Of Racism, Prejudice & Discrimination

When I was a senior in high school, I was fortunate enough to attend a leadership camp that taught me that we all have prejudices, but those prejudices don’t make us racists. There’s a huge gap between those two things that I fear gets terribly lost when discussions of race come up.

The Tech Is Too White Debate

This is all on my mind because of a debate that hit my Twitter stream today. Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece talking about how tech writers seem to be mostly male and white and reasons why that might be. Tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis is making waves from a series of tweets that suggest anyone can break in with hard work. These are recapped at The Atlantic and Current Editorials, and Jason did a further post here.

I’m going to stay (mostly) out of the argument over why the tech press is apparently so male and white, and what can be done to fix that. I would agree that it does seem to be that way. Then again, I see TechCrunch co-edited by Alexis Tsotsis; I see AllThingsD co-edited by Kara Swisher. Those are at least encouraging on the “it’s all male” front.

What I want to instead focus on is the idea that’s voiced in several comments that I’ve seen, the idea that white people can’t understand racism. They probably can. It’s just that I’d say in the America (and Britain) that I’ve lived in, they don’t encounter it much.

Much more important, there’s a huge, huge difference between racism, prejudice and discrimination.

How I Learned We’re All Prejudiced

Now I’m going to tell my story of that leadership camp to explain some of this more personally, then I’ll get back into the more generic discussion.

The camp was sponsored by what was then called the National Conference of Christians & Jews. Today, it’s the National Conference for Community and Justice — keeping the same acronym, NCCJ.

I was one of the few campers from Orange County, California. I grew up in the city of Westminster, where my school population was mostly white, with a big proportion of asians and latinos. Blacks were a tiny percentage.

(By the way, I’m going to use lower case for all races, ethnicities and religions as I write this. All those caps for White and Black leap out at me, and if I lower-case those races but not Asians and Latinos (as I learned all those years ago as part of AP style), that also seems strange.)

The camp was pretty evenly divided: 1/4 white, black, asian and latino, with maybe 200 campers in all. Those were the major groups we found ourselves constantly divided into. Within the white group were also jews, many of whom didn’t consider themselves to be white — but those who were not white did consider them to be so. That was just one of the many lessons the camp taught us all.

It’s Prejudice Day

After some lead-up, we had what I came to remember as prejudice day, where we had to explore different prejudices that we all held about each other.

I, being a fairly liberal-thinking teenager, didn’t believe I had prejudices. I didn’t see race, as far as I felt. The whole prejudice day wasn’t going to have much to teach me!

A key part of the day was when one of the races was asked to leave a big room we were in, while those left behind wrote all the prejudices they had or thought about the other races. For example, all the asians would leave, and the other races would write what they thought about that race.

That was the first instructive thing for me, the first revelation — that white people weren’t the only ones with prejudices.

Understand that I grew up in the post-Civil Rights era. Roots was the big TV show when I was in elementary school, and the whole country — to me — was abuzz with the idea of racial equality, of rectifying a situation where a white majority, however it happened, seemed to hold back other races. I had good teachers who taught the salad bowl rather than the melting pot, too.

I’d really been brought up thinking white people were to blame, that white people had so much prejudice to overcome. So the idea that other races had prejudices about each other? That was eye-opening.

White People Have Herpes?

The next revelation was coming back into the room with my white group, to see what prejudices had been written about us. I didn’t think there would be many. I guess as a white person, I never spent much time trying to overcome those types of prejudices, living in a mainly white world with mostly white friends (thought I had a large number of asian friends, which I’ll return to in a bit).

Oh, there was a list. One of the items I’ll never forget was that white people have herpes. Really, this was apparently a fear other races had of whites. Wow.

Prejudices Don’t Equal Racism

Everyone learned from this exercise that we had prejudices of each other — and importantly, that it was almost natural for us to have these prejudices. We picked them up in various ways. They didn’t make us bad, not the having them. It was the not recognizing them or worse, believing them and acting on them in the form of discrimination or racism.

I’ll get back to that, but next, the story gets even more personal. At the end of the day, we had to go around the room and talk about a particular prejudice we might have had in relation to a particular camper. You couldn’t dodge with a safe answer — all the other campers could tell if you were being real or not.

I dreaded when my turn came around. As I said, we were a mixed race group at the camp, and that went down the cabin level. In my cabin were several black boys, one who was very large and to me, threatening. My prejudice. I didn’t know him. I just knew he was a large black guy, and my experience around large black guys was pretty much nil. In elementary school, we literally had one black kid — who, by the way, I was friends with. But after about a year, he left, and I was back in my mostly white world.

Not having known many blacks — and having been raised by a father out of the South who had not just prejudices but also racist attitudes about them — I just wasn’t comfortable. I was afraid. And that’s what I said, that I was afraid of this other camper in my cabin, because of those prejudices. OMG.

The camper stood up and asked if I was afraid of him now. I said I wasn’t. Why? Because I knew him. He wasn’t an unknown quantity to me, where my prejudices could build in my mind. He was just another camper.

That’s prejudice. That’s when you literally are doing what the word comes from, making a prejudgement. That’s not racism. That’s not discrimination. And despite me having that prejudice, it would never be my belief that he was somehow inferior to me (which is racism) or that I wouldn’t want to hire him for something (which is discrimination).

What Racism Is

Racism is a terrible thing, and I hate to see that word used without precision. I’ve seen it today, in arguments about whether we’re living in a “post-racist” world or whether someone has racist views.

In my book, someone only has racist views if they believe other races are not equal to their own. On an industry basis, I don’t know that a tech industry (or any industry) that doesn’t seem diverse is “racist,” especially given that the industry itself might not be actively trying to somehow keep out a particular race, based on some idea of superiority.

