MLK, racism

The Epistemology of Racism

(This is a repost of mine from a few years ago, just after the conflict in Charlottesville, VA. Always worth another look, especially on MLK day.)

charlottesville racismIn the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, it is easy to stand back and point fingers at “those people” and think of the trouble as “out there.” There’s a certain comfort and reassurance that we aren’t like that. But much of the persistent problem of racism lurks in more subtle places. I suspect that for most people of color, they don’t often run into people waving flags and carrying torches. The sting of racism comes from the people they live around everyday—people like you and me. We can’t let Charlottesville, Washington and Ferguson blind us to our own contribution.

A Wake-up Call

My wake-up call came in the fall of 2015, when racial tensions here at the University of Missouri exploded. After a series of racially charged events on campus, black students began to protest and launched the “concerned Missouri protestsstudent 1950” movement. When the administration failed to act, protests reached the homecoming parade and finally the football team. The result: several top officials were forced to resign, including the university president and chancellor.

Initially, I admit, didn’t get it. I was teaching ethics on campus, and I clumsily tried to discuss the first incident in class. White students were puzzled. From their perspective, it seemed as if someone threw a firecracker in the room and a nuclear explosion resulted. They couldn’t understand why the black students were “overreacting.” They didn’t see the problem. Ironically, their (and my) failure to “see” turned out to be the problem. I don’t think I fully heard the alarm clock until my department chair called me in later to talk about a complaint from a black student in my class.

Flawed Reasoning

For most well-meaning people in the ethnic majority, our reasoning often follows this pattern when it comes to racism:

1.  I don’t see a lot of (or any) racism around here.
2. So, there isn’t a lot of (or any) racism around here.

But there is a hidden premise here:

1.  I don’t see a lot of (or any) racism around here.
* If there was a lot of racism around here, I would see it.*
2. So, there isn’t a lot of (or any) racism around here.

This hidden premise is false, and here’s why: ethnic majority people like me haven’t developed a reliable ability to perceive racism on campus. We miss most of the racism taking place around us because of its subtlety. I even struggle to see the slight racism in my own words and actions sometimes. A close minority friend in grad school confronted me several times about small comments I made that offended him. Most racist acts manifest in small ways: looks, snubs, seemingly innocuous remarks. People of color who frequently experience these things can detect it easily. Your experience changes your perceptual abilities. My training as a musician gave me heightened sensitivity to bad intonation at musical performances. I hear things others miss. I think the same is true for people of color in their acute perception of racism. And on top of this, unless you are a minority or a perpetrator of overt racist acts, you probably aren’t even around when most of the acts occur.

orchestra performance tuningLet me take the music analogy further. Suppose I attend an orchestra performance with one of my old music professors, and they say, “Oh no, the oboe soloist is out of tune!” I may think to myself, “It sounds ok to me.” But I would probably defer to their judgment, because of their greater experience and expertise. I think ethnic majority people (like myself), need to do the same when it comes to perceiving racism. People of color have developed an expert aptitude for noticing racism. That doesn’t mean they are infallible in their perception, but it does mean we should take their opinions seriously—even if we don’t see it first-hand. And just as I developed my musical ear through “ear-training” in college, we all have a responsibility to sharpen our senses when it comes to perceiving racism.

Reading the Fine Print


The events in Charlottesville were easy to spot as horrendously bigoted and evil. I’m near sighted, but even I can read the handwriting on the wall when it’s six inches away, writ in giant red letters. It’s the small print of racism for which we need glasses, and some of that print is close—as close as your mirror. Listen to the people of color around you. Open your mind to the possibility that you are not blameless, that you are visually-impaired. Take responsibility for your lack of perception and learn to see it. As Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Let Charlottesville be your wake-up call.

*Thanks to philosophers Michael Bergmann and Michael Rea for an important idea behind this post– the “noseeum” inference.

