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Words matter, or how you and I enable racism

 Racism, and its frequent corollary white supremacy, have been hot topics with me since high school in 1972. I belonged to a barbershop quartet (kids, ask your grandparents) that performed all over San Diego. My hometown wasn't exactly liberal, but it was a Navy town so people from everywhere were mixed together in neighborhoods and schools. Our quartet was asked to perform at a local Mormon church. After the performance, we were offered lunch. We all started to sit together when I was told that our bass, a wonderful black guy, would have to sit at another table. "Mixing" wasn't allowed. The four of us got up and walked out.

My mom was very progressive, and so I grew up knowing racism was wrong. But after high school, I became a fervent anti-racist. I spoke out, I protested, I even used my radio show in college, an all-jazz station, to raise the topic with our primarily black audience.

It took me quite a few years to realize that morality and humanity weren't the only grounds from which to fight racism and white supremacy. As I became more involved with public speaking I came to understand that the language we used, all of us, was born of the same ignorance as the white movement itself. As a matter of fact, I've been using the very terms I want to address all through the above paragraphs and I doubt even the most radical among you flinched.

Allow me to set the stage for my later opinions.

Before recorded history, some group of protohumans became aware that there were other hominids not of their group. At that moment the notion of "us and them" was born. Humans had the capacity to differentiate between groups the same way they could differentiate between "me" and "not me". Soon tribes formed, and in the acquisition of resources, humans began to favor "my group" over "your group". When resources became limited, fights broke out. Humans learned the concept of "friends" and "enemies". We were no longer part of the larger group of humans but separate tribes, clans, and eventually religions and nations. And religions taught us we were special, not like all the other animals because we could think we were superior to other life and the planet itself.

Nations are the result of arbitrary lines on maps. And yet we used them as excuses to go to war, to conquer and colonize, and to exploit the people of nations we fought against. We used wealth and education as weapons against those without wealth, whose education was gained by living in harmony with nature.

One result of thinking that some humans were not like other humans became known as "man's inhumanity to man". We look back in disbelief at some of the things people did to other people. The Catholic Church delighted in torture in the Middle Ages. The British established their empire through colonization. 

Egyptian slaves

And perhaps the most pervasive act of inhumanity is slavery. I don't say "was" slavery because it still goes on in parts of the world. Slavery likely goes back to the very beginning of civilization. Egyptians enslaved other African and Middle Eastern people. Romans enslaved those they conquered in war. The British enslaved the inhabitants of their colonies, and of course, Americans enslaved Native Americans and Africans.

the shackled feet of an African slave

Slavery is the most obvious expression of our thinking that some of us are better than others and that those of us we consider superior have every right to treat those we consider inferior any way we please.

One last slightly askew topic before I make my final point. 

We talk about white people and black people, or maybe Europeans and African-Americans. Both terms are based on misconceptions of reality.

With few exceptions due to dense melanin concentrations in the skin or lack thereof, people everywhere tend to fall on a scale from light tan to dark brown. Depending on where our ancestors lived we have skin that either protects us from exposure to the Sun or doesn't. White and black are inaccurate terms to use in reference to human skin color. In truth, all people are "colored people". Europeans got the crayon people to call light tan "flesh-colored" as if all flesh was tan-ish pink. Certainly black and white are colors, just not usually the colors of people.

So what should we call each other?

European or African relate to those artificial boundaries of nations. Is someone from Indonesia a different kind of human than one from Iceland? 

We are all humans. Race is fiction based on one arbitrary aspect of human beings. Somewhere along the line, we decided to call different colored humans "races". There are no human races, there is only one human race. we are all Homo sapiens, we are all one race. There's only one kind of human despite their color, form, hairstyle, or preference for wearing socks with shorts. When we use the term race as if there was more than one type of human, we're wrong. Therefore, racism doesn't exist. 

Now don't shoot me yet. Let me continue.

People we call racists are in fact haters of human beings. They may hate them for their color, but that's just a convenient and false excuse. They hate people, anyone different than themselves. 

And people who hate people and call themselves white supremacists are wrong again. They aren't white. And the people they hate aren't black. It's tan people hating dark-brown people. But having to be accurate about the reasons they hate others is time-consuming and requires education they don't likely possess, so they just simplify it with inaccurate terminology.

Every time we use the terms race, white, black, African, Greek, and Chinese, we are continuing, however inadvertently, the idea that there are real factors that separate one group of humans from another group of humans.

Three fists indicating equality

So what should we call ourselves?

How about "humans"? How about we start to drop the terminology that divides us and use terminology that accurately describes us. 

I know this is a big ask. Sometimes we have to mention someone's color to add context to a story. Fine, but keep in mind that does not make them any different than you or me. Once we get that through our thick skulls, offering equal opportunities, equal compensation, and equal respect to everybody of every gender, color, shape, sexuality, and size can begin. 

And man's inhumanity to man can become a topic of ancient history.


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