By Wil Forbis
One can debate what the biggest story of the past month was: Hurricane Harvey hammering Houston or the chaotic white supremacist rally that shook Charlottesville, Virginia. Since politics are inherently more interesting than nature, I’m going with the latter. During the event in Charlottesville, one woman was killed, chaos briefly ruled a city's streets, and a political ideology many considered dead and buried---Nazi-ism---returned to life.
In the days after the violence, I was befuddled. The idea that there were enough Nazis in this country to cause an uproar seemed unbelievable to me. I knew Nazis existed; like everyone, I was aware that neo-Nazis, White supremacists and racists of various forms could be found in the cracks of our society. But I presumed they survived as a tiny, impotent group---a scattering of cockroaches one might not notice before stepping upon.
Such beliefs were challenged by Charlottesville and I found myself wondering whether I’d underestimated the racists and Nazis to be found among my fellow citizens. If overt racists could create such a stir, I mused, perhaps they’d always there in bigger numbers than I thought. And if that were the case, I must have seen intimations of their existence during my life. I started to probe my memory.
I didn't have to look far. Whenever I think of racists I have actually known I think of Tyler. (I'm changing the names of people mentioned in this article for various reasons.) During the 1990s---when I was in my twenties---I percolated on the edge of a particular punk/underground subculture in Seattle and Tyler, a fellow twentysomething, was a friend of friends. He had close-cropped hair (not quite a skinhead but of the general appearance) and wore white T-shirts with suspenders. He was, it was generally understood, some kind of racist---a white supremacist or white separatist. I mainly recall him because he had a very old cat that he doted upon.
I never really talked to Tyler about his beliefs. What would be the point? Any arguments I could summon contrary to racism were sure to be ones he'd heard a million times before.
To encounter such a person in that time and place was not really a surprise. The northwestern states---Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana (my home state)---have always been hotbeds of racists, though they largely percolate outside of urban centers. Even though Seattle is an ultra-liberal city, it’s inhabitants know that people with polarized beliefs are not far on the outskirts.
My main connection to Tyler was a much closer friend I will call Jacob. Jacob did express some racist views though it was unclear whether he was serious or just trying to be "shocking." He did seem disturbingly familiar with the history of the white supremacist movement and could speak knowledgably about racist icons such as George Lincoln Rockwell (founder of the American Nazi Party) and Tom Metzger (a prominent white supremacist who was famously interviewed on Whoopie Goldberg's talk show.) Years later, Jacob admitted to me that he had indeed harbored genuine racist views, but by that point he had become a far-left progressive. It's funny how people change.
A decade later after my time in Seattle, I was working in the software industry and frequently traveled while consulting for various organizations. I would be thrown in with small teams made up of the employees of several different companies. I recall one programmer who, when asked about his home life, noted that he had moved from Los Angeles to Idaho. "I wouldn't say I'm a racist," he blithely declared, "but I just feel safer there." I knew enough about the racist movements in the Northwest to be suspicious that there was more to his story, but knew I would never get a confession.
A few years later I found myself in a sushi restaurant in Huntington Beach. I struck up a conversation in with a white man in his 40s or so, and he discussed his plan to move to Costa Rica. When he came to explain why he was leaving the LA area he confessed, "This is going to sound awful, but I don't like black people." I was somewhat taken aback, not by the content of his confession but the comfort with which he expressed it. Apparently he did not feel it was likely to earn much condemnation from me, a fellow white man. And, being that I'm wary of confrontation, it did not.
I can recall a few more incidents of a similar nature, but nothing worth reporting. While I recognize that all this evidence is anecdotal I feel its paucity reaffirms my belief that overt, manifest Nazi/Klan style racism is hard to find in this country.
Does that let us* off the hook? Not really. Any honest individual has to concede that his or her judgment of others includes race as a factor. No one can claim, as George Costanza did on Seinfeld that, "I don't see people in terms of color.**" We make a lot of assumptions about a person's interests, proclivities, abilities, speaking style and sexual behavior based on their race. This is what stereotypes are.
*One could ask a fair question here. Who is the "us" in this question? White Americans? That's not quite right as it is readily acknowledged that non-whites can be racist towards other non-whites. We'll have to leave the question open for now.
**Ironically, as I type this it occurs to me that even making a Seinfeld reference presumes something about the racial makeup of my reading audience. Is that, in some sense, racist? Maybe, though I admit I don’t feel any sting of guilt over it.
Part of the challenge is that a lot of stereotypes have some basis in fact. (Generally speaking, for example, black people are bigger fans of hip hop than opera.) Unfortunately, we seem wired to weigh negative stereotypes (no matter what their truth) more heavily than positive ones. There may even be an evolutionary advantage to this, as noted in this Guardian piece.
Scientists believe that stereotypes serve a purpose because clustering people into groups with a variety of expected traits helps us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. “[Negative information] may have been more important for your own survival in ancient times,” said Schiller. “It might be more important to store that in your brain.”
(I will add the tired caveat here: these observations help explain stereotypes and prejudices but do not excuse them.)
Stereotyping is, of course, a different breed of racism different from the overt racism espoused by Nazis. It does not exist in plain view in the speeches and writings of outspoken racists, but deep in the meandering folds of the human brain. And it exists in all brains, even yours.
It seems to me that when discussing and condemning racism we need to make a better distinction between these two forms. When taking aim at the Nazis of Charlottesville most of us can claim obvious distance. But, for this subtler, subconscious form, we need to acknowledge that we all have some guilt, even while understanding that it may just be part of the human condition. We may also need to concede that while eliminating overt racism is a possible, laudable goal, we may never fully separate ourselves from the stereotyping form. It may just be too entrenched into who we are.
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Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.