7 thoughts on “The Epistemology of Racism

  1. It’s been a while since you posted this and I know we talked about it a little bit on Facebook, but I wanted to give those thoughts and some additional thoughts I have.

    There’s two issues for me that come up when I hear things like this. The first is the reliability of people’s perceptions of racism. While I’m confident that racists acts still exist, I often wonder much people are seeing things that aren’t really there. This happens to everyone, including me. As someone who struggled with a certain amount of depression, it is easy for me to perceive certain “truths” about myself that are, in fact, not true. Despite the fact that they aren’t true, they present themselves to me so strongly that it affects how I look at the evidence and it affects my ability to perform in certain areas of life. Something similar could happen to minority people in America. I’m not saying no one perceives real racism and I wouldn’t want to make the mistake of being incredulous, but it does sometimes make me question some minorities when they claim that something is racist.

    You can say that some people have more reliable perceptions of racism because of their experience, but I don’t think we are only filtering information we gather from the world based on “experience.” There’s also our own biases, what we have been taught, our culture, and countless other things that influence our interpretation of the data that we see and hear. If a minority tells me that something was racist, I’m not really inclined to give the benefit of the doubt simply because he is a minority. I would have to take it on an individual basis. The reason for that is because I have seen some minorities that are so obsessed with seeing racism in everything that, no surprise, they see racism in everything. I am not inclined to trust these people’s perceptions at all. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to *any* minority, just that their minority status isn’t the thing that would make me give them the benefit of the doubt overall.

    Besides the issue of perception, I’m also wondering what even constitutes a racist act. What made the things you did, said, or did not do or say *racist*? Is something racist if it “offends” a certain number of minorities or is there more to it? If a minority student came to you and said that something you said was racist, would you simply believe the person or would you want the person to give a case? I’m not sure if a lot of people actually have a clear idea of what makes an act a racist one, which is part of why I’m skeptical of some people’s perceptions. The lack of conceptual clarity on what constitutes a racist act becomes even more apparent to me when I see certain acts or jokes get called “racist” when it towards black people, but the same or similar acts or jokes towards white people are not considered racist.

    So yeah, those are the concerns I have. I look forward to your thoughts.

    1. Good thoughts, Kyle. These are hard questions to answer. I’m not sure I can give a detailed reply here that would really be satisfying. The reliability of perception is always variable. But I’m speaking mostly from experience, I suppose. As far as what counts as racist, rather than a definition, I would recommend listening to those around you who experience racism. There are also books on this topic — I’m not really an expert. But being in relationship with minorities helps a lot.

    2. I’m afraid this reply is going to be a long one, so it took me a while to sit down to write it.

      Let’s start with the question of what constitutes a racist act. There has been quite a bit of work done on what constitues a racist act, but I’m not sure how much it has percolated out into the public culture. I was looking into the term “terf,” and came across this on Wikipedia:

      “In a 2018 draft paper, linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready argue that three properties make a term a slur: it must be derogatory towards a particular group, it must be used to subordinate them within some structure of power relations, and the derogated group must be defined by an intrinsic property.”

      Uttering a slur is a certain kind of racist act, and I think this analysis is good enough to be getting on with. Derogatory comments against billionaires are not slurs, since being a billionaire is not an intrinsic part of somebody’s identity. Certain billionaires might think that their wealth is part of their identity, but they could stop being billionaires simply by giving their money to charity.

      Derogatory comments against people who belong to a given religious group or a political party are something of an edge case, since it depends on whether or not having those views make up an intrinsic part of peoples’ identities. In some cases, the category these derogatory terms pick out stop being defined by beliefs, and become racialized instead: antisemitic ideologies pick out secular, non-religious Jews as well as religious Jews, for example. (And, just as a reminder, race is a social construct, not a biological kind – there are currently no biological sub-species within H. sapiens.)

