Let’s have this picture at the top, since this is what started everything:
The Korean’s question is this: Does the word “racism” include racially insensitive actions/remarks which is not motivated by racial hatred, such as the one done by the Spanish national basketball team here?
It is clear that the Spanish basketball players did not intend any harm through this photo. (See some quotes from Jose Calderon, the starting point guard for the team, here.) In fact, for all we know, it was done out of affection for the Chinese. Nonetheless, many people, including the Korean himself, were offended. Is this action racist?
This question is separate from the issue of whether the Spanish national team has to apologize for the picture or not. Since there are a large number of people who are offended by this, it might be wise for the team to apologize. (Good write-up on this point here.) But if they truly think they did nothing wrong, then maybe they have nothing to apologize for. Regardless, that is not the question that the Korean is interested in – the Korean wishes to tackle the question on a more conceptual level rather than a more practical level.
Reasonable people may disagree on this issue. The Korean will give his best rendition of the opposing argument, then put out his own.
“Not Racist” Argument
First, there needs to be an abundance of caution in throwing the word “racism” or “racist” to someone, because of the explosive connotation that the word carries. Especially in America, being labeled as a racist leads to a social suicide. (Example in this post, towards the bottom.)
Such social death may be appropriate for white supremacists or KKK members, but not necessarily for, say, Fisher DeBerry, the former football coach for Air Force Academy who said “Afro-American kids can run very, very well.” After all, that statement was made out of admiration for black athletes’ ability, not out of any ill will.
The question of motivation is very important in making a distinction between “racist” and “racially inclined”. The reason why racism is an evil that must be eliminated is because of the hostile motivation behind the racial discrimination. Our society has no place for a hateful attitude based on the color of a person’s skin. But if a race-related action or remark was made without any hostility, but with affection and admiration, where is the harm? Maybe people are too sensitive about these things, and are making a knee-jerk reaction?
Such reaction is understandable given the history of racial strife in America, and people who make racially insensitive actions or remarks may have to apologize because they can reasonably foresee that their deeds would generate hurt feelings. But that does not necessarily mean that those actions/remarks are, in fact, racist.
“Yes, Racist” Argument – the Korean’s Position
And now, the Korean’s position on this question.
The Korean’s belief is that the distinction between “racism” and “racial insensitivity” or “racially inclined actions/thoughts” is illusory. (One reader of this blog termed them as “active racism” and “passive racism”, if you prefer.) Instead, racially inclined actions or thoughts can escalate into racism at any moment given the right circumstances.
Previously, the Korean stated that America is the least racist country in the world because it is the country in which a large number of different colored people have lived next to one another for the longest. This is what the Korean wrote:
Why do numbers matter? Because unless the minorities are somewhat numerous, they are not threatening to the majority. Hating takes energy; people don’t hate for no reason. Widespread hatred in the majority toward the minority takes place only if the minority is somehow threatening the majority’s position.
So if you are an African-American tourist traveling through Korea for two weeks, you will find that Korean people are generally nice to you. Why wouldn’t they be? You will leave in two weeks! But trying living there and see how you like it. …
God help you if you were trying to date a Korean. Interracial relationship is a racist’s greatest fear, especially if it involves a minority-race man and majority-race woman. Ever wondered why Emmitt Till was so brutally lynched, just for whistling at a white woman? When a minority-race man dates a majority-race woman, other majority-race men feel their position threatened, because they feel that their possession is being taken. (It should not come as a surprise that racism goes hand-in-hand with sexism.)
On the other hand, Asians in America are not numerous enough to be threatening, so we have been spared from blatant racism so far. But whenever Asian Americans do appear to be threatening, the reaction is exactly the same – just look at what happened to Vincent Chin when Japanese automakers were threatening to American jobs.
In short, other than juvenile childhood situations (in which most minority people in the world are first exposed to the trauma of being racially classified,) racial hatred comes up in a situation in which the minority race is in a position to threaten the majority race. But the necessary ingredient for such a flare-up is a racially-inclined thought.
In this sense, one can no longer say that a racially-inclined thought or action is harmless. As long as people continue to see a person through the person’s race, it is only a matter of time before such attitude grows into a “true” racism, as it were. This is especially true in the modern world where every place in the world is getting more racially diverse. World economy is more integrated than ever, and no single country can afford to live in racial and cultural isolation. Immigration will be a greater and greater trend. People who are not accustomed to living with different types of people will soon find themselves sharing a subway car with a strange-looking person; their sense invaded by unfamiliar smell of exotic food; their streets covered in signs of incomprehensible languages; their jobs eliminated by those willing to work harder, cheaper.
In such a situation, a racially-framed paradigm is just the thing necessary to fire up the racist hatred. All that is necessary is for a demagogue to exhort: “Look at these “other-raced” people! They are different from you! They are incomprehensible, and they are looking to destroy everything we hold dear!”
This must be stopped, and the best way to stop it would be to force people to get out of racially-inclined thoughts. To that end, the explosive connotation of the word “racism” does not bother the Korean as much. So what if it is not as conceptually neat as the distinction between “racism” and “racially inclined behavior”? If the threat of social death would get people out of that paradigm, then that’s exactly what we need.
So there you have it readers – let it rip. The Korean will be looking forward to the discussion. Thank you all in advance.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.