On race relations

As an Army officer, I was trained to be a race relations educator at the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) in 1972, and spent a year in Germany leading race relations seminars. I’ve written in a previous post (“Who is a racist”) that it’s not simply a matter of whether one is or is not a racist. Personal racism isn’t a binary, either/or phenomenon. Racism exists along a continuum, between “hardly any racial bias” and “hates people because of their skin color or ethnicity.” Everybody has a place somewhere on this continuum, and where you place yourself may not be where others who know you would place you.

One thing I learned at the DRRI, and still believe, is that you can’t grow up in a racist society such as ours, unaffected by racism. None of us are completely color blind. I’ve known many people who would reflexively deny having any racist beliefs or tendencies whatsoever, because they don’t understand the insidious nature of racism. To admit that you’ve inherited residual racist beliefs or inclinations doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or, if you’re white, that you should feel guilty for being white. Another thing I learned at the DRRI was that guilt is a lousy motivator for change. Despite my personal history of ongoing self-examination and of actively opposing racism since I was a young man, I still can’t claim to be completely free of racism’s taint, myself.

In my DRRI training, I learned about both personal racism and institutional racism. I think that there are still a lot of good, well-intentioned white people who are blind to the institutional racism that still exists in our society; but in this post, I’ll only be writing about personal racism – specifically implicit bias and confirmation bias.

Bias is universal; it’s part of being human. It can be racial, cultural, religious, or political. Implicit bias is often reflexive, unconscious; and it’s not always necessarily a bad thing. I may have a bias for bland food or for spicy hot food, depending on the foods I grew up eating. This may mean that when I eat out, I’m not likely to try a new dish that the menu describes as spicy hot. It may mean that when I choose which movie I want to see at the cineplex, I’m more likely to choose a film whose protagonists resemble me, or who come from my culture. It’s easier to identify with people I see as being like me. It doesn’t mean that I’m racially prejudiced; it’s just my unconscious preference. Being a heterosexual, I may prefer a traditional romantic comedy over a gay-themed love story, even if I’m not homophobic. No matter your race or cultural identity or sexual orientation, you’re biased to choose one thing over another, based on your life experiences.

Confirmation bias is also universal, and usually unconscious. It means that if I’m given new information on a topic that I’ve already formed an opinion about, I’m more likely to believe and remember things that confirm what I already believe, and less likely to have my opinion changed by things that might challenge my belief.

Even if we bear no ill will to persons of a racial or ethnic group other than our own, our beliefs about them may be unconsciously influenced by common stereotypes attached to that group of people. When I lived in Germany, I observed that some of the same stereotypes that have been attributed to African Americans in our society were attached to Turkish “guestworkers” who lived in ethnic ghettos: they were lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, and all the men wanted to have sex with German women.

The biggest remaining fallacy that continues to fuel racial stereotyping is the idea that race is a biological phenomenon. The concept of race as we know it didn’t exist until the era of European colonialism. Race is a social construct designed to justify the exploitation, colonialization and enslavement of that segment of the human race identifiable by the darkness of their skin. Part of the concept is hierarchal: some races are superior to others. In fact, all human beings belong to the same race. If you go back far enough, we’re all kin.

So, now I question whether or not “race relations” is an outdated term, perpetuating the notion of different races. It seems to me that “intra-racial relating” might be more accurate in describing the sometimes troubled relations within the family of man.

One thought on “On race relations

  1. The teaching of so-called “critical race theory” was not part of the civilian K-12 or even college level curriculum as I grew up in the Midwestern United States. I became aware of it after I had transferred from a base in Alaska (the then 13th Missile Warning Squadron) to the McChord AFB in Tacoma, WA in 1973; where I sought to change my AFSC from 811 to 702.

    As a sergeant I was assigned to the 62nd MAW’s Headquarters Squadron which functioned from an edifice called “The Castle” – it was lead by a Lt. Col Mauer, his adjutant was a Capt. Williams; My immediate OIC was a graduate of the Defense Race Relations Institute (DRRI) located at Tyndall AFB in Florida, Lt. Carhious Wilturner, whose staff of DRRI-certified instructors facilitated programed seminars to all members of the wing. It was the first time I had been exposed to the depth of racial insensitivity in the military – and the white participants hated it! Their level of resistance to the proceedings were off the charts.

    The fact that they were confronted with the fact that they subconciously manifested racist-acculturated tendencies, the fact that even black and Hispanics demonstrated the same tendencies caused them consternation as well. All manner of complaints on the curriculum rained upon the wing’s upper leadership – from the OIC/NCOIC’s of McChord’s tenant units.

    I was on hand to field their complaints. I never attended any formal course work from DRRI, but I was schooled in how to handle the hostilities the particpants dragged into each session. With Lt. Wilturner being a mountain of a man, no man dared to commit acts of intimidating other communicate threats of physical harm to him, or his staff. How did you know our presentations sank in to those we serviced? When we met, on and off base – where we could ‘talk openly’ about their experinences in life. They seemed to admit that they indeed held these tendencies – we all discriminated to some degree.

    The name of the training was changed in 1974 from Race Relations to Human Relations Education. The resistance was still high. Such is life in American – we just can’t seem to embrace out past and pay it forward.

    Which brings us to 2021 – and with Fox again leading off with the fear of “CRT” in an effort to fan the flames of civil insecurity faltered under @45, I feel like the 1960’s are upon us again. I have faith that this storm of alleged outrage will pass. I am glad that I was exposed to those Airmen who had attended DRRI Tyndall.

    I sincere fell that the military’s inoculation against prejudical thought had a hand in the actions of our senior officers prior tp, and in the aftermath of @45’d attempt to subvert democracy. That’s all I have, I am keeping my mind and ears open as I monitor what is happening in the US today. I am black, by the way, and have served in the USAF, AFREE and USN – and I have to say that the teaching of DRRI affected the attitude of all these branches. Pardon my typos – obviously I was not allowed to be trained as a ‘Titless WAF.’

    You can leave my name off of this submission – those I worked with at the then 62nd HHS will know who I am, we kept scrupulous records. Good day.

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