Racism is a term we don’t even know how to describe anymore. I had a discussion last week with a friend, trying to determine whether or not I myself was racist. If I laugh at a not-so-PC joke, does it make me a racist? What if I can’t help but feel scared walking through the streets of Harlem at night? The argument quickly turned to semantic mush. What exactly defines racism: Disdain? Hate? Envy? Disgust? Subjugation? Stereotyping?
I think nearly everyone must admit guilt in some respect, should they stop to question themselves. The conclusion I drew about where I fall on the racism spectrum didn’t appear until I saw what the graffiti in Alumni actually read, and I felt a bubble-burp in my stomach like I had just eaten rotten fish. According to that feeling, I must not be racist.
Correction: I must not be that kind of racist. There are different strata of racism, I argue, and I can make three large categories. First, there is the kind whereby a person unconsciously marks someone unlike him or herself inferior, the kind that exists between dogs of different breeds who bark at each other but don’t know why — they only do so instinctively.
This kind of racism is probably not erasable from humanity. It isn’t conscious, but it is real and unfortunate, and it makes us laugh at inappropriate jokes. I think many of us, including me, are this kind of racist, but it doesn’t prevent us from electing — by an eight million vote margin — a black man for president. In this group, we forgot he was black. John McCain supporters are equally welcome in this group — they forgot he was black too, but voted for the other guy because of his policies, not his color.
The second kind is the racism of, generally, the privileged white man. This is the racism that appears over issues like affirmative action, diversity initiatives, and integration. This is the racism of a man in the ’40s who opposes equal rights and shows disdain for Martin Luther King’s speeches — not because he hates all black people but because he is uncomfortable with a status change or having someone beat him out of a great job opportunity when he was there first. This is the racism of Congress, of corporate America, of Colgate students who disapprove of AASA functions filling up their e-mail inboxes, of rich white families who depend on primarily white consumers for their thriving business. People in this category vote for the white candidate because “the country just isn’t ready for a black president,” have never been to ALANA for fear they would be out of place and have the little voice in their head that wonders “what kind of people” really enjoy rap music.
The third stratum is that of the people who really have no clue. 2008 members of the KKK — one of the most despised organizations in America, on par with Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church – are part of this group. These are the people who believe what authorities of a century ago believed, e.g. that the brain of a black man is smaller than that of a white man or that you can get a disease from touching a black man’s skin. Wise words like “AIDS is the disease of n-words and homos” come out of this group, and it is here where the truly unintelligent and ignorant people lie. This kind of racist doesn’t understand globalization, how working with people of diverse backgrounds is actually how you get ahead in life today.
Our self-satisfied vandal belongs to this group. He is probably raised not to question the moral framework of society. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he is a D student, inactive in campus life, doesn’t do community service and isn’t afraid to “roofie” a girl. I could be wrong about one or more of these, including “his” gender; but it is impossible for the truly successful Colgate student to actively believe any of the messages written in that bathroom.
So we can hurl a number of invectives at members of every racist category — ignorant, cowardly, stupid and so on — but this is not useful. The black community could engage in ideological warfare by suggesting it is the white man who brings them down — but this is not useful either. The kind of racist who writes graffiti on bathroom walls is of the lowest stratum, which correlates to the lowest levels of class and intelligence.
It doesn’t do any good to call this vandal a bunch of names, because he or she is part of one of the most baseless, most meaningless, most powerless groups in the world. Simply disagreeing with what the graffiti artist has to say puts one in a higher state of sophistication. No member of Congress, no Fortune 500 CEO, nobody with a real interest in progressing the country, is in the third group anymore, and that’s a fact. Our vandal is, in fact, an aberration, and if he knew what was good for him, he would try not to be one. Look at him now: there is nothing to show for his actions except paint on a wall and a couple of pissed off people.
The politics-born message in the bathroom has become completely invalidated by last week’s events. Barack Obama is fascinating, whether you agree with his policies or not, because he embodies optimism. If you could describe him in three words, one of them would certainly be “optimistic.” He ran a campaign on hope. Really, who can do that?
Perhaps our best solution to racism on campus and in the world is the policy that got Obama elected, which is optimism. Making a big stink about how racism will not be tolerated on campus only fuels the third class and tells the second class something it already knows but doesn’t care about. A better response — and take heed, administrators and deans — is to say what everyone knows except them: no one gives a rat’s ass about the ideological notions behind your graffiti because America DID elect a black president, and things are looking up. The election of Obama proves out and out that the third group has no power. Period.
So congratulations to you, Alumni Hall vandal: you have officially categorized yourself a member of a powerless minority, and there’s nothing you can do about it — if you want to have a name in the world.