Racism Makes You a Dick: A Story About Penis Size

Last week, writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan staged an impromptu clinic on how racism makes you stupid. He was troubled by the conclusions of a well-attested piece on the origins of our black genetic mythology. That piece by Linda Villarosa explored in great detail the cruel and often kooky 19th century experiments by slave-owners that inspired our persistent falsehoods about white and black biology, including our bizarre cultural belief that black men have larger penises. Sullivan got hung up on the penises.

Spotting what must be clear evidence of woke blindness, Sullivan posted one of his “just looking for the facts” tweets, with hilarious results. The original tweet, in which he asked for scientific proof that the black penis-size myth is a myth is not available, but much of the rest of the thread is still out there. Anyone else might respond to the pile-on he received by running one or two Google searches and discovering his mistake, but that’s not how mansplaining works. Sullivan doubled down, insisting in an escalating series of tweets that it was the world’s job to do his homework. It went down more or less like it always does, as follows:

You’ll see this pattern repeated consistently on and off the Internet. First there’s the “I’m just looking for the facts,” claim, which includes the command to “email me the references,” because “I couldn’t find anything myself.” It’s the academic world’s answer to “go make me a sandwich.”

Next comes the “I’m not a racist, but…” move, in which the man with lots of black friends explains the pure-hearted innocence of his curiosity.

As the passive-aggressive accusation in the earlier messages unravels, the mood gets more testy. At this stage, Sullivan is still waiting for his sandwich, stomach growling. He defensively explains that he was just being “a little mischievous,” with another “but…”

Then comes the wounded sarcasm of “thanks for all this” followed by a continuing passive-aggressive defense of his debunked claims. He finishes with high-minded disgust at the incivility he has endured for defending simple intellectual curiosity. Still sandwichless, he leaves the field.

Finally, the author of the New York Times piece weighs in with the only response that was ever really necessary.

Before going any further, let’s end the suspense. Our persistent cultural assumption that black men have larger penises has no empirical support. It originates from culture, reinforced by phony science, inspired by the terrors of white slaveholders, and introduced into supposedly legitimate scientific discourse by amateurs running bunky and often cruel “experiments.” In experiment after experiment, statistically significant differences in penis size between racial categories remain elusive. For the curious, there is also no correlation between penis size and hand or foot size. In fact, most of what we think we know about biological differences among races is utter bullshit. But that’s not what this piece is about.

More interesting than the falsehood of this myth is the process that produces, propagates and defends these stupid claims. Racism makes you stupid because it inspires passionate investments in falsehood, even without any conscious personal bigotry. In the US, racism is a comprehensive political, cultural and economic system. Like a fog that quietly envelopes us, it obscures our vision. Racism is invisible not because it’s such a well-kept secret, but it’s so comprehensive that it permeates our background assumptions about the world. As the old saying goes, “a fish don’t know he’s wet.” Thanks to its long persistence, racist distortions have become our definition of normal, such that when anyone attempts to correct these distortions they are reflexively attacked.

We often make the mistake of imagining that racism is just a particular style of bigotry. Racists, we assume, are bigots who maintain an unreasonable personal hostility toward people of another race. Misdefining racism as an individual, personal bias gives rise to the old “I have lots of black friends” trope. I may spend my days reinforcing a racist system through my unconsidered actions in hiring, lending, college admissions, politics and even medical treatment, but I sat next to a black man on a plane that time without complaining, so racism is dead.

Why did Andrew Sullivan, Bold Teller of Inconvenient Truths Based in Fact, find himself emotionally invested in defending a falsehood? I have no reason to believe that Sullivan is a racist in the traditional sense of being a bigot who actively dislikes black people. In fact, very few of the people propping up our racist system are inspired by personal animosity. So, why did he feel entitled, starting from a position of being patently wrong about something he knew nothing about, to make other people go perform the work of cleaning up his rhetorical messes? What is it about racism that makes otherwise bright people function as though they were idiots, wreaking havoc on the world around them from a place of perceived innocence?

Again, a fish don’t know he’s wet. When you live inside a universe of inherited racist assumptions, it can feel like racism is merely common sense. People who challenge your commonsense assumptions with facts derived from empirical research are elitist meddlers, the ‘PC police.’ When those elitist meddlers start threatening privileges important to your survival, you might lash out. Not because you’re a racist, of course. That would be a hurtful and unfair accusation. It’s just because you’re defending your common sense understanding of the world. An understanding of the world that happens to be racist, cruel, false and bent toward your personal benefit at the expense of others.

Here’s a dirty little secret. When I saw this dustup I suspected that Sullivan had a point. Unlike Sullivan, instead of lashing out at the author and demanding my sandwich, I discovered with 5 minutes of Googling that this assumption was false. Who else believes in this myth and might enthusiastically defend it? A majority of African-Americans.

African-Americans live inside the same cultural system as the white people around them. They absorb the same racist assumptions. They are more inclined to resist those assumptions since they run directly and obviously counter to their personal interests, but they are swimming in the same tainted water. Where a racist assumption seems to offer some small advantage for a change, they’ll likely embrace it, promote it, and defend it. Sprinters Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson have enthusiastically embraced the patent falsehood that the slave experience bequeathed blacks with unique athletic skills. We will tend to embrace and defend false ideas that seem to protect our interests.

With regard to the mythology around black sexuality, professor Herbert Samuels made an excellent point in an interview:

If you look at it from one perspective, the number of things that have been said about black men in this country for the most part have been about as negative as you can possibly get. That you’re shiftless, that you’re no good. I mean, in terms of that.

And if you can get one positive thing out of it, if someone says that you are good at sex or that your penis is bigger than anyone else’s, that’s about the only positive that you can get out of all those negatives to a certain extent. And I think some black men have bought into the myth that they are hyper sexual, that their sexual prowess and the size, the physicality is greater than others. And it’s sort of a false identity that sets up, and you buy into that myth yourself rather than discovering who you are as an individual.

Samuels is describing the same mental reflex that inspires otherwise well-meaning whites to defend racist falsehoods. Our strange instinct to bristle at anything that challenges a racist system is highly counter-productive, even for most whites who otherwise benefit from racism. White Americans will fight to protect the privileges from this system, privileges that may be little more than the scraps from the table. That system may grant a white man little more than a slightly lower vulnerability to police brutality or marginally better access to otherwise terrible jobs, yet they’ll cling to it against the uncertainty of progress.

So here we are, having stupid debates about black penis size while we’re incapable of designing a modern healthcare system. Racism doesn’t just make you stupid, it makes you a dick.

3 Comments

  1. Racism, while reprehensible, is not going to go away. We are a tribal species. It is part of our DNA. The “other” is to be not be trusted, and likely feared. It has been that way since before we climbed out of the trees.

    Hell, we manufacture tribalism. What do you think cheering for various sports teams and wearing their colors is? And that does not even begin to deal with political parties or even the concept of a nation.

    To our lower, older brain functions, skin color is the easiest to recognize, the most obvious sign that someone is “other”. I see no way that is going to change for many many generations. Sure, our higher brain functions can over-ride our more primeval instincts, on a case by case basis. Or one level of tribalism over-rides a lesser form for survival, or for some larger cause.

    But unless you can find some way to rewire the human brain in one generation, sorry, just don’t see it going away. How to manage it in politics, I just have no idea.

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