A Ku Indeed!

Racism and Emotion Again

Posted in Course Material, Life by Chris on January 31, 2008

I posted on this earlier (on Hursthouse and Confucius), but I want to pose the question in a more simplified form, because the main question might have gotten lost in the complexities of that post. Here’s the situation: imagine that you were raised in a culture of racism. You have gotten older and have disavowed those beliefs, but you find that it is incredibly difficult to “wipe out” the years of “training” you were subjected to while growing up. When you see a black person, you feel emotions that are oriented towards the training you received. You feel repulsion at the sight of an interracial couple, or fear when faced with blacks, or whatever.  You don’t act on those feelings, but try as you might, you can’t seem (beyond some initial successes) to get rid of them. You are ashamed that you have them, but still they crop up much to your shame and embarassment. Now the question:

Are you a racist?

  • (a) If ‘being a racist’ is based on what you do, then you’re not a racist because you successfully overcome your emotions to act in a non-biased manner.
  • (b) If ‘being a racist’ is based at least partly in feelings, then you are a racist. Clearly in such a case there would be degrees of racism here — some feel powerful emotions, and embrace them or cultivate them. Yours are not powerful, but present. Still, it would mean that you have racism in you. 

Any takers?


12 Responses

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  1. Amy said, on January 31, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I think the simplified question is not quite so interesting as the complicated one. Whether racism is internal or external seems to me to be a question about racism the word, not racism the thing.

  2. Chris said, on January 31, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Well, I think for many people (more than not, I think), racism is a behavior, and so is an action. It’s like being unfaithful. As long as you don’t actually cheat on your spouse, you’re ok, even if you have thoughts about it in all the wrong situations.

    Part of it, I think, is that we want to believe that we can disown parts of ourselves and declare them “foreign” and so not relevant to our moral being. So you can just “write off” those emotions as not really “you.” The contrary is offensive to some — that there may actually be aspects of my moral being that I am not responsible for possessing. My moral being would be, in some ways, a product of luck.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on January 31, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Racism is a behavior. Don’t act on it, or act against it, and you aren’t a racist.

  4. Christopher said, on January 31, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Then is this guy a racist? He doesn’t truly believe in racism, but he acts upon it.

    Either way, it’s funny.

  5. Chris said, on January 31, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Great video! I’ll have to show this to my class.

    On the question; if it is more associated with emotion and inner states, then the answer would be “eventually” if he tries hard enough, though he might not ever achieve perfect racist virtue, given that he’ll have a hard time completely ridding himself of those pesky emotions that make him feel otherwise.

  6. Chris said, on January 31, 2008 at 12:30 pm


    If being faithful to your wife (say) just a matter of not participating in unfaithful acts, though? What if, as Jimmy Carter once said, you are “lusting in your mind”? Is that faithful?

  7. Mark said, on January 31, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as racism just being either an action OR an emotion. After thinking about it, I want to apply some hierarchical compatibilism to the whole thing. If you can have a desire about your desires, you associate yourself with the second order desires and not the first. In this case, I have an emotion towards people of a certain race, but I recognize that this emotion isn’t what I directly associate myself with. Rather, I associate myself with the meta-emotion that racism is wrong and that I need to get rid of my racist emotions. Even if you can’t ever rid yourself completely because you’ve been raised in a culture of hatred for another race, the fact that you recognize that it’s wrong and sincerely try to change yourself overrides the base emotion.

    On another note, if virtue is partially luck, how is the virtuous person praiseworthy? It seems to me like the continent person is more praiseworthy because they actually realized what is virtuous and what is not and have made efforts to re-arrange themselves in that way. They may never get there, but it seems to me more praiseworthy to have struggled your whole life to come as close to virtue as possible than to have been raised in a virtuous home and never have thought twice about it. Just a thought.

  8. eyeingtenure said, on January 31, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Lusting in one’s mind is, to some degree, unavoidable. If one indulges temptation through willing fantasy, then I consider that conscious decision an “action” for the intents and purpose of “acting upon it.”

    That’s different from being “taken but not blind,” as my dad puts it.


  9. Amy said, on January 31, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I’m not particularly convinced by hierarchal compatibilism’s ability to declare some of my desires not-me. Certainly it’s better to wish you didn’t have racist feelings than to indulge them, but the feelings are still part of you. You’d be a different person if those feelings suddenly vanished. I think it’s unhealthy to consider your own feelings foreign, even if you want to change those feelings.

  10. Manyul Im said, on January 31, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    “Racist” can apply to feelings or to behavior–or to institutions and other things. I’m not sure “Are you a racist?” is a clear question. Why not say in your example that such a person has racist feelings though he or she does not act on them? Why else would the person feel ashamed?

    What “I” am, is some complicated mass of different things, including my feelings and behavior. I think I probably have some racist aspects to me–in the U.S. we all must because there are some things about our personal identities that are rooted in historical, institutionally racist culture of race-based slavery, ethnic cleansing, and nationalistic land-grabbing. I can’t really even think about who is black and who is not without racist assumptions based on the “one-drop” rule–can you?

    Sorry for the complicated answer to what seemed like a simple question!

  11. Chris said, on January 31, 2008 at 10:44 pm


    The clarification you inserted is actually the example I intended to use — in my zest to shorten the post down (from my other post on Hursthouse) I suppose I left out some detail (so you’re right — that’s why I suppose the agent is ashamed of the emotions).

    My question here is really just about continence vs virtue with respect to racism. If, as some virtue ethicists claim, emotion is integral to virtue (and vice), then having negative emotions towards blacks (for Hursthouse, say) would qualify you as less than fully virtuous (in the perfect state your emotions would be harmoniously linked to your more enlightened non-racist thoughts and intentions).

    This bothers many people, however, as they may not really be “responsible” for the presence of those emotions in the first place — their community might be (or family, or culture). So it leaves virtue to luck to some degree.

    (By the way, I take Confucius to commit to this framework at Lunyu 2.4 as well, but that’s a different post).

    Also, I’m in total agreement that racism can be institutional as well, but of course the interesting question here is whether it is the policies of the institution or the inner states of the framers of those policies that constitutes the core of the racism. I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m tempted to say that outcome is not the final determiner.

    By the way — I’ve been enjoying your blog. I just haven’t had a chance to dig into a reply to your posts just yet! Looking forward to reading more.

  12. duvexy said, on March 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Who cares about these feelings. Everyone needs to understand that these are just feelings. These feelings are controlled by the amygdala. The fight versus flight is part of everyone human nature. It is in your brain. Making something like that taboo is silly and oppressive.

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