Class talks about racism - intrinsic and extrinsic

The Good Life

On Saturday morning, I was reading an interview with Christian Cooper, an African American birdwatcher. The interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air focused on the release of Christian’s new memoir ‘Better Living through Birding: Notes From A Black Man in the Natural World’. Christian’s profile is impressive; the interview mentions how he was a young black birdwatcher among white bird watchers; he studied at Harvard where he came out and became a gay activist; he writes and edits for Marvel and hosts the National Geographic programme ‘Extraordinary Birder’.

I had never heard of Christian’s work until last Friday afternoon. I was sitting in my Contemporary African literature class in a deep a discussion of Anthony Appiah, a writer born in London and raised in Ghana. He discusses the idea of extrinsic and intrinsic racism in his work ‘Alexander Crumwell and the Invention of Africa’. Initially, I was thinking to myself, racism is racism, by classifying it are you trying to say that one type is better or perhaps, not as bad, as the other? For me, judging somebody based on their race should not be justified. Anyway, after a two-hour class, I understand the differences. If I was extrinsically racist, I would go for a coffee with my Irish friend because we have more in common and would have more to talk about because we are both Irish. If I was intrinsically racist, I would go for a coffee with my Irish friend because, not only do we have more in common, but because they are better than anyone else by virtue of being Irish.

It was 2020, Christian was birdwatching in Central Park, in ‘The Ramble’ for those of you know it. I have never visited but it apparently consists of dense forest, waterways and winding paths; excellent for birdwatching and dog walkers. In this area of the forest, dogs must strictly be kept on a lead for fear of disturbing the wildlife and the habitat. Christian came across a lady walking with her dog off the lead. He asked her to put it on him. She refused.

During the interview, Christian explained a lot of birdwatchers had started to video people with their dogs off the lead to send it to the authorities to try and get more enforcement for the issue. He proceeded to record the lady who was holding her dog by the collar as the animal struggled. She threatened to call the police and report that an African American man was threatening her and her dog, which she did in a panicked voice as Christian proceeded to record. While making the call, she eventually put her struggling dog on the lead, when Christian stopped recording.

This event was given as an example of intrinsic racism, where this lady decided to use Christian’s race against him in justification for her breaking the law. The fact the event was recorded proved Christian was not threatening her but asking her to put her dog on a lead.

During the interview Christian said: “I’ve spent my whole life living as a Black man in the United States, and I know what it can mean if a white woman accuses you of something like that.”

Of course, she did too. I think the process was dehumanising, reducing the situation of bird watcher and dog walker to a black man threatening a white woman.

I remember having the debate on different types of racism while on Erasmus. I was the one who was putting the foot down, my thought being that by creating categories of racism you are leaving room for justification. I mean, can you be a little bit racist? And if you are only slightly racist, is this okay? Does this, over time, lead to shouting racist slurs at somebody in the street?

When I first moved abroad, I was drawn to the Irish community because I felt more understood, and I thought conversation flowed more easily because I had more in common with other Irish people. I didn’t think the Irish were better than others, but I still felt more comfortable in their company, or so I thought at the time. I can justify these feelings with the innocent 20-year-old moving abroad for the first-time, homesickness, fear of the unknown, ignorance, etc.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think my actions were racist. In the terms I described above - perhaps extrinsically racist. Thankfully I was not in a position of power (nor am I now might I add), I believe the only person I oppressed by my actions was myself because I closed myself to opportunities of meeting new people and learning about other cultures in those early days.

To be in a position of power with this mindset is scary stuff. In an ethics class we discussed a quote of the former Northern Irish Prime Minister Basil Brooke in July 1933, when he stated he “had not had a Roman Catholic about my own place” and appealed to loyalists “to employ good Protestant lads and lassies” for fear of a Roman Catholic majority. I thought of this example when discussing intrinsic racism, choosing one person over another based on their religion because you think they are better. In this case, it was to help a politically motivated cause, but with the bigger consequence of oppression and sectarianism.

If a man is black, does that mean he is a threat to women? No. Can people in multi-cultural settings have things in common? Yes. Does being Protestant or Catholic define the quality of your work? No.

I think whether we categorise racism or not, all forms shouldn’t happen, I’m not sure if creating different types helps that.