Musings on “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”

In the musical “Avenue Q“, the characters sing the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist“, expressing the opinion that everyone has a little bit of racism inside of them–that everyone, as some level, makes judgements based on race. A number of incidents in the news of late, plus programs I have seen and discussions I have had, have gotten me wondering how pervasive this really is. How much is our fear of the other affecting the decisions that we make?

The primary prompting factor for this was an article about Papa Johns, where a fast food worker refered to a customer on a receipt as “Lady Chink Eyes”. Papa Johns immediately apologized and the employee was fired. This comes on the heels of an incident where workers at a Chik-Fil-A in Irvine referred to Asian customers as “Ching” and “Chong”. They, too, were fired and the corporation issued an apology. Although not racism, there was also a recent incident where a Burger King employee was pocketing the change from a mentally impared customer. This employee was also fired after the incident came to light, and the company apologized.

My question is why these things are happening. Some believe it is encouraged by a pervasive attitude with certain corporations. That certainly is possible with Chick-Fil-A, which is known to take an anti-Gay stance. I’m not aware of recent similar stories about Papa Johns, although there was at least one pizza chain whose owner was anti-abortion. However, I’m not sure whether statistically this would be borne out, or whether employee training is silent on the subject.

What I’m wondering more is whether these are examples of the claimed low-level racism mentioned in the Avenue Q song leaking out, especially in the hands of lower-skilled and often lighter-educated fast-food workers? How pervasive is this low-level racism?

This is where something I watched recently comes in. Shotime recently has begun broadcasting Freakanomics, and one of the segments on the show looked at the effect of how we name our children on their future lives. The conclusion of the authors was that it was more socionomic upbringing and education that affects a future life (as opposed to the name), but one segment does show the effect of a name. They took an identical resume, differing only in the name (i.e., a white-male sounding name vs. a black-male sounding name), and sent it to a large number of companies. More callbacks came from the white-sounding name, although everything else was the same. Why?

As with many things in life, the starting point for a solution is awareness and transparency. We need to realize that we have these attitudes if we want to correct them. Many years ago, when I was working at SDC, we had mandated “Ethics” training in response to a number of defense contractor lapses. The instructor started out by saying (I paraphrase): “I can’t teach you ethics. You are either ethical or you are. But I can teach you what the law is.”

We may all have a little bit of racism in us. This may come from the fear of the stranger or the fear of the new. We might not be able to change that. What we can change is how we behave. These fast-food incidents demonstrate that more training is required regarding how we must behave in our interactions with others. A number of customer service companies have demonstrated that such training can work.  That’s something that all customer service companies should consider.

As for the rest of us? We should increase our sensitivity, but we also need to find that fine line between sensitivity and hyper-sensitivity. It’s a hard line to find, for our experiences and background do shape our sensitivity on this issue–this is why many people today often don’t see racist or sexist actions everywhere, even though they may be there. Further, it is still worth noting the unintentional racist or sexist action, for it can be a good teaching instance for where instinctual racism leaks out. But still, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and an action isn’t based on something racist or sexist.  Being able to draw that line is difficult.

Music: What’d I Say (Ray Charles): That’s Enough