The image to the left is a postcard that someone sent to PostSecret, an online website that asks people to write their "secrets" on one side of a postcard and mail them in anonymously. (I've written about PostSecret before on this blog.) It is the brainchild of Frank Warren, who now travels all over the country talking about the phenomenon of secret-sharing that is PostSecret.
I found this postcard particularly striking, because it seems to clearly illustrate so many things about the subtleties of racism. As someone who has waited more than my fair share of tables, I'm very familiar with the stereotype of "ghetto people" (read: African-Americans) being bad tippers. I imagine if I showed this picture to one of my classes, many of them would silently nod in tacit agreement, even if they wouldn't come right out and say as much. Of course, there are all kinds of explanations for why people don't tip (or don't tip well) that have absolutely nothing to do with the racial identity of the patrons. Maybe they got bad service. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they actually couldn't afford a tip. (With the recent dowturn in the economy, this last explanation seems the most reasonable assumption.) But what is clear from the waiter's scrawling on this receipt is that he or she is quite sure that the customer's misanthropy was an emandation of some kind of racial "essence." Ghetto/black people are "cheap," the waiter presumes, and THAT is what both creates and justifies the waiter's racism.
On the contrary, what makes the waiter a racist is his or her belief in racial "essences" in the first place. Or, more accurately, his or her belief that some racial essences are comprised of inferior moral or characterological traits. The fact that he or she is able to allegedly "confirm" these beliefs by appeal to his or her experience as a server is, of course, a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. This reminds me of one of the themes in an excellent book by Lewis Gordon that I read some time ago, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, in which Gordon uses Jean-Paul Sartre's structure of "bad faith" (from Being and Nothingness) to show how racism often involves a kind of lying-to-oneself in order to avoid both freedom and responsibility. For the nameless waiter in our case, the lie of "racial essences" allows him or her to avoid taking responsibility for the prejudice he or she is adopting. "It's waiting tables that makes you racist!" the waiter would no doubt protest, in an attempt to show that the facts of the world leave him or her no choice in the matter. But the "facts" of the world don't show anything at all by themselves. They must be filtered through some paradigm of meaning and interpretation-- in this case, the paradigm of antiblack racism. Unfortunately, in a culture like ours where this paradigm is institutionalized and thus concealed, bad faith racism is easy to practice and very difficult to own.
In my classes, I tend to focus on much larger issues of institutionalized racism in an attempt to debunk the elision of facts and values that we practice in ignorance. I think it's much easier to demonstrate, for example, that the stereotype of young black males as essentially "violent" or "criminal" is not "proven" by that population's higher rates of incarceration, but rather that the structural inequalities (social, political, economic, juridical) between races in our country in fact produces both the "fact" of higher incarceration rates and the stereotypical evaluation of the racial essence of black men that is meant to explain that fact. There are always some detractors to this argument, who will still insist that their attaching the value of "violent" or "criminal" to black males is really just a fact-- I hear this a lot in Memphis, where people say (like our waiter) "Living in Memphis makes you racist"-- but I still find that most of my students will eventually come around to recognizing that it's not that simple. After all, there is a wealth of social science data readily available to aid in one's shifting of interpretive paradigms. Unfortunately, the kind of justificatory argument that our waiter employs -- perhaps because it's more mundane and, hence, more insidious-- still goes largely unchecked and uncontested...
... which makes me wonder whether or not this is a better "teaching" example to use in the future. Thoughts, anyone?