Spread the word: it’s “What Is White?” Week at Stanford. Events include a keynote address by anti-racist activist Tim Wise (check out that link, he’s got a lot of interesting and important things to say) and a panel discussion on the intersections of whiteness and class status. I can’t seem to find an official online announcement, but you can see a full list of events on the “What Is White?” Week event page on Facebook (or just click on the picture to the right a couple of times).
I heard about this event a few days ago, and although I appreciate its intellectual relevance, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about it. In order to explain why, I need to give you a little bit of background about my life as a white man.
I was born and raised in Torrance, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, nestled next to Manhattan Beach on the Santa Monica bay. As of the 2000 census, Torrance was about 29% Asian; for comparison, the 2010 census reported that the U.S. is about 5% Asian. My particular slice of the city, West Torrance, was even more heavily Asian; West High, my alma mater, currently reports that 41% of the student body is Asian and 39% is white. The situation was, as you might expect, even more extreme in the advanced classes; I was usually one of maybe three or four white people in the classroom. The leadership of almost every organization, from yearbook to marching band to Key Club, was dominated by Asian students. I was, to put it mildly, rather exceptional in being an accomplished white student. A white friend of mine here on the Farm, who attended a demographically comparable high school, once said that he was shocked to discover that smart white people existed. Exaggeration, of course, but I felt the same way when I arrived at Stanford.
Despite the skewed racial demographics of West Torrance, I never really thought of myself in racial terms before I came to Stanford. I definitely never considered myself a member of the “majority” or a “privileged class,” and I had no practical concept of white people as dominant or superior. But that was before I leafed through the Admit Weekend information booklet and discovered that literally every demographic group but mine (straight white male) had a special welcome event and a community center. That was before a student speaker at NSO discussed his feelings of guilt about being a straight white Christian male on campus. That was before I was exposed to the constant flow of rhetoric about oppression, inequality, and discrimination that dominates socio-political discourse. That was before I joined Talisman. Stanford forced me to think about myself in a racial context.
My initial reaction to this discovery was a kind of confused knee-jerk anger. I disliked the fact that the school seemed to be bending over backwards to cater to everyone but me and people who looked like me. I was repelled by rhetoric that seemed to blame me and my white peers for thirty-one flavors of discrimination and “oppression.” I was uncomfortable with the school’s support of ethnic theme dorms, which seemed to institutionalize the kind of racial separatism that I was raised to abhor. And from what I could tell, most of my white peers felt the same way. But few people were willing to express their feelings in racially mixed company, afraid of being attacked as racist or ignorant.
Four years at Stanford have, of course, helped me assess, critique, and refine my initial emotional reaction. In conversation with friends from other cities, states, and countries, I gradually learned that my experience in Torrance was far from normal, and stopped trying to evaluate all racial issues through that limited lens. In Talisman, I learned more about the history of racial issues in the United States and elsewhere, and was exposed to stories of modern discrimination and racial tension. When I finally started listening to the proponents of affirmative action and ethnic theme dorms, I realized that I had drastically underestimated the rational arguments in favor of these and other seemingly “discriminatory” measures taken by the University. And classes on political philosophy and racial disparities in health care helped me appreciate the extent and severity of de facto, unconscious bias against non-whites. I am no longer the angry white freshman I once was. I even, to some extent, appreciate being forced to engage in racial introspection.
But although I have successfully tempered my anger with reason, I’m still very uncomfortable about the state of racial discourse on campus (and, more broadly, in the liberal-elite and academic sectors of American society). I don’t like the way that racial issues are a kind of “third rail” of campus politics, which stifles necessary dialogue and understanding. I’m uncomfortable with the way that white students react to strong racial rhetoric by embracing a warped narrative of reverse-racist victimization, and I’m not happy that so many students who care about racial issues self-segregate. Most of all, I hate the fact that many students, white and non-white, greet racial discourse with emotional, knee-jerk reactions because they cannot look beyond their personal experiences. But my main objection is simple: our racial discourse overemphasizes the group at the expense of the individual.
