Memories

Sounds trig­ger memo­ries in a way that words never can.

It’s the Summer of 1989 and I’m 17 years old. I tried to pin the time­frame down a little tighter, but I can’t. The memo­ries all squish together. It’s just this one moment that stands out clearly.

I’m in the car because we’re driving from my parents house to Carradale on the West Coast of Scot­land. It’s a trip that my family made at least once every year (and those who life in Scot­land still make). We’d drive up there, rent a house and spend a week or so enjoy­ing the coun­tryside.

Back then of course the inter­net wasn’t a thing (invented but not acces­si­ble) but the place we usually stayed didn’t even have a tele­vi­sion, which was a hard­ship even in that prim­i­tive age. The adults seemed uncon­cerned about this shock­ing absence, and the kids made do with games of Monopoly which seemed to run all week long.

Anyway, I’m in the car. It’s a long trip, not so much in distance as in time. If you’ve ever driven in the Scot­tish High­lands, you’ll under­stand. Five hours in a car is close to eter­nity for a teenager. But I came prepared! Inspired by the Batman movie (I can’t remem­ber if this was before or after the movie’s release) my child­hood inter­est in comic books has been renewed and I’ve purchased both the Batman Movie Adap­ta­tion and discov­ered Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a reve­la­tion to me at that age.

So as the gorgeous Scot­tish scenery rolls past, largely unap­pre­ci­ated by me, I read my comics and I listen, cour­tesy of my Walk­man (not actu­ally a Walk­man but an off-brand), to Del Amitri’s new album Waking Hours. The cassette, hands up if you remem­ber those, only runs for around 45 minutes so I listen to it several times over before the trip is complete.

That’s it. Noth­ing unusual or partic­u­larly memo­rable happened on that drive. I’d taken the same trip many times previ­ously. It’s not a momen­tous event in my life.

And yet, this morn­ing I put in my head­phones, pressed play on Google Music and Kiss This Thing Good­bye played. The memory came back as it does every time I hear that song. And I smiled, as I do every time.

So They’re All Racists Then?

This is one of the key points of contention and misun­der­stand­ing that I see from both sides online. The major­ity of people believe that being called a racist is an extremely nega­tive thing (though there are a small minor­ity who clearly relish it), but these is no clear agree­ment on what it actu­ally means to be racist.

That lies at the heart of a lot of the commu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems when it comes to poli­tics and social issues. On the right there is a feel­ing that the left just labels every­one as racists and are using it as a blan­ket insult. On the left there’s a feel­ing that those on the right are dismis­sive of funda­men­tal human rights.

Part of this stems from a funda­men­tal differ­ence in under­stand­ing of what the word even means. Like so much of English there is more than one defi­n­i­tion:

Definition of racism

1:  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2a :  a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles

b :  a political or social system founded on racism

3:  racial prejudice or discrimination

When a lot of people hear the word racist or racism they think of the first defi­n­i­tion. They think about lynch­ings and beat­ings and extreme language. Not surpris­ingly if some­one suggests that they are racist, they are deeply offended by the notion they’d ever do some­thing like that. Because they wouldn’t. They’re funda­men­tally decent human beings and they treat those around them respect­fully. When accused of what they consider to be a horri­ble act, they of course react defen­sively and are hostile to it. Who wouldn’t?

But there are other types of racism. Milder (for lack of a better word) but poten­tially harm­ful never­the­less. What people online are often trying to expose is those subcon­scious thoughts and instinc­tive actions that may have a racial element to them

Is Donald Trump A Racist?

Over the course of the primary Donald Trump made multi­ple comments that meet at least one of the defi­n­i­tions of racism and given his polit­i­cal station that leads some to worry about defi­n­i­tion 2a. And yet, many of his support­ers deny that he is a racist, prob­a­bly because it’s just words, he didn’t actu­ally do anything.

Words, of course, matter quite a lot. But, sadly, our use of language too often lacks nuance. Soci­ety has decreed that racism is evil in this high contrast world and sure some poorly chosen words don’t make a man evil?

What Trump is primar­ily guilty of is a combi­na­tion of thought­less­ness in his word choice and at times implic­itly encour­ag­ing or refus­ing to discour­age racist language from people who claimed to support him. His reluc­tance to disavow the KKK is a perfect exam­ple of that. He can’t stop them support­ing him, but he could have been much more defin­i­tive in his disap­proval.

Does that make him a racist?

It’s an impor­tant ques­tion given his new role. His words have already have impact and will carry even greater weight in the next four years. He should be think­ing about what that means and if he contin­ues to make state­ments that rile up certain portions of the popu­la­tion he must be called out on it.

But is he a racist? Does saying racist things make you a racist?

And What About His Followers?

Some of the people who supported him used language very simi­lar to Trump himself. Others used much stronger language. But a signif­i­cant number of support­ers, actively crit­i­cised him for his language. Yet they voted for him anyway. Consciously or subcon­sciously they made the calcu­la­tion that other factors were more impor­tant to them than any poten­tial racism (I’ll get on to those other factors in future posts).

So by support­ing him, by voting for him are they then racists too? Not by the first defi­n­i­tion, but poten­tially by the 2nd and third ones right? So they’re evil then! No, they’re not evil. As we’ve already addressed they are in the vast major­ity basi­cally good people.

Because here’s the detail that those on the left are conve­niently ignor­ing, I suspect in a need to hold the moral high ground.

We’re All Racist

Yes Trump support­ers are racist and Bernie support­ers are racist and I am racist and you are racist. Even “the blacks” and “the mexi­cans”, as our Pres­i­dent Elect would say it, are racist.

Yes I'm playing the racist card
Yes I’m play­ing the racist card

It is often said that we are not born racist but rather taught it, and I believe that to be true. But our brain is wired in a way that almost encour­ages racism. We are instinc­tively tribal. What we are taught as we grow up is who our tribe is. Racism is a simple exten­sion of that trib­al­ism.

When we talk about racism we are gener­ally talk­ing about the harm it can cause and as a result in a coun­try like the United States we are talk­ing about white people, because it’s hard to do a lot of damage if you are a minor­ity with no real power. But doing that is conflat­ing the cause with the effect.

You can be racist and never have taken a single delib­er­ate action or even said a racist slur. Being racist doesn’t make you a horri­ble person, it mostly just makes you human. Because we could all be better.

Change the Conversation

Perhaps if we were to engage people in a less confronta­tional manner and with less moral supe­ri­or­ity we could make more progress. Or at least, create less back­lash. Perhaps if we could discuss situ­a­tions and how they make us feel with­out imply­ing blame on the person we are talk­ing to, they would be more recep­tive to what we are saying. Ask your­self, what is more impor­tant. Feel­ing supe­rior or getting through to some­one?

Now you might be think­ing, that I’m just asking those who are suffer­ing the effects of racism to toler­ate it. I’m not. I’m talk­ing to all the other people, those who have implicit power simply by virtue of not being a minor­ity.

I’m also not suggest­ing that people should have to patiently under­stand the posi­tion of some­one who is scream­ing racial abuse at them and threat­en­ing them with depor­ta­tion. Those sorts of people don’t deserve toler­ance, because they don’t show any.

But the major­ity of people who voted for Trump in this elec­tion did not and do not behave that way. They are people who can be talked to and reasoned with, if you want to try.