Another week, another firestorm about another racist gesture. It seems we’ve seen it all recently. Nooses hung from trees, doors and other locations; James Watson’s ill-conceived remarks about Africans’ native intelligence.
Now, this isn’t going to be another blog post about how terrible racism is and why Watson should be pilloried. Let’s face it, based on my understanding of biology, humans developed with a strong distrust of anything and anyone that represents a change from their normal everyday existence. In the wilds of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas this was a good survival strategy. Because of this, it is human nature to distrust “The Other,” no matter our color or creed. In fact, this tendency is so strong that some will marshal any number of facts and figures to buttress their beliefs about why they are superior to another person.
Given this, racism will never go away. It infuses our perceptions, and yes science – no matter how “objectively” people interpret the data. (I’m saying this because some apologists for Watson have suggested that the numbers back his claims about the relative intelligence of Blacks versus Whites. We must remember that science is far from an objective enterprise.)
As a communications professional, my first reaction to this flurry of reports was to wonder whether a robust marketing campaign could help. Could communications get people to recognize that while we are not the same, we are all deserving of the same amount of respect, support and consideration? But, as I started to write a post on this topic, I remembered an interesting essay written by John McWhorter about the recent noose hanging incidents. He said:
“The next time somebody plants a noose, let's just ignore it. Perhaps paying less attention to these acts will take away their racist power."
That got me thinking. Is the best way to change minds to ignore these acts and words? Or, should we continue as we have, piling on in condemnation and calling for resignations? Will these actions cause people to think differently, or will they simply dismiss it as another example of political correctness gone amok?
Frankly, I’m not sure if the hue and cry will change hearts and minds. However, I do believe well-considered and “smart” communications could help. My idea is borne out of my early experiences.
I grew up going to a school system in a predominantly African American neighborhood. We were not rich. In fact, some of my neighbors were very, very poor and engaged in activities that were far from admirable. In addition, I was subtly told (by people from all backgrounds), that those who looked like me were less intelligent, capable and strong than whites. Over time, I began to internalize this message.
However, when I got to elementary school something changed. My teachers educated me about the African Americans who helped build America. It’s important to note that the people we learned about were not just entertainers. They knew that the accomplishments of people like Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson were wonderful. But, they also understood that we needed to see examples of people excelling in areas Blacks were not expected to, including policymaking, law and science. I learned about Dr. Charles Drew, whose efforts to develop blood storage technology helped save countless lives. I also came to enjoy the work of celebrated artists, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. The list goes on. Over time, I recognized that despite what the wider world (and some in my own community) believed, Blacks were just as capable of creating, innovating, inventing and excelling as Whites.
So, I have a simple suggestion for communicators of all colors and creeds. People are quoting the “science,” IQ tests and SAT scores to suggest that Blacks and Whites are not of equal intelligence. They also rely on anecdotal evidence, saying” “look around, you can’t help but notice that most Blacks don’t take advantage of the opportunities they have in this country.” If we want to change these beliefs, we have to replace assumptions with the facts. Show people why they are wrong by citing examples of the quiet, unheralded contributions Blacks are making in business, science, education, law and other areas. Condemnation is good, but saying “this is wrong” and going back to business as usual two weeks later is criminal.