Her knee-jerk reaction is the result of an educational system, and indeed a world in general, that insists that we're all the same and that to suggest otherwise is hurtful and therefore wrong. What a bunch of hooey! Here we're going to consider some reasons why people need to lighten up a bit; why remarks referring to race, ethnicity, religion, etc. might be actually be better than this head-in-the-sand "we're all the same" B.S.
But first, let's get a better handle on the words racism and racist. According to Webster's Collegiate dictionary, racism is "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race". It offers a second definition that racism is "racial prejudice or discrimination". A racist is simply someone who believes in and/or practices racism. Other sources offer similar definitions, but the point is that racism basically means that you see one race as superior to another and that you act in ways that are harmful to that (supposed) inferior race.
But what if you believe that race can be "one" determinant of human traits, if not "the primary" determinant? Does that still make you a racist? Or, what if you believe that different races have some different traits and capacities, but don't believe that this makes any race superior to any other race? Are you a racist? I mean, blacks have darker skin and kinkier hair and are more prone to sickle cell anemia than whites. Whites have rounder eyes, finer hair and are more prone to celiac disease than Asians. These things are facts, and unless you believe that they imply superiority of one group over another, does merely stating facts like these make a person racist? No. They do not.
By the way, the concept of racism and its development as a human survival mechanism throughout countless millenia is a topic discussed in another of these blog essays (My Kind's Better'n Yours!). The implication there is that racism is ingrained in most if not all of us to some degree or another. Over recent centuries and decades, the degree of racism has declined for most people, and we try to combat, hide, or deny that which remains. Nevertheless, the person who is 100% free of any residual racism (as defined above and discussed in the other essay) is a rare individual indeed.
But returning to word meanings, let's take the word discrimination and its variations. In context it usually means that someone is being treated badly, treated unfairly - as in "it's discrimination when Latinos are stopped by the police and asked for proof of legal status." But Webster's lists four definitions of "discrimination", and it is only the fourth one that deals with this concept. The first three definitions all refer to the act of distinguishing between one thing and another; seeing the difference between them.
So a discriminating diner is someone who can tell a good meal from a bad one, while a discriminating painter can tell the difference between the colors teal and aqua. A person can discriminate between a dark skinned person and a light skinned person; between someone who speaks with an accent or doesn't; who eats a diet high in fish and one that is high in beans and rice. Those are all examples of discriminating (distinguishing one thing from another), yet none of them have to mean that someone is being put down while someone else is being elevated. Ironically, insisting otherwise actually indicates a failure to discriminate (see the difference between) one who is doing something hurtful and one who is merely stating a fact with no ulterior intent.
This brings us back to the box of chocolates. It makes sense that comparing a group of students to a box of "dirty trailer-trash white chocolates, lazy illegal light-brown chocolates, and beautiful proud dark chocolates" would be racist. But it's much harder to see how simply making the analogy between different races of kids and different colored chocolates is. Was the person implying superiority or inferiority of one "chocolate" over another? Was something previously said or done to send that message? Here's where the discriminating (observant, insightful) person needs to use their noggin, because if nothing more sinister is going on than comparing different colored kids to different colored chocolates, then it's all much ado about nothing.
Still - why would a person even go there? Knowing that society - especially in public schools - is hyper-sensitive to anything even remotely politically incorrect, why say something that somebody might manage to find offensive? Why open a can of worms when you don't have to? Well, there are several reasons. Some of us are just plain rebels and can't resist the temptation to defy the conventional wisdom, to push people's buttons, to do what you're not supposed to do. So we say things that shock people, just to shock people. Well fine.
But there are also more serious reasons, however. I happen to be very proud of my ethnicity, my ancestors, my culture, etc. As discussed in My Kind's Better'n Yours, I think that I and mine are better than you and yours - no matter what "you" and "yours" happen to be. And guess what? I'd be willing to bet that deep down inside, you believe the same thing! Of course we're not allowed to say that, at least not in polite company or in public, where somebody can quote us. But I think that we all (secretly) believe it nevertheless.
So here's the thing: I should be able to say that I'm Alsatian and Jewish and Scottish, and that I'm proud about all of the great things that go with being those. And I think you should be able to say that you're Mexican or African or Malaysian or whatever, that you should be proud of that and that your people and their ways are better than me or mine. Right on! Say it loud and say it proud!
But here's the key, the thing that makes this OK: none of this means you put the other guy down. Other people and other cultures are so interesting and so enjoyable to learn about and to experience! I might think mine's better, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate yours. That doesn't mean that I want to push you down, hold you back, lower your self-esteem, etc. That doesn't mean I'm racist, if you refer back to what that word actually means. I think we can "all get along" just fine while celebrating our racial and cultural differences and without this pretense of all being uni-color, uni-culture, politically-correct androids.
So we're going to talk about races and cultures and religions, partly as an antidote to the prevailing trend of not doing so. We can talk about the good things that Christians have done over the centuries and the bad things; how the British spread civilization's benefits around the world and how they spread misery; whether Germans are inherently warlike, Jews themselves are to blame for the Holocaust, Asians are more scholarly, and whether illegal Latino immigrants are a net plus or minus for the nation. We'll discuss why basketball players are mostly black, surfers are mostly white, soccer players are mostly Mexican and whether that's OK or not. Is it true that most white people can't dance? That black folks talk too much in movie theaters? That Mexicans all have huge families? That Asians are all over-achievers?
