Just before the weekend, John Derbyshire published an essay that can only be called racist. His advice boils down to making snap judgments, based on fear and faulty assumptions, and avoiding black people in general. It’s awful. It got him fired from National Review.
In the last few days, it has become understandably controversial. Many parodies are going up. I just finished my own version. It’s not a parody. If anything, I hope it’s a clarion call for clear thought and open hearts. I believe the two go together. It’s a draft, but I think it’s useful.
Derbyshire’s essay was about what white parents supposedly tell their children about blacks. Mine is meant to be ready-made for people of any race in America to use with all other races. Derbyshire said that his essay is what he tells his kids. This is what I tell mine.
(1) You’ve noticed by now that there are a lot of colors of people out there. You’ve probably also noticed that many people place a lot of value in those colors, both their own and everybody else’s. What you need to know is that people have a right to claim pride in their heritage, including you. You don’t have to do anything special to acknowledge the feelings of others, but you do have a social obligation to be polite. If someone else has intense feelings about their race, don’t disregard it. If they have no feelings for their race or others’, don’t disregard that, either. If someone has strong feelings about another race, though, their opinion probably isn’t worth listening to.
(2) Don’t be obnoxious and make your own feelings an issue for those around you to deal with, though. It’s rude.
(3) When encountering anyone’s sensitivity about their racial heritage, and perhaps their lack of understanding of yours, remember your own complicated history and your inability to completely empathize with anyone else. Our own limited, fallible human minds—and understanding that these are universal—may help end our awkwardness around each other.
(4) The odds that you will ever actually encounter someone who would harm you because of a racial difference are incredibly remote. There are plenty of real dangers in the world; this just isn’t one of them. Yes, it does happen, but you simply aren’t very likely to be the victim of a violent hate crime. You can almost always trust that stranger whose skin is not like yours.
(5) You will meet people of every race who will seem to confirm stereotypes you have heard about their race. Maybe they’re putting on a show, maybe your perception is selective, maybe both, maybe something else. Ignore those reactions, as they are not the result of love or analysis, and they will do nothing to foster successful interaction with others, anyway. If it’s someone you can get to know better, do it. You will see a much fuller picture. If it’s someone you can’t or won’t know deeply, then you are not justified in forming opinions based on superficial observations. Maybe that one person really does fit easily into a mold—sometimes people are shallow. But even if that’s true, does it really mean anything?
(6) There are differences between average income levels, educational achievement, crime rates, etc. between racial groups. There are a lot of reasons for this, and almost all of them are debated by very smart and well-intentioned people from every group. Most likely no social or political group has a totally clear picture. The truth, if we ever could get our heads around it all, would probably both support and challenge some of everybody’s beliefs. Trying to explain it will make no difference to you, so don’t bother.
(7) What I can tell you for sure is this: Most of a person’s position in life and all of their happiness comes from within themselves. No individual has inherent characteristics that make them any better or worse in any way because of their racial background. We are all strongly shaped by the community around us, for better and for worse. Everybody you meet has emotional needs that are just like yours, and bad memories and fears that are not like yours. Be kind.
(8) Much of the racial animosity in America comes from people being upset by things beyond their actual experience. This isn’t to say that there is no racism at a personal level. In fact, there is. But it comes from all sides and gets directed towards all sides. Much of it may be unintentional. Very few people really want to hate others who are different. No group is blameless. Maybe we could unite around that—our shared status as targets of each other.
(9) There seem to be some people in all racial groups who have a vested interest in race—promoting it, hiding it, inflating it, ignoring it. You are much better off trusting your own compassionate experience than you are listening to any of them.
(10) Feel free to associate with whomever you want for whatever reasons you want. You are not under any special obligation to go outside of your comfort zone. Not embracing everybody is not the same as hating everybody. We’re adults in a free society; we can get along without forcing ourselves into a big demonstration of solidarity.
(10a) You might purposely seek out friends of other races. Or all of your friends might be of your own race. Or you might just be friends with whomever happens to be your neighbors and coworkers. Or there may not be a rational plan to the makeup of your friends at all. It doesn’t matter. Don’t read too much into your circle of associates, and don’t listen to anyone who would make a big deal out of it.
(10b) Always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Even when race would at first seem to help explain something. Especially then.
(11) Let me say this again. I’ll put it this way: a wise man once said that we should judge others by the content of their character. You have to know someone pretty well to do that. Otherwise, you have no basis for a sound judgment. However, once you’ve seen enough of someone’s choices and actions to have a solid feel for their personality, go ahead and act accordingly. But remember, if someone is a stupid jerk, it’s not because of their race or politics. That individual is just a stupid jerk.
(12) There are valid criticisms to be made of any community or culture. Nobody’s perfect. In the real world, people are sensitive and on guard, though: weary of being misunderstood, leery of future misunderstanding. If you must engage a discussion on the subject of race, be diplomatic. But most of what we have to say might well be pointless. None of us are blind. What are we going to say that everybody doesn’t already know?
(13) It will seem like a lot of unfairness in life can be explained by racial differences and/or preferences. In my experience, such explanations just don’t hold up very well when you examine them closely. The world is more complicated than that.
(14) If you think someone might have a problem with others because of race, give them the benefit of the doubt and wait for more evidence. Nothing good will come from anything else. The best thing you can do is to simply be a good example of generous charity in your own behavior. In almost all real life situations, people around you, of all backgrounds, will respond.
(15) If you’re going to avoid anybody, though, consider avoiding people—of every race, political belief, and class, including your own—who frequently make race a major issue in a negative way. Such people are almost always insufferable bores.