As far as I'm concerned, "racism" is a bad word. Not because of the connotations of discrimination and all the other nasty bad things the word conjures up - I just mean I think it's a word of poor quality. It's not accurate.
It doesn't adequately capture the ideas people intend to express when they use it, and its true meaning, like so many other words, has been corrupted to the point that people almost invariably use it incorrectly.
When you ask most people today (at least, here in America) what "racism" means, you'll get a lot of talk about discrimination, about bigotry, hatred and other Bad Things.
But really, those things aren't racism: they are symptoms of a more complex disease.
The New Oxford American Dictionary says that racism means "the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race."
By that definition, racism is perfectly valid under many circumstances - if one is using it in an anthropological sense. Westerners tend to be taller than people of Asian descent, for example.
The general public, however, has stretched the word to mean all kinds of things. If we want to examine this issue honestly, we have to be very careful about the terms we use and their definitions.
What word should be used, then? Many people also use "bigotry," but unfortunately, a second check of the O.E.D. reveals bigotry to be "a person obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a particular religious creed, opinion, or ritual."
That isn't right, either! Quite a dilemma for someone such as myself who likes to be as precise as possible in his use of language. Luckily, there is an accurate word to use when describing the hatred of one person towards another because of race:
Racialism: Belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, especially those in close proximity who may be felt as a threat to one's cultural and racial integrity or economic well-being.
Now that's the word I was looking for! I didn't mean the subject of this article to be etymology, but I thought it was necessary to be clear about terms. What I'd really like to talk about is what racialism is.
What causes it? Naturally, I've got a theory.
Here's my formula:
"Racialism = (Xenophobia + Ignorance) - Self-Control."
That's really what racialism is: three problems rolled up into one nasty package - and two of them are completely curable. Racialism results when a human being's completely natural and instinctive fear of foreigners is allowed to run amok, unconstrained by education or self-control.
Yet another check of my trusty O.E.D. (the last one, I promise!) yields this definition of xenophobia: "A deep antipathy to foreigners." Far be it from me to question such an august authority on language, but my definition of xenophobia is somewhat more broad: fear of the unknown.
Fear of the strange and the different. Fear of things - especially people - that are not like us. Basically, fear of things foreign. We're all xenophobes, not just the Trump supporters!
We can't help it. And we can forget about abolishing xenophobia, at least for the next million years. The fear of the unknown is embedded into every fiber of our genetic code, just like fear of dangerous animals, and sexual desire.
Humanity is engaged in a constant struggle against our latent instincts. Some of them we have been able to overcome, for good or bad. But some remain almost as strong as ever.
It is fruitless to blame someone for having feelings that they cannot help having, such as xenophobia or sexual lust. What we can blame people for is not being able to control their instincts when, in our modern age, they should know better.
A few years back, I moved from rural Connecticut to the Washington, D.C. area. Though I was not untravelled at the time, it was still quite a change. It was the first time I was in such a multicultural environment for such a long period of time.
Coming from a town that had not one black student in the entire high school, and only a few Asians, it was weird to me to be constantly surrounded by people of different races. And frankly, it unnerved me on many occasions.
I wasn't used to sometimes being the only Caucasian on a subway car, for example. Things like that frightened me. I felt vaguely threatened without knowing exactly why - and no, it wasn't media conditioning.
I wasn't afraid of being accosted, at least not any more than I would be anywhere else. I just felt very uneasy, not having any people who looked like me around.
I felt alone.
And, since I like to fancy myself an educated and broad-minded person not affected by things such as racialism, I felt guilty for being nervous. I chastised myself as being an evil, unfair, person and for acting like an uncultured rube. I mentally beat myself up for having such uncharitable feelings towards undeserving people who doubtless meant me no harm.
But it finally occurred to me that I couldn't help having those feelings. I had no more control over them than I have over any other instinct, like flinching at a loud noise.
No one can prevent having such feelings.
But what really matters, and where humanity and society advance, bit by bit, is what we do about them. As rational creatures, we might not be able to control our instincts, but we can control how we react to them. We must strive to have the knowledge to recognize those feelings for what they are, and the self-control and self-confidence to do nothing about them.
That's what finally made me stop feeling rotten about being nervous around large groups of people of different ethnicity: the knowledge that while I might not be in control of what I must feel, I was in control over what I did about it - absolutely nothing.
And this knowledge also taught me another, related lesson: it drove home the point that people of other races must feel the same way. I can understand how blacks and other minorities must feel when surrounded by whites.
I can now honestly say that I know how it feels, and I have sympathy. But like me, they must fight their instincts and struggle to not let irrational, primal emotion cloud their judgment.
We must listen, as Lincoln said, to "the better angels of our natures." It isn't easy sometimes, but it is only when every person engages in this struggle, and wins, that we can truly have an end to racialism.
I will never apologize for being white. While I'm certainly not perfect, I've never done anything wrong to a person of another race because of their race, so they have no reason to dislike me.
If any black person hates me because I am white, then they are guilty of the same crime they accuse me of. I've realized the full truth of the concept that all races are equal.
It means that all of us, of whatever ethnicity, have members of our race who have done good things and done bad things. White people have done some terrible things in history. They have also done some wonderful things. And the same goes for every race on earth - not one has a monopoly on good people or bad people.
I'm sorry if some of this sounded like a sermon. Well, actually, I'm not. It was an important thing in my life, and I feel that perhaps if even one person can reflect upon my thoughts and experiences and learn from them, then perhaps I have inched humanity one more minuscule step away from the animals that still lurk somewhere inside us.
- "Sermon on the Metro" Guerrilla Philosophy by Doug Linde, photo by Jeffree Benet