Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Racism in active and passive forms, and hope

This post is about racism and will touch on Obama's inauguration. I can't say that it is an "important post, per se, but please don't dismiss it as yet another "I love Obama" post". There may be other, excellent reasons, to dismiss this post, but that isn't one of them

I am not a politcal blogger, not even for my homeland, Canada, nor my current home, Korea, but the American presidential inauguration has me fascinated. Me, and every other blogger.

On January 10, CBC's Quirks and Quarks, an hour long radio science show that I am addicted to and have even written to the host, included a segment on racism that made me uncomfortable. It described a psychology experiment that exposed racism where none was expected.
The experiment ran like this: The subject, presumably after filling out consent forms, entered what she or he thought was a waiting room with two other subjects. The subjects were actually part of the test, were ringers; one was white and the other black. The black person stood up, made a remark about forgetting a book and left the room, bumping the other ringer. After the black man left, the ringer performed one of three actions. He either said nothing, said something moderately racist or very racist. I forget what the middle option was, but the third option was something like, "Clumsy niggers!"

Soon after that, the subject was interviewed about tension and, well, I forget exactly what, but current emotional state and the like. An incredibly low number of subjects mentioned the racist event or claimed to be upset after the event. I suspect few or none actually challenged the man making the comments, but I don't know.

From Q & Q:
Dr. Kawakami, an Associate Professor of Psychology at York University, studies the psychology of racism and she has revealed a disheartening finding: despite the fact we tend to predict we'll feel bad witnessing a racist act, we in fact tend to feel indifferent. What's more, Dr. Kawakami found that when asked to chose between a white person who uttered a racist comment or the black person to whom the comment was directed (in order to work on a problem-solving task) subjects tended to choose the racist white person over the innocent black person. Dr. Kawakami says her study reveals people's deep emotional biases -- specifically towards blacks -- despite their stated belief that they are not racist.
Dr Kawakami on Science Mag.

Far more uplifting, is the concept of people being cultural bridges or xenophiles, as discussed on Spark, another CBC radio show and podcast.
"The Internet Age should be a golden age for bridge figures and for xenophiles."

That's what Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society wrote in his blog post, Bridgeblogger and Xenophile, a tale of two bloggers. But just what is a xenophile, according to Ethan?

It’s been a challenge for me to define xenophiles as a category without falling victim to definitions that are trivial or superficial. It’s easy to dismiss the idea by suggesting that everyone who eats sushi and listens to world music is - or considers herself to be - a xenophile. Too loose a definition and “xenophile” ends up sounding like a synonym for “liberal”, “multicultural or even “politically correct”, which isn’t what I’m intending.

Xenophilia is about connecting with people, not with cultural artifacts or other things. Liking Japanese food or Senegalese hiphop doesn’t make you a xenophile - xenophilia is about making connections across language and cultural barriers motivated by your interest in making better sushi or translating Daara J lyrics. Xenophilia is broader than the love for a specific culture or an aspect of that culture - it’s a broader fascination with the complexity and diversity of the world. Xenophilia changes your behavior, especially your behavior in seeking for information, leading you to pay attention not just to the parts of the world that have caught your attention, but to others that you know little about.


I think I can be a bridge between cultures, which I define as less than a xenophile but more, or more nuanced, than a cheerleader. I enjoy and admire a great deal of Korean culture and admire many Korean people. I am impressed with Korea's growth after 1953 and by the friendliness of the people I meet all the time, but I am not about to rename this blog, "50 reasons why Dokdo is Korean". So, I am not a cheerleader. On the other hand, after ten years, I don't speak nearly as much Korean as I should. My job of explaining English and the typical culture of English speaking countries, particularly Canada, is almost the definition of a bridge.

I think my wife, who is so much better a person than I in so many ways, is a xenophile, while remaining firmly grounded in her home culture.

Another remarkable person I know and work with has the initials NA and is a Canadian of Somali ethnicity, who speaks, I don't know, five, six languages. She is definitely a xenophile, comfortable in any country she visits.

Recently Pharyngula linked to Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which I read and was amazed by. Here are a few long excerpts:
One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act....But he [the mayor] will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."
...
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust....

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.
...
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
...
...Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." ...


I now love the sentence, "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God" but I don't think I am capable of it. I am not describing strength so much as mindfulness. In the Q & Q study, the test subjects appeared to not care enough to get involved. I do not necessarily wish to be confronted but I would like to know the result of such a test.

Hmm, I don't think I have much to say about the inauguration after all. I only hope the American people face the test with courage and that the result is positive.

1 comment:

Masuro said...

While I think that globalisation is helping people to understand other cultures, I am not sure it will bring peace. It only takes the smallest thing, sport, for example, to bring out the worst in people. Koreans are usually very nice to foreigners and I usually feel welcome. During the 2002 World Cup, however, I was nervous about leaving my apartment. When Korea won a game I was sometimes screamed at in the street. The message was clear; "We beat you rotten foreigners. That's for everything we've ever suffered from outsiders." Not everyone was like that, of course, but enough to worry me. I suspect that the bridges between two cultures would quickly be burned over the stupidest of misunderstandings or slights.