“The Little Bit of Michael Richards in Us All”
This post’s title is a teaser that I heard on NPR this morning, referencing an upcoming story. While I missed the story itself, I was encouraged by the teaser line. Encouraged, because it suggests that the story was to take an approach similar to that which many other media stories have taken in discussing Michael Richards’ racist outburst. The approach being one which does not single Richards out as an evil racist in contrast to all of us egalitarian, non-racist folks. Rather, the approach sees Richards’ outburst as symptomatic of a much, much larger, ubiquitous undercurrent of racism in our society, one which lurks to some degree in all of us, threatening to bubble to the surface under pressure. For stories on Richards’ outburst that take this approach in whole or in part, see, e.g., Spencer Overton’s excellent piece in blackprof.com; this op-ed in the Washington Post; and this op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.
This approach is an important one because it is grounded, I think, in a deeply important truth. Most of us understand intellectually that it’s wrong to judge people for the color of their skin, the language that they speak, their gender, their sexual orientation, their national origin, and countless other factors that have nothing to do with the “content of [our] character[s],” to paraphrase the great Martin Luther King., Jr. And we know this to be the case not simply because we have been told so, but because logically and from experience with diverse groups we realize that it simply makes no sense, and is deeply, painfully unfair, hurtful and destructive to judge one another by such factors. That said, we continue to live in a society that is fraught with racist, sexist and other stereotypes, stereotypes that pervade our culture and the barely conscious attitudes of even the most well-meaning among us. This is not a surprise: women have had the vote for less than a century, and state sanctioned racial segregation existed well into the 20th century. It takes a long, long, long time for a society and its people to purge itself of the social inequalities, divisions and attitudes bred by such longstanding discrimination. From this perspective, the view that we are all creatures of our society and that we all must harbor some degree of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., is hardly a radical one. And I certainly do not exempt myself from this observation. I can think of many occasions in which I realized in retrospect that I had judged or treated someone differently because of their race or gender.
The first step in getting past this terrible social and cultural legacy is for each of us to recognize and admit, at least to ourselves, the racism, sexism and similar forms of stereotype and group-based hostility that lurk within us. Pointing to people like Richards as uniquely racist and evil not only seems incorrect, but seems to miss the point entirely. Rather, we should take events like the Richards outburst as an opportunity to admit the hatred and stereotyping that continues to exist within our society, and within all of us. Only then can we confront that which we harbor within us, but which most of us understand is very, very wrong. That the Richards incident seems to have sparked just such a national conversation is a sign, I think, that there is much about which to be hopeful as we continue to evolve as a society.