My girlfriend is a racist

Her views don't make much sense -- she likes Bush ... and Chomsky!

Published November 7, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a college student in my mid-20s who recently began dating again after a four-year relationship ended around Memorial Day. The girl I'm seeing now is beautiful, talented and bright. We don't align at all politically (I'm a Democrat; she's a dyed-in-the-wool Republican) but our personalities mesh so well that it really isn't a source of friction for us. We have enough in common to relate, and enough differences to make it challenging and interesting. I tend to be reserved when it comes to declaring my love, but she is definitely the sort of woman I could fall in love with.

The other night, however, she said that she had something to tell me: she's "a little racist" (we're both Irish-American). She buys into some of the most offensive stereotypes of black Americans (crime, laziness, etc.), and proceeded to tell me that she hates when people who can't speak English come to America. I was dumbfounded. I told her that people said the same sorts of things about our respective great-grandparents, and that 19th century stereotypes about the Irish were as false as the ones she was spouting today about other races.

Physically, emotionally and personality-wise, we're in sync. But I feel that this is a deal-breaker for me. She's young (21) and grew up in a racist household, but at some point she has to take ownership for her opinions. I almost dumped her on the spot, but there's so much else about her that I adore and admire; she's a fascinating mishmash of conflicting traits -- she loves Bush but also thinks Noam Chomsky should run for president, for instance. I want to appreciate and maybe even love her for who she is, but I really want her to change this one thing, and it is a big thing for me. Do I dump her? Do I say, "Change your heart or I'll dump you"? Can she reform if she wants to? The air between us is poisoned; I don't know what to do.

Disappointed In Love

Dear Disappointed,

Rather than attack her racist ideas directly, I would suggest that you first think about why they are important to her, what value they have. They may represent a vital connection to her family that she is reluctant to discard.

It's an interesting question: How are we supposed to discard the mistaken lessons of our family? After all, we go out into the world armed with what they taught us. Then presumably we learn to think critically in the university. A persuasive and charismatic professor may break through our ignorance. Intellectual honesty may leave us no choice but to conclude that racist ideas are scientifically unfounded and socially pernicious.

But on campus we may also encounter political groups that mirror the beliefs of our family and reinforce our mistaken notions. If we are not ready to discard the myths and fairy tales we got from our family, we may take refuge in campus groups whose politics seem to lend legitimacy to those notions.

One clue that she is clinging to these ideas for emotional reasons and has not thought them through is the absurd contradiction of having as heroes both George Bush and Noam Chomsky. This may indicate that what she really requires for a feeling of security is simply a strong father figure. Maybe any father figure will do. Maybe her father is key: What peril does she face if she challenges her father's political ideas? What were the rules of argument in her family? Was one allowed to question the orthodoxy? What happened to children when they did so? What did they see in their parents' eyes? Hurt? Anger? Threat? And what purpose did racist ideology serve in the family? Was it something the family used to hold itself together against outside threats?

The answers to these and similar questions might be complicated and difficult or they might be simple. But if we are ever to be rid of racism, it seems to me we must ask them. We must try to understand what good it does people to hang on to these ideas, why it is so difficult to give them up.

You might also, at the same time, by way of making it fair, look at your own received notions from your family, and how orthodoxy and dissent were handled. What were the prevailing ideologies in your family? Were you taught that racism is a deal-breaker?

While it is important to ask where these ideas come from and why they are valuable to her, it's inevitable that the ideas themselves must come under scrutiny.

Since she likes Noam Chomsky so much, perhaps the most persuasive argument might come from Chomsky himself. If indeed she "buys into some of the most offensive stereotypes of black Americans (crime, laziness, etc.)," let's hear what Chomsky has said about race and IQ:

"Consider finally the question of race and intellectual endowments. Notice again that in a decent society there would be no social consequences to any discovery that might be made about this question. Individuals are what they are; it is only on racist assumptions that they are to be regarded as an instance of their race category, so that social consequences ensue from the discovery that the mean for a certain racial category with respect to some capacity is such and such. Eliminating racist assumptions, the facts have no social consequences whatever they may be, and therefore are not worth knowing, from this point of view at least. ...

"Since the inquiry has no scientific significance and no social significance, apart from the racist assumption that individuals must be regarded not as what they are but rather as standing at the mean of their race category, it follows that it has no merit at all. The question then arises, Why is it pursued with such zeal? Why is it taken seriously? ...

"In a racist society, inquiry into race and IQ can be expected to reinforce prejudice, pretty much independent of the outcome of the inquiry" (from "Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence and Social Organization," in "The Chomsky Reader," pp. 199-200).

Chomsky reminds us that we live in a racist society, but he denounces racism. I suggest that your friend do the same. It may be harder for her if her family and peer group provided her with these views and reinforce them. But perhaps you can be of some help in this regard.

Anyway, good luck. You may have an uphill battle. Say you explore all these issues with her, and you come to understand the genesis of them, but you find she actually has great enthusiasm for these ideas and doesn't want to let them go. At that point, I think you and I would agree, you have to let her go.

But you never know. It's worth a shot. Let me know how things turn out.

One final request: If you can't talk her out of her racist views, at least try to talk her out of majoring in broadcasting, OK?

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