On racism, respect, and diversity

On a forum today, someone asked the question,

Why is something like “Asians eat a lot of rice” considered racist?’

It may seem like this is an obvious thing, but I think it deserves some explanation, for those who are young, inexperienced, or just don’t get it yet, for whatever reason.  So, this is my explanation.

The problem is that, by saying something like this, you’re disrespecting people, by ignoring their individuality. You’re saying that every Asian is the same. How would it feel if someone said that everyone in your country loves to knit, for example, and so, every time you went abroad, people asked you (with the best of intentions) how your current knitting project was going, or if you have enough wool? And what if you then met some stupid, maladjusted kid who asked that last question, but with a note of hate in his voice, because he doesn’t get knitting, and feels threatened by the idea of foreigners who ALL knit?  And how would it feel if that angry kid grew up to be an employer, still holding that misguided view of a large number of potential employees?

It’s important to note that what humans DO is stereotype (but, bear with me a second). Stereotyping is how we learn, by ignoring some details in order to build general classes of things: we learn that apples are apples, even though we see that some are red, and some are green, and others are a mixture of the two. We ignore the color details, to classify them into a group. Otherwise, apples wouldn’t be apples: they would be “fruit instance number 1, which is green and quite round”, “fruit instance number 2, which is red and quite elongated”. Not very useful, as a general way to talk about apples! So, we still GENERALLY call apples just apples, even though we know that the colors vary, the shapes vary, and that each apple is unique.

Likewise, we might learn that all dogs have four legs, bark, and have wagging tails. That’s all perfectly normal… at least for a young child.

However, when we grow older, we start to notice that not all apples are the same, and not all dogs are the same. Some have three legs, some have almost no tails. Some are huge, some are tiny. Some bark, some wimper. Part of being an adult is noticing this diversity, appreciating it, and not letting people get away with bullshit where they claim that the world is simple, and that no dog with three legs exists, when they’re designing facilities for dogs — when those details matter, in other words.

If you say that apples are either red or green in every day life, you might get away with it, for example. However, in the context of an orchard, where someone has dedicated their life to growing a pink apple variety, then you might cause offense. And really, you should probably try to acknowledge that diversity always, both to give people (and apples) their due, and also to avoid encouraging people to form sweeping generalisations about the nature of apples, the nature of food, and the overall simplicity of the world around them. If you encourage the idea that only red and green apples exist, then people may never discover yellow or pink ones; may never taste those varieties, may never appreciate the richness of apples, or the richness of an apple grower’s life. Worse, they might never design their international imports catalog to include varieties of apples — just “apples”, and so we ALL might lose out, due to one person’s lack of understanding of diversity.

Acknowledging diversity all the time is difficult — every statement has to be qualified, in complex, combinatorial ways. I don’t think it’s possible to have a high-level conversation while acknowledging ALL details, ALL the time. However, just like you can’t dismiss apple varieties when talking with an apple grower, you shouldn’t dismiss people varieties, when talking about society, or human lives.

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