If I were born blind, I’d have no idea what colour I am. Or even that people come in different colours. I’d only know about it if someone told me about it.
As it happens I wasn’t born blind. But even then I’m not sure I’d automatically put people in colour categories. This is because there’s as much variation within a so-called race as there is between the so-called races. And the same is true vis a vis facial features like the shape of the eyes or the width of the lips or nose, or the texture of the hair. I have to be taught to identify these features of indicating someone as a this or a that.
I’m not saying that there’s nothing for which these features, including colour, can be relevant. I’m attracted, sexually and otherwise, to some cluster of features but not others. And so are you. And a perfectly serviceable shorthand for some of these clusters is ‘race’. No doubt some of our responses to these clusters are naturally selected for, and others are socially constructed. But so far as I know, no one, save the most brain-dead social justice warrior (SJW), would call me a bigot for not transcending my sexual preferences.
In short, if these kinds of preferences count as racism, then sign me up. But presumably the word refers to preferences based on prejudgments, a.k.a. prejudice, based on racial stereotypes induced in turn either from personal experience or, more commonly, from reports of the personal experience of others. That is, never having hired an ‘Injun’, how would I know they never turn up for work on time, if not that so I’ve been told? Or never having had more than a handful of Asian students, what makes me think – as for all I know I do – that they’re great at rote learning but not particularly stellar at independent thought?
Is what makes these inductions morally suspect just that they’re epistemically suspect? Clearly not. There are perfectly serviceable racial stereotypes, some, like sickle cell anemia and Tay Sachs, grounded in biology, others grounded in racial history. African Americans still bear the mark of their ancestors’ slavery. Jews excel in certain intellectual endeavors because in Diaspora they were confined to commerce, and because from the outset literacy was built into their form of worship. Moreover, though there’s little evidence that people can be bred for things like humor or musicality, there’s no shortage of evidence they can be, and have been, bred for physical characteristics. The fact that, unlike Southern slave owners, we don’t do it consciously, doesn’t mean we don’t do it.
Let all this be granted. But what does it show? That in the absence of anything else to go on, there are circumstances under which racial stereotyping can do us yeoman service. Should we make efforts to acquire other things to go on? That depends on the investigative resources available to us. And the cost of ignoring the stereotype and getting it wrong. That’s precisely the subconscious calculus driving the Stand Your Ground laws in some American states, people of colour being followed by security in many retail stores, and the people in my own city taking the long way around rather than cutting through our downtown park.
The SJW doesn’t deny any of this. It’s just that, as rational as this precautionary behavior might be, it can be deeply hurtful, if not downright dangerous, to those at the receiving end of it. Those of us who are not – those of us who relish in our privilege – what would the SJW have us do? Trust when we have reason not to? That doesn’t seem very sage advice. Trust when we have no reason not to? That’s a bit better. But best of all, surely, is trust those we have reason to. And who are they? Those of our own kind. Why? Because what makes us of a kind is that we share a set of understandings, and so a set of behavioral expectations, from each other.
So, much as we’re all appalled at the bigotry of others – especially others who are not of our kind because, well, let’s face it, they’re Republicans, or they’re obese, or they talk in a hillbilly accent, but probably all three – a little there-but-for-fortune wouldn’t go amiss.
Categories: Social and Political Philosophy