That’s where some of the disconnect in these types of arguments come up, I feel. Jason might not feel there’s any racism in the tech space because he’s not overtly thinking it, or seeing it and also, because there probably isn’t much of it. I find it hard to believe that any major tech site is overtly excluding people because of their race.

What Discrimination Is

There certainly seems to be discrimination however, as opposed to racism. That leads into two types that I’d characterize: overt and, for lack of a better word, institutional.

I don’t think there’s a lot of overt discrimination going on. As with racism, I find it hard to believe that tech news sites are overtly trying to hire people of one race but not others. But institutionally, that seems to be what’s happening.

Why? That’s part of the discussion that’s going on now. I suspect a big part of it is like-hires-like. If you’re white, there’s an excellent chance you know other white people, and you likely seek them out for hiring, if you’re not doing a big search.

It can work other ways, too. Last week, I did a lunchtime talk at the LA office of the Huffington Post. Of the 20 people who came, 19 were women. It was amazing, encouraging, that there were so many women editors there. But was it some overt effort to hire only women? I doubt it. It might be that the operation, begun as I understand it by two women, continued on with like-hiring-like.

I think diversity is important. I think whatever can be done to improve it is good. But I have to say, we’ve got three full-time jobs open right now with Marketing Land and Search Engine Land, and ensuring that we have a diverse workforce isn’t top of my mind. Our editors are all pretty white, though largely split male-female. That’s going to look bad to anyone wondering why we don’t have a latino, or asian or black editor employed.

But while I’m sure the entire staff would agree we’d like to be more diverse, the bigger priority right now is just finding good people. We need an editor who understands marketing and working with columnists. We need a writer who understands paid search and social. We need a general assignment reporter who understands internet marketing.

Finding those qualifications is tough enough, but while doing it, we also still have to keep working extremely hard on the day-to-day activity of being still a relatively small start-up, with no outside-funding making it on our own. Oh, and can those people be in one of the 11 states we’re already registered to do business with? Because the regulations of starting up in a new state are pretty killer.

There are obviously some type of barriers that have prevented the tech press from being more reflective of the diversity out there, ranging from like-hiring-like to not making the time to look further afield. I’d also agree that for the white people who have been successful, they might not understand or even be aware of all the challenges, because they just don’t encounter them. That’s not to take away from the fact people of all races can and do make it, of course.

How Prejudice Can Sneak Up On You

A little side-note now on how subtle prejudice can be.

Until I went to my camp, I had no idea about the stereotype that jews are supposedly cheap. That was introduced to me there. Not that I believe it, but I sure would have been happy to never hear it.

As an adult, I watch how jokes about racial stereotypes come up in television shows that my kids see. I find myself pausing the TV when these happen, to make sure they understand that different types of jokes or references are merely that, jokes. But part of me wishes the jokes weren’t made at all, because it’s almost by making them, the stereotypes are reinforced.

In another example, I purposely avoid referring to someone by their race, if I’m talking with my kids (or really, most anyone). If there were a group of people, I wouldn’t say, “Go ask that black guy.” I’m making a conscious decision not to do that, not to characterize someone by their race. And it’s hard. If you want to understand how hard, try it. Try to reference someone of a different race in a group. It’s really easy to reach for the race description, and perhaps that subtly reinforces some of the divisions between us.

You can see this in books all the time, by the way. Go read a book, even by a super-liberal fiction writer. Chances are, they’ll not refer to the white people as white. It’ll be assumed you know this. But black people are often described as black, and it happens with other races, as well. Of course, most of my fiction tends to be written by white guys (I guess they’re big in sci-fi), so maybe it’s different when reading authors of other races. But really, every person’s race should be described — or no one should. Damn racist authors! 🙂

As for not understanding racism as a white person, in college, I was once denied entrance as a reporter to a meeting at the Cross Cultural Center because I was white. It was the only reason I wasn’t allowed in. If I hadn’t been white, I’d have been admitted. That wasn’t racism. It was discrimination, and I sure didn’t like it. But it’s about the only time in my life I’ve knowingly been discriminated like that. It gives me no great insight into what it must be like for someone who encounters discrimination, prejudice or even racism on a regular basis.

When Races Turn Into People

A few other things. I think when you do grow up around other races, the differences are amazing. I know people who fear asians. I find that odd. I grew up with them, had many asian friends. I don’t tend to look at asians as “asians” perhaps because they were so ubiquitous in my life.

One of my best friends (OK, Greg, you’re my best friend) is latino. But with us both having grown-up in a similar area of middle-class Orange County, there’s not much difference between us. He’s less latino, and I’m less white, and we’re both much more North Orange County boys.

He’s also gay — which leads to an entire other areas of discrimination and prejudice, one that to me grows largely out of people who simply don’t know gays. I could never imagine not wanting gays to have equal rights because I have so many gay friends. As I wrote before:

These are all good friends. They are all good people. It has pained me to see them have to keep some part of them back, to not be complete out of fear or concern of not being accepted. I have no problem with homosexuality. Clearly, many people still do. I hope those that do can be more open, to understand the pain fellow human beings feel when they have to remain closeted. At the very least, understand that they are not gay people — they are real people with feelings who happen to be gay. They are godparents to my children; good friends I’ve known for years and people I hate to see feeling excluded in so many ways such as with marriage laws.

I don’t know that we’ll ever be in a post-prejudiced world, but a big step is acknowledging that we have prejudices, understanding that’s not the same as being racist and most of all, that we begin to really know other people as other people, not as other races. That doesn’t mean not seeing race, not understanding the complex challenges of race in the world, but more that we have friends and coworkers of all races.

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