      Acts, jokes, derogatory terms, etc. aimed at white people (or, for that matter, Christians) tend not to be racist or slurs, for the simple fact that these catagories are not subordinated, at least in America. I realize this is a contentious point to make, so here’s some evidence: How difficult is it to offend a white person with a derogatory term aimed at their whiteness? “Cracker” or “honkey” simply does not have the same impact as other terms aimed at other racial categories. “Cracker” actually emphasizes the power that whites have traditionally held in American society. As for religion, a friend of mine was once choked by her own father, who demanded that she tell him that she didn’t practice Wicca. Have you ever heard of a Christian in this country being threatened with their life for being Christian? Finally, there’s this: “Men are afraid of women making fun of them. Women are afraid of men killing them.” If jokes based on a category you are a member of are all you are worried about, then it’s doubtful that that category is a subordinated one. But when your membership in a category puts your very life at risk, then even jokes can hurt you just that much more.

      A minority being offended by an act that picks out their subordinated category is a serious sign that the act is a racist or other -ist one, but this offense is not a constitutive part of an act being racist or -ist in some other sense. It is “merely” a symptom. It is possible that if a minority is offended by an act, that this is a false positive. But I believe that it is far more likely that a member of the dominant category believing that the act is one that no right-thinking individual would be offended by is a false negative. Privilege is said to be invisible to the privileged – to them/us, it’s simply the way the world is supposed to work. To the extent that we/they are aware of their privilege, it tends to make them/us defensive. By contrast, one of the signs of being in a subordinated category is that your are seldom allowed to forget that you belong to that category. So, if somebody believes that what you said or did is offensive, I would advise you to take them very seriously. It’s possible that they are wrong, but that’s not what the smart money says.

      I have often seen people on the political right treat racist language like profanity, objectionable only because it violates the rules of decorum. That is not the case: Unlike profanity, racist language harms members of the audience. Offense is a sign that this kind of harm has occurred, but unlike profanity, the damage racist language causes goes far deeper than mere offense.

      Part of that damage is that it can reinforce implicit bias. Explicit racial ideology (such as a tendency to utter racist slurs) is just the tip of the iceberg of racism. Far more damage is done by implicit bias: The biased decisions made by people who do not believe themselves to be racist has a powerful negative impact on the lives of minorities, since it can cause them to be denied the jobs, the loans, the scholarships, the grades they deserve. It can even cause them to be shot by the very peace officers that are supposed to defend and protect them. (And if people truly supported the “Thin Blue Line,” then they would be happy to help police officers not shoot innocent people. I’m optimistic enough to think that the vast majority of peace officers do not go to work each day hoping to shoot a minority. But implicit biases have even more of an effect in stressful life-threatening situations, since the conscious mind is less able to surpress unconscious biases. Killing a person who, it later turns out, did not need killing can ruin your life… almost as badly as being shot and killed by a peace officer can ruin your life.)

      If you believe that you are not racist, then I would invite you to take one of the implicit bias tests that Harvard’s Project Implicit has made available. It is worth noting that something like a third of Black people exhibit implicit bias… against Black people. By two different measures, I myself have a moderate implicit bias against Black people. I’m also a card-carrying member of the NAACP. I also consider myself a feminist, yet I have a slight bias against women in a professional setting. (And it is likely that the reason my bias is only “slight” is that, apparently, the first word I associate with “home” is “office.”)

      In theory, since implicit bias is a learned behavior, it should be possible to unlearn it. In practice, this is difficult. The best advice I can offer if you want to reduce your own implicit bias is a card game called “Buffalo: The Name Dropping Game.” This game encourages players to think about category memberships in a more complex way, and there is some preliminary scientific evidence that it reduces implicit bias, at least in the short term. Also, it can be fun to use this game to demonstrate that liberals can be racist and other kinds of -ist too :).

      If you have further questions on these issues, let me know, and I’ll try to answer them.

    1. The student felt I had put her on the spot during a discussion about racial tensions — I asked her for her perspective in class. After reflecting, I understood her concern and why she felt uncomfortable. I also, in hindsight, didn’t handle the discussion well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *