In an essay entitled "Defining Racism: Can We Talk?," from her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum draws a distinction between "prejudice" and "racism." "Prejudice" she writes, "is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information. I assume that we all have prejudices, not because we want them, but simply because we are so continually exposed to misinformation about others." On the other hand, racism, she writes, is "a system of advantage based on race." Using David Wellman's book Portraits of White Racism, she notes "he provides example after example of how Whites defend their racial advantage—access to better schools, housing, jobs—even when they do not embrace overtly prejudicial thinking." She concludes, "Racism cannot be fully explained as an expression of prejudice alone." So prejudice exists at the level of the individual, racism at the level of the system.
She goes on, "Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as "smog-breathers" (and most of us don't want to be described as prejudiced), but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air? If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice."
What I have been arguing over the past week or so on this blog is that there is "cultural geographism," cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of educated, white, middle-class, city-dwelling northerners and the assumed inferiority of those who do not share those characteristics. In the past, I have also written on this blog about class, which is connected to this issue as well.
Tatum goes on to note that "most of the early information we receive about 'others' -- people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically [and I would add geographically -- SW] different from ourselves -- does not some as the result of firstahd experience. The secondhand information we receive has been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete.She goes on to illustrate her point: "Several years ago one of my students conducted a research project investigating preschoolers' conceptions of Native Americans. Using children at a local day care center as her participants, she asked these three- and four-year-olds to draw a picture of a Native American. Most children were stumped by her request. They didn't know what a Native American was. But when she rephrased the question and asked them to draw a picture of an Indian, they readily complied. Almost every picture included one central feature: feathers. In fact, many of them also included a weapon—a knife or tomahawk—and depicted the person in violent or aggressive terms. Though this group of children, almost all of whom were White, did not live near a large Native American population and probably had had little if any personal interaction with American Indians, they all had internalized an image of what Indians were like." How did they acquire these images, she wonders? "Cartoon images, in particular in the Disney movie Peter Pan, were cited by the children as their number one source of information. At the age of three, these children already had a set of stereotypes in place. Though I would not describe three year olds as prejudiced, the stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have."
In addition, she notes that "Sometimes the assumptions we make about others come not from what we have been told or what we have seen on television or in books, but rather from what we have not been told."
Tatum is saying, in much clearer fashion, what I have been writing about lately concerning the south and rural areas: the predominance of distorted information distributed across the country, and lack of information to counter the distortion. It isn't acceptable when it comes to race, gender, or sexual orientation, and it shouldn't be acceptable when it comes to class, geographical location, or dialect.
Going back to racism -- the systemic advantages that, in the cases she is describing, white people have as part of a racist society -- Tatum makes a distinction between "active racism," "passive racism," and "active non-racism." To illustrate the difference between these three types of racism, she draws an analogy to the moving sidewalks you most commonly see at airports. Active racists are the ones who are walking with the direction the treadmill is going, passive racists are those who are standing still but nevertheless are being moved in the direction the treadmill is going, and active non-racists are walking in the opposite direction. Active racists are people who actively discriminate based on race -- KKKers, people who refuse to rent to black people, people who refuse to hire black people, etc. Passive racists are most of us who claim to not be prejudiced, but who benefit nonetheless from the system that works against non-Whites, and active non-racists are those who are trying to stop the racist system.
Let's take a specific example from actor training. If you arrive in a voice class with a "regionalism," you are actively trained to get rid of that accent and assume what is called a neutral dialect, but is actually a northern dialect centered somewhere in Nebraska and exemplified, when I was being trained, by Walter Cronkite. This is not exclusively directed against southern or rural dialects -- Brooklyn accents are equally obliterated -- but it is an example of how the sound of one's region can work against you. Now, are the voice teachers active geographists? Probably not -- although they may hold personal prejudices about certain dialects, their reason for trying to get you to drop yours is so that you can "fit in" to the system, so that you can "do anything," so that you won't be "pigeon-holed" or "typecast." This passive geographism actually foregrounds the systemic prejudice against regional identity: your teacher is afraid you won't be hired. Like the black job applicant who is passed over in favor of a white one, the actor with a regional dialect will be discriminated against on the basis of their speech pattern.
Over at Rat Sass, Nick has written a long post discussing my recent abandonment of my New Code of Ethics, which I adopted in mid-June, which took a more non-confrontative approach that was to ignore the NYC theatre scene. It is a funny post, especially the image of me as some cross between St Paul and Clint Eastwood. But the reason for this change is tied directly to Tatum's article: it is not enough to not be actively in support of something that is wrong, because as long as the system continues, you are moving with it. I feel that I must assume an "active-non" role.
And so I am calling bullshit.
I am actively resisting the privileging of the metropolitan life over the rural. I am actively resisting the privileging of the northern life over the southern. I am actively resisting the privileging of the middle class over the lower. I am actively resisting the privileging of the formally educated over the informally educated (I refuse to use "uneducated"). Many people have done this in reference to race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is time that we see that there are other discriminations as well; discriminations that are supported by stereotypes and lack of information that lead to prejudices; prejudices that lead to systemic discrimination and a lack of equal opportunity.