Undue emphasis on demographic groups and classes is not, unfortunately, unique to racial discourse. The quasi-Marxist focus on the collective pervades American and international discussions of economics, religion, sexuality, even art. And although I am not a die-hard individualist (as I’ve written before), I remain convinced that individuals, families, and their voluntary associations are the true building blocks of society. Individuals are the only true responsible moral actors; the idea of “collective guilt” is, at best, simply an acknowledgment of the fact that many associated individuals have acted in an immoral way, and at worst, an excuse to attack, marginalize, or indict every person who shares any demographic characteristic with a guilty individual. Modern racial discourse, by its very nature, tends to lump all whites, or all blacks, or all Asians, into one homogeneous category. It attempts to create “communities” based solely on a common demographic characteristic, as opposed to authentic communities created by voluntary cooperation and shared experience.
And isn’t that the fallacy at the core of the ideology of racism? Stereotyping, we are told, is objectionable because it takes a negative perception and applies it indiscriminately and in a prejudicial manner. It is racist and reprehensible to assume that all black people are criminals because black men are statistically more likely to commit certain crimes or go to prison than white men, and equally reprehensible to assume that a specific black person is probably a criminal because of his skin color. The issue here is the twisting of statistical likelihoods and trends into absolute certainties. Isn’t it equally disingenuous to assume, based on statistics demonstrating white advantages in employment and salary level, that all white people have benefited from “white privilege,” or that a specific white person has probably received undue advantages because of his skin color?
What’s more, the category of “race” is a regrettable and pernicious social construct with no basis in biology or culture. As I learned in a course on racial and socioeconomic disparities in health, “racial” categories obscure countless more meaningful differences. African-Americans whose ancestors were harmed by slavery are lumped in with recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, the specific health issues of Pacific Islanders are obscured by their inclusion in the “Asian” racial category, and (as this week’s events seem to demonstrate) no one really knows who “counts as white.” Similarly, arguments based in the idea that all “white people” are equally “privileged” or culpable for racism ignore the astounding diversity of background and life experience among whites. Should I, who grew up as a member of a local racial minority, really be considered in the same category as a guy from Nebraska who has never met an Asian person? Have a sixty-year-old white executive in Texas and a twenty-three-year-old white barista in San Francisco both benefited from the same kind of “privilege?” All racial discourse should take into account the vast and diverse array of micro-cultures that make up American society; what is necessary in Alabama might be counterproductive in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
In my opinion, the end goal of racial discourse and associated sociopolitical action should be this: the elimination of “race” as a social category. Let us continue to celebrate ancestry, culture, and language, but let us jettison this antiquated, oppressive, divisive social construct. Let us talk and act in such a way that our descendants will see “race” as nothing but a footnote in their history books. This must involve some brutally frank evaluation of white privileges and the roots of unconscious bias, but it must also (eventually) involve a conscious and voluntary rejection of group-focused, race-based rhetoric.
Furthermore, all persons interested in racial issues must realize that the techniques of top-down, government-led social engineering are unlikely to win many victories. The battle to end de jure discrimination, which necessarily involved direct and coercive governmental mandates, is all but over (especially now that Congress has finally taken action on crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparities). The fight ahead of us is about de facto discrimination, a thing of unconscious bias and subtle discrimination. Attempts to fight this kind of racism with invasive, coercive government policy may produce some results, but they also produce a massive backlash which engenders even more strife between racial groups. Even action on the corporate or academic level must be carefully calibrated and executed to avoid exacerbating racial divides; us-vs-them rhetoric, accusatory language, and heavy-handed racial preference systems will simply strengthen the warped rhetoric of reverse racism and widen racial divides. It is neither wise nor feasible to attempt to change minds and hearts by force or fiat. Only the slow march of progress, non-governmental activism, continuing education and research on race, and generational turnover will win this fight.
I cannot and will not deny the existence of real racial inequalities in American society. I appreciate the reasons why racial discourse is so group-oriented; centuries of *de jure *and de facto racism have forced many people to adopt an orientation towards their own racial group which is difficult to shake. It remains true that non-white people are infinitely more likely to be targeted by fallacious group-based rhetoric than white people. And it’s blindingly clear that in order to eliminate the category of “race,” we must first talk about it. All I ask is that we keep in mind the importance of individuals and the flaws in group- and class-based moral reasoning, and that we agree that any political action on racial issues should not include the kind of coercion that will produce a poisonous racial backlash.