I have heard racism described as a mental illness. Such a comparison not only does a disservice to those who have to live with mental illness, but is also reflects a fundamental misundertanding of race, racism, and what we can do about it.

The idea that racism is a mental illness saps it of its moral agency and its mutable quality. Racism is not an illness beyond a person's control, to be managed but perhaps never cured; although we are all constrained by our cultural context, racism is in many ways a personal and cultural choice. And while we are all bound to some degree by our cultural preconceptions, we have the freedom to make choices about our actions, our culture, and our society. I believe that racism is an (im)moral choice, and that like other moral choices, it does not have to be cured, it merely needs to change. We must restructure ourselves personally and societally.

Of course, I recognize that reformation of one's character flaws and cultural heritage is not an easy task, but it is not an impossible one, and it can be accomplished through education, reason, empathy, law, and -- dare I say it -- the moral love that Dr. King characterized as a person's highest obligation. There is no "innoculation" against racism, but I have to believe that there is always the chance for redemption, which can only come through social and personal maturity.

But while this change is hard, it is harder (but not unachievable) to confront our fundamental ideas about what defines such artificial classifications (yes, constructs) as race. We already see this happening with sex -- a seemingly immutable characteristic, and yet we see its definition changing before before our eyes.

We view our president as "black" in part because "people of color" are defined by our prejudices and our fears (by which I do not wish to imply in any sense that he should not be proud of his heritage, indeed, all of it). We leave no room for ambiguity -- white, black, mixed, none of the above -- in fact, why do we need to to be defined by race at all? But because we have invented a cultural constellation of characteristics by which we define and divide people, we cannot seeem to escape our cultural biases. It seems that having invented it, we must now deal with it.

But consider even biology -- are there no "black people" with "straight" hair? Are there no darker skinned people who are considered "white"? People from the Indian subcontinent are "Asians" who yet have often been considered "Caucasian." Are there no "black" people who are "fair"? And yet we classify by culture, phenome, an infinitesimal element of the genome, and ancestry and "one drop" rules - defining any people who so much as had an ancestor who in historical terms recently resided on a particular colonized continent as "black" and historically and presently suitable for slavery, subjugation, segregation, and oppression, in contrast with people from another continent who fancy themselves white -- and superior.

And yet, although "race" is an idea so deeply ingrained that we must confront our prejudices based upon it, we can also recognize and embrace it as not simply a source of division, but also a paradoxical source of cultural richness through diversity.


© Charles Williamson Day, Jr., 2016. All rights reserved.

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