I’ve argued before that there’s no such thing–that is, no such natural kind–as racism, but as the word is commonly used, I am clearly a racist. It took me a while to find my peace with this.
It was the babies that first made me aware of it. I generally find white babies cuter than black babies. For a long time, I was ashamed of this. Oh, I knew the reason for it. I grew up in a nearly all-white region of the midwest, so it’s natural that I would grow accustomed to this racial look. But I was still ashamed. The poor, innocent babies! Don’t they all deserve to be found equally adorable? Shouldn’t I make an equal fuss over each of them? Actually, I’ve never been around any black babies, so my biased responses haven’t affected them one way or another. But still…
I also as a general rule find white women more attractive than black women, but I don’t recall feeling guilty about that. Probably because I was always given the impression that women find our desire for them insulting. If I thought I owed anyone an apology, it would have been attractive white women. Besides, everyone knows that there’s no fairness in sexual attraction.
What should our attitude be toward visceral preferences of this sort?
One answer: we have a duty to fight and overcome them. I may not be culpable for a preference I didn’t choose to have, but I am responsible for whether I accept or reject it. The question is whether the recognition of cuteness is a real value response. If it is an apprehension of some real quality of preciousness in new human beings, then our responses can be correct or incorrect, proportioned or not to their object. If there is some absolute hierarchy of cuteness, then it would be proper for all races–even those with the objectively ugliest babies–to acknowledge it. On the other hand, if cuteness is more than aesthetic, then it should be seen equally in all races, since they are one by nature and by grace.
This all sounds very clear, but followed consistently, it would mean the renunciation of love and loyalty, of every particular attachment to friends, kin, and countrymen. We certainly do not calibrate our affections according to an absolute scale of ontological value, and a world where we did would be monstrous, lacking both the nobility and the human warmth of a world with loves for particular others.
It’s also a very arrogant–I might almost say “racist”–view that only people who reject a preference for their coethnics are moral. The inevitable conclusion would be that a white urban cosmopolitan is morally superior to a black African peasant who’s never thought to repudiate his natural affection for his own kind. I intuit that he is as right to prefer black babies as I am to prefer white ones, and that we should stand together against any liberal scolds who say otherwise.
To avoid the logic of the universalists, one might deny that our finding babies cute is a value response at all. Perhaps it is just an arbitrary preference, one favored by evolution for obvious reasons, but without objective ground, like a preference for vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Such preferences are neither correct nor incorrect, neither moral nor immoral. I don’t like where this reasoning leads either, since it would seem to save our affections from being declared immoral only by declaring them meaningless.
How to escape this dilemma? How can the black peasant and I have different preferences while both being objectively right? There is the practical defense. I don’t encounter any black babies, but I do encounter white ones, so I have the instincts I need to help care for the people I will actually be in a position to help. The black peasant’s instincts are analogously correct for his situation. This is true as far as it goes. It takes us from “meaningless” to “meaningless but useful”. This still isn’t true to the experience, though. When I think a baby is adorable, I don’t just mean that it is a source of pleasure to me. I seem to see something in this child that calls for adoration. People who don’t think babies are cute aren’t just missing an instinct to make them good parents; they’re failing to see something objective about the world.
I would prefer to say that all babies are truly adorable, but that I have a better perception of the adorableness of some of them. Why would that be? Is it because my racism keeps me from seeing how cute babies of other races are? No, it’s the other way around. The level of cuteness-recognition I have for babies of other races is the default, the appreciation I have apart from cultural enhancement. My racism is this culturally enhanced ability to appreciate my own kind. It’s a positive thing. Without it, I wouldn’t be any more positively disposed toward other peoples, only less positively disposed toward my own.
This is how it always is with love and loyalty. I know intellectually that other peoples are of equal value to mine, just as I know intellectually that other individual people are of equal value to the ones I know and love, but it isn’t given to me to see this. Appreciation of the value of individuals must be through their particularity, since only in this way can we see them as more than instantiations of an abstract type. We know intellectually that each person is a precious creation of God and should be treated as such, but we only see this in the few that we love. That the rest are lovable is something we take on faith. Our particular loves may even make this act of faith easier. I’m more inclined to believe that every person is lovable when I’ve found it true in those souls I know best. Being a racist, I readily believe that other peoples are correct in the special affection they reserve for their own–correct both morally, in that it reflects the virtue of piety, and intellectually, in that I tend to believe that what they’re seeing in their people is really there.
Racism tends to broaden the mind.
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