Would You Like To Wash Your Hands?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Even after the discovery of bacteria, patients kept dying because doctors refused to wash their hands before surgery, pushing all sorts of wonderful diseases deep into their patients’ bodies.  This went on for years.
Some of those deaths can doubtlessly be chalked up to stubborness and habit, but I suspect a lot of the reluctance to wash up went something like this:
“Doctor, before you remove that cyst from my husband’s stomach, would you mind washing your hands?”
“My dear lady, I assure you, I am clean.”
“But they say that there are small creatures that cannot be seen with the naked eye – ones that we all carry with us…”
“Are you saying that I’m filthy?  Disease-ridden?  I’m a skilled physician, with many talents!  You seem to think I’m some common leper, ferrying virulence from place to place!  How dare you insult me by calling into account my cleanliness?  I am a gentleman!”
“I’m – I’m not insulting you, I’m just saying that everyone has these bugs…”
“Oh, so now I’m bug-ridden?”
…and so forth.  End result: dead patient. But a doctor who felt good about himself.
That’s racism in America today.
The problem with racism is that people tend to think of it like a mechanic’s hands at the end of a long work day – crusted with grease, easily obvious.  And there are those kinds of explicit racism out there, the unrepentant hatred of the KKK and such, who are actively out to harm anyone non-white and they don’t care who knows it.  That’s the intentional racism, the kind that stems from a deep-seated harm to hurt people.
But most racism is like the bacteria on a surgeon’s hands: invisible unless you’re looking for it, and entirely unintentional.
See, racism is not usually the “AH HATES ME SOME NIGROES” kind of hatred, but the subtle stuff that links “welfare mothers” with “black people.”  The kind of thing where a white guy who shoots brown people is clearly a maniac and not a reflection on Caucasians, but a brown guy who shoots white people immediately triggers a question of whether that race are terrorists.  It’s the quiet, and often completely unconscious, assumption that a white name on a resume is more qualified than a more foreign name.
Here’s the thing that drives my conservative friends crazy: we all carry racist beliefs within us.  How could we not?  We were raised in a country that had explicitly racist laws in place as recently as fifty years ago, and we still have significant portions of the country who believe that interracial marriage is a bad thing.  A lot of the country is founded on racism, and as such those beliefs have wormed their way deep into the culture in which we were raised – and we have propagated them.
This having racist beliefs does not make you a bad person.  You can’t help having picked up all these little thoughts that hurt other races – some of which are even as subtle as “race no longer matters.”  You were taught them by your parents and friends, who may not have even been aware of the toxic effect those beliefs caused.
My friends freak out, though, when called on the carpet for expressing some of those beliefs.  “I’m not a racist!” they cry.  “I’m a good person!  I haven’t been unthinkingly infected with bad thoughts from outside sources!  I know exactly what I’m thinking!”
Would you like to wash your hands?
You aren’t a bad person for having racist beliefs encoded in your system.  But you become a bad person when you’re called upon to examine your behavior and, like the bad doctor above, spend more time being offended at the idea that you might be a bad person than actually checking yourself to see what they say is true.  If you value your sense of self-esteem over the corroding damage you may be spreading, then yes.  You’ve become a harmful jerk.
That doesn’t mean that every accusation is true, of course.  Sometimes, you take the time to consider an accusation of racist behavior and eventually conclude that no, this is the other person’s problem.  But you don’t do it from the terrified perspective of, “How dare you accuse me of being unclean?  You have problems!”  You do it from the perspective of someone who realizes that you don’t have a handle on every thought in your conscious mind, and sometimes some reflection will show you’ve been spreading some things you don’t want passed about.
Or maybe you just take offense and keep operating.  Your choice.



  1. Guest Post: Craig Gordon Media and Representation of Gender and Race « Which Way to Hollywood? - [...] http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2012/08/would-you-like-to-wash-your-hands/ [...]
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