster before approaching the car.

Put the waste plant there. That neighborhood smells bad all the time anyway.

Quick decisions. Fast thinking. Easy. There’s no need to reflect if you just choose what feels normal.

Of course, it’s not just racism. It’s all the isms.

He’s Jewish? Do you know how many holidays they have? Let’s hire somebody who just takes the normal holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

My son’s girlfriend isn’t right for him. She’s just so big. We’re not chubby people.

Joe’s married to another guy. I don’t think the other firefighters would get along with him.

Those tattoos make her look trashy. I wonder how clean this place is. Let’s not get our food here.

Is that a man or a woman? You know, I need to trust my doctor. He should be normal, like me.

Consider the alternative

Racism, like all the other isms, is a shortcut. It’s baked in since childhood and reinforced daily. It doesn’t require effort.

The alternative is to actually get to know people. You need to spend a second or a minute understanding who they are as people. You need to talk to them. Once you see them as people, you can understand them as individuals — and make choices about them as individuals. But that that’s socially uncomfortable. It takes effort.

It’s a lot easier to just have faith in your quick judgment, based on years of being around people just like yourself.

We could all save time that way.

There’s just the one thing.

As with all shortcuts, we pay in the long run. The “we” we’re surrounded with turns into a cramped little “us” and a whole lot of scary “thems.”

Try harder. Think more. Make the effort. Get past the discomfort left over from your childhood. Grow up.

It’s worth it.

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  1. “He’s Jewish? Do you know how many holidays they have? Let’s hire somebody who just takes the normal holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

    I’ve been working for 43 years. Everywhere I’ve worked, my time off for a Jewish holiday has had to come out of my Paid Time Off (PTO) / vacation leave.

    That said, your larger point is valid. You should send it to George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnNyUGhXTsw

  2. It’s these seemingly “little things” people do everyday that they don’t think about. And they declare themselves not racist or feel insulted when challenged otherwise. But those little things have a HUGE effect on the other person. It feels so tiring, as a person of color, to face these every. single. day.

  3. Shortcuts are good; we ought to encourage taking reasonable risks.

    Do we get any benefits from diversity? How can we show that we do?

    The built-in isms are so strong and served us so well for so long, how can we rise above them to be better people?

    Is get to know people simple or simplistic?

    1. I read/heard something recently that I’m going to hold for a long time – “optimism is counterfactual”. Meaning, setting aside philosophies of mindfulness and the perfect present and etc, empirical reasons to be optimistic / see the status quo positively are frequently derived by comparison to a past or a counter-factual alternate timeline where many more bad things happen(ed) that we now get to avoid. (simple eg, vaccines are great because we get to avoid the extensive youth mortality, disfigurement, etc of the endemic diseases.)
      So too, it seems plausible to me, with benefits of diversity. We understand that groupthink is a phenomenon predicted and driven by a cluster of strong innate cognitive heuristics, and that it takes deliberate efforts to avoid it. But it’s hard to attribute any specific errors to groupthink save in retrospect, nevermind identify groupthink errors avoided specifically by diversity of backgrounds. So yes, diversity definitely does sow benefits, but it’s hard to account for reaping them.

      By ‘built-in’ and ‘served well’, I assume you’re referring to the evolutionary psych evidence for out-group wariness generally, rather than defending specific isms as directly hardwired? We might try to reframe as a question of how to broaden cueing toward in-group recognition, rather than as ‘overcoming’ the out-group wariness instinct.

      Agreed that treating ‘get to know people’ as an effective *prescription* would be simplistic – descriptively it works, but also it’s obviously not scalable to the scope of the problem.

  4. Josh, these are excellent illustrations of the ways people discriminate. Most of them happen silently, within people’s minds, and are based on exactly what you said: what’s easiest. Norman Umberger’s questions are great examples of the second line defending these habits. Lots of people with good intentions wonder those very things.

    My professional role is to be a creative writer in a creative company. The teams on which I currently serve have a greater diversity of ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and identities than any I’ve known before. We have more good ideas, better teamwork, and happy clients than I ever did at an agency with people who were mostly alike.

    That seems to answer three of Norman’s questions. The last is harder to know in a professional way, because not many office friendships extend beyond the workplace. In personal life, it’s a little clearer. Learning the names and backgrounds of people who are different from us is simple. Believing that’s enough is simplistic. The real benefits come when you develop real friendships, in which you choose each other’s company for affinity alone.

  5. This is an excellent, excellent post. And I feel like it should be read by, well, every human on the planet. Would love to see it as an opinion piece in all the major newspapers! Because while your points are not surprising really, how many of us think about racism in this way and realize how easily it permeates our lives.

  6. An important and great post by Josh and fine follow up comments. Much thanks. Please remain steadfast in fighting the awful plague of bigotry.

  7. I agree with Mary. This is something every human would benefit from reading. Becoming more self aware of those quick, easy, silent decisions we make every day and making mew, different, and more uncomfortable choices takes courage, commitment, and practice. I will be sharing it with my friends, family, and colleagues. Thank you, Josh.