Am I Racist for Feeling X?

This is the question Bill Maher asks, answers in the affirmative, then says, “and I don’t apologize for it.”

Wow, what bravery on the part of that Bill Maher and Juan Williams.

First of all, unless we’re talking Archie Bunker (and often even if we are) it’s almost always better to refer to actions rather than persons as “racist.”

So are feelings “actions?” How about thoughts? I think they’re both “actions” but of a special kind; let’s call them covert behaviors to distinguish them from overt actions, things we can observe.

Now I think a lot of what we think and feel we inherit from our parents, one another, and the culture at large. I also happen to believe a lot of what we think and even more of what we feel is reactionary, in response to our environment. Think skin flushing, hair standing on end, or the human sexual response. Largely involuntary, in my view.

So I don’t hold people morally responsible when they say, “look, this is what’s in my heart.”

The moral question for me is, what are you going to do with it?

It’s one thing to say, “hey I have this biased thought or feeling and I struggle with that because I know it’s not true.” It’s quite another to say, “hey I have this thought or feeling and I’m going to proclaim its truth from the highest balcony.”

It’s one thing to say “I have this biased thought or feeling and I know it says much more about me and my struggles than anything else.” This, I think, is an act of humility and considerable social courage.

It’s quite another to say “I have this thought or feeling and I regard it uncritically as a fully accurate representation of a reality outside of me.” That’s an act of bigotry, as well as cowardice, in my view.

The bigotry comes from generalizing about others uncritically based on one’s own experience. The cowardice comes from refusing to stand up to social pressures that legitimize and invite us to hate the group du jour.

Just me.

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