These typically taboo topics should be open for discussion, as exploring our differences and stereotypes is preferable to pretending they don't exist. Some people may be easily offended, and they need to just get over it. Some may occasionally say things they shouldn't; they can apologize and then let's just move on. The goal is to be more informed about different people, their good and their bad, to be more tolerant of one another, and to genuinely get along - not just pretend that we do.
The other component of dealing with racism has to do with humor. Humor, as in making fun of people, stereotypes, nicknames, and so forth. Look - I have this theory: you're not really friends with somebody, you don't have a solid relationship with them unless you can joke around with each other. This applies on a societal level as well as an individual level. We whites and blacks and Mexicans and gays and Jews - we're not really OK with one another as long as we tiptoe around the sensitive issues. When we can joke about ourselves and one another without hurting anyone's feelings - that's when we're cool, when it's real.
So the Mexican kids I grew up with were beaners and I was a pattie, and nobody cared. Maybe they came here illegally and maybe my people stole their people's land 150 years ago - or maybe they didn't. But who cares? How well do you play baseball and do you surf? Are you cool or a dork? Do you have any cute sisters? Those were the things that mattered! And my Jewish friends, they're so damn cheap! But hey, I 'm pretty cheap myself, so we compete to see who gets the best deals and joke about who's the real Jew! Our gay friends (who dressed up as fairies on Halloween, for cryin' out loud) complain about how we straight guys have no fashion sense.
And so it goes; friends playing around and joking with one another as friends do, with race and religion and sexual choices being fair game as much as anything else. The key is that it's done gently and with a twinkle in your eye, not out of meanness, not with the intent to hurt. Intent is the bottom line, and sometimes a person's intent isn't clear. Besides, how well do you have to know a person before you can do this whole joking thing with them? Hmmm... that's not clear either. So it's a very tricky business, this humor thing.
Well granted it's tricky, and it's even touchier to do on a societal level. Not everyone has the playful sense of humor that can pull this kind of stuff off. And many people are too uptight or too indignant still about how their group has been treated to want to joke around. It's a fine line indeed between easing tensions and getting closer to someone, and pissing somebody off with an insensitive comment. So many people won't want to take the risk, choosing the sterile but safe route instead. But when it works, it's a good thing.
A classic example of this is what Dave Chappelle used to do on his comedy show. Lots of his skits involved making fun of one group or another. The black white supremacist. The convention where different races drafted celebrities from other races. The hidden camera videos of how different races respond to music. As a white guy, I thought it was all absolutely hilarious! And I bet that most black folks, Asians, Latinos, and Jews were cracking up as much as I was. Far as I can tell, Chappelle wasn't doing it to put any one group down. Far as I can tell, Chappelle is proud to be black, but doesn't dislike whites or Asians or Mexicans or Jews. Sometimes I think Chappelle would go too far; sometimes people could get offended. Again - joking about race and religion and whatnot is a risky undertaking (remember Don Imus and his stupid "nappy headed hos" comment?). But when taken as intended, Chappelle's kind of humor makes us all a little more comfortable with one another, and that is a good thing.
So I'm going to do my French, Russian and German accents when we read about those folks in my classroom and that's going to make me politically incorrect. Then I'm going to throw out my Chinese and Indian accents when we study Asia, which makes me not only politically incorrect but (again!) a racist. Somewhere along the line, I might wonder aloud why old age is harsher on a white woman's looks compared to black and Latino women, just how many pounds the average Mexican piles on between the ages of 18 and 25 from all the beans and lard in their diet, or if any other black kid could possibly be whiter than Keith. And, in large part because they don't consider the context in which the comments are made, it's all going to freak out a bunch of people and confirm that, yep - this guy's a racist. Whatever!
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Let's go back to where we started. Someone might be a "racist" to people who misuse the word and are unable to discriminate between just talking and joking about racial issues and discriminating against people of a particular race. But in that case, so is Dave Chappelle and just about every other comedian, along with you and almost everyone else at one time or another. But we're also not racists, not in the real meaning of the word, since our goal is not to show that one race or another is inferior and ought to be held down, harmed, or made fun of more than any other race. Yes, I realize that a lot of people still won't see it that way.
Actually, now that I think of it, I can't help my joking around, even when it may seem inappropriate. It's who I am, part of my heritage from the Jewish side of the family. It's not my fault! The use of humor is a well-known characteristic of the Jews, with Jewish comedians dominating in America from guys like Jack Benny, Milton Berle and The Three Stooges, to Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal. With less than 3% of America's population, Jews account for nearly 70% of the country's working comedians. (www.sillymusic.com/jewish_humor_comedians) So if you have a problem with my humor, maybe you're secretly defaming my people and their penchant for finding humor everywhere. Maybe it's YOU who's a racist, you hateful anti-Semite!
And if like me, you're interested in this topic, you may want to read my other blog on the topic here - "Eracism", written December 2012)