Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Contrarian View of Racism

There are two varieties of racism: an explicit type that consciously scorns other tribes, and a more insidious type where prejudices are less conscious and less flagrant. We naturally consider the first sort the most virulent. But I think otherwise.

Explicit racists are all about hating abstract categories, so they can be "won over" by individuals. An unfairly prejudicial bar must be scaled, but once you demonstrate you're "not like the others", a relationship of affection and respect can be formed. By contrast, quieter racists can never be won over.

I once had an elderly black musician friend who was a holocaust denier and virulent anti-white racist. And we absolutely loved each other. It took some time to clear his defenses, but after I had, I knew I could count 100% on this fellow; that I was as good as gold with him. And I was far from his only white or Jewish friend.

But I had another elderly black musician friend with whom I closely worked and traveled for twenty years. We had incredible musical rapport, and got along great. He was a kind man; very religious (in the best possible way), good-humored, and generous...and he recognized my good qualities as well. But I clearly understood, right to the bitter end, as I stood dejected at his hospital bedside shortly before his death five years ago, that the foremost adjective in his mind for me had always been "white". Not in a hateful, or even negative, way; certainly not in any way you'd deem "racist". But, to me, it felt like the worst sort of prejudice: a quietly immutable chasm that could never, ever, be bridged.

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