This week a high school kid in Florida is being debased on social media for making light of cotton picking slaves. Last week, it was a Starbucks employee calling police on two men hanging out in the store. In San Luis Obispo, university administrators, students and parents are in a feud over a photo of a fraternity member in blackface.
If those are the worst examples of America’s “racism” today then we ought to celebrate our progress as a society; as those are quite benign and harmless examples compared to the overt and institutionalized racism underlying the Tuskegee experiments, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and Jim Crow laws.
Racism does still exist, and likely always will even after humanity blends into a shade of soft tan, but those every-day examples on Instagram are not it, and not worthy of national hysteria. We need to stop confusing excusable ignorance for malicious bigotry. Reacting viscerally to every instance of the former is akin to vacating our homes every time the fire alarm chirps, despite the obvious lack of heat or smoke.
Growing up in the San Diego suburbs in the ’80s, I was one of just a handful of immigrants at my high school. Except, I wasn’t an immigrant. I was born here. We used to joke that there were only two black guys at my high school, and I was one of them. In a sense it was true, there were only a few of us non-white-skinned students back then on campus. That some kids thought my brown skin meant I was not an American was ignorance, not racism. In playground angst, I was once or twice called a “sand-N-word” or “Ahab.” That was ignorance, not racism.
Even though it offended and hurt me — and sometimes the memory still stings — that does not make it racism, nor those boys and girls racist.
As a society, we run the risk of losing the signal in the noise when we take every instance that is possibly offensive and tasteless in reference to a minority and line it up in the public square for beheading.
Those kids at my school were not racist then, nor are they now. Their juvenile thoughts were easily reformed. Ignorance is like Play-Doh, soft and easily reshaped through any sort of handling, whereas racism is hard and solid like a kiln-dried ceramic vessel. Any attempts to reshape the racist are futile, and once hardened, can only be shattered and disposed of.
Like all of us, those young kids with their barbed tongues were taught to speak before they learned to think. I know this because over time we became friends, or at least friendly. The more they knew me and others different from them, their thoughts were unknowingly transcending past the veneer of race, color and fear into individualism, similarity and celebration of difference.
This transformation of the ignorant is not development of tolerance. Tolerance mandates a specification, and a specification dictates limits. To be tolerant of certain ethnic groups or minorities is quite possibly the worst form of racism in that it is subdued elitism — one group saying with their noses up that they have developed the ability to tolerate the other, as if that group were some sort of allergen they had finally trained their immune system not to react violently to.
What my childhood friends went through was the unconscious acceptance of an individual. They did not learn to accept Indians, they learned to accept an individual who happened to be Indian — someone different than them but far more similar than they had preconceived. This is the opening of the mind and from this develops the natural tendency to not prejudge an entire group because it is now realized that any group is comprised of individuals.
It is this seedling that is the antidote to racism and bias. No amount of social-media shaming, corporate sensitivity training or public outrage will be an effective cure for either ignorance or racism. Only by being exposed to the differences in each other do we quench the ignorance and build our internal defenses against fear, anger and hatred of others.
As a society we should be in agreement that racism is something we want to shatter and discard, but that ignorance is to be detected and gently reshaped. In order to achieve this, we have to first understand how to tell the two apart; the barometer for ignorance is being offended, the barometer for racism is being maligned.
Chirag Asaravala attended Cal Poly in the 1990s where he studied biology and philosophy and was a member of Cal Poly Wheelmen cycling team. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is a frequent opinion contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle.