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There is a groove worn in the palm of my right hand. No, it’s not from that. It is there as a result of consistently smacking my face into my palm every time someone uses the phrase “I’m not racist…” or “I am the least racist person in the world” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” A couple Fridays back I pointed out a pair of stories in which people who had done unequivocally racist things immediately retreated to this excuse. It’s like catching a kid in the kitchen, cookie jar broken on the floor, chocolate smeared all over her face, and hearing her say “it was the dog.” It’s a stupid attempt to deflect an accusation that is entirely true, but distasteful.
Part of the reason for this cognitively dissonant response to racism is because there is a fundamental fallacy – a false dichotomy – that is drawn around racism. This false dichotomy is drawn between two extremes: racist and not racist. Those are the options, according to this fallacy. Our social construct of ‘racist’ brings in the whole fire-hoses and dogs idea of mid 20th-century racism (of course I favour a much more accurate definition). Few people, least of all those in public life, wish to be seen as being that kind of racist. In fact, most of them probably don’t have particularly negative ideas about people in a different racial group, or they imagine that the negative attitudes they do have are justified by some cognitive trick (I don’t hate Mexicans, just illegals; I don’t hate Arabs, just terrorists; I don’t hate black people, just thugs). However they arrive at their answer, most people will not self-identify as racist.
And so, because the other option is “not racist”, when confronted on their racist actions, the majority of people will insist that they are in fact “not racist”. Within their specific framework, based upon two fallacies – the false dichotomy and a failure to understand racism – their denial is true. However, in an objective sense it is simply the product of a series of cognitive constructs designed to shield the self-esteem. They are racist, by any objective external measure. The denial only serves to ensure that more racist actions will occur, and each time be repeatedly explained away as being something else. It is this kind of attitude that props up the current racial dynamics – a refusal to accept one’s own racist motivations.
What we have to recognize is the fact that “not racist” is not an option. Unless you are born in and live your life in a place where all people are so similar that lines are drawn around some construct other than race (perhaps religion, or politics, income, geography), and never come into contact with any other cultures, you will inherit the racism that exists worldwide. I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it – we are all racist. I’m racist. You’re racist. Your parents are, your teachers were, your politicians are, the guy who runs the pulled pork sandwich cart at Broadway and Granville is (but his sandwiches are still delicious). There’s no escaping it.
Our dichotomy needs to be redrawn between racist and anti-racist. Anti-racism is a methodological approach, much like scientific skepticism, in which actions (our own, and those of others) are constantly scrutinized in a racial context. Rather than merely reassuring one’s self that they are not a racist person, the anti-racist approach invites us to look for possible racial overtones, to examine how attitudes and behaviours might have differential consequences for those of different racial groups, and to try and understand what motivates those attitudes/behaviours at the conscious and subconscious level.
Of course intrinsically wedded to the idea of anti-racism is being non-judgmental when it comes to race. Spotting racism doesn’t win you points as an anti-racist – identifying the faults of others doesn’t somehow exonerate your own flaws. Instead, it invites you to appraise how your own attitudes and behaviours might be subconsciously influenced in a similar way. Most people, as I’ve said, are not overtly racist, or if they are they certainly don’t mean it in a hurtful way. However, there are still consequences to racism, most of which are unintended. Representative Weaver certainly didn’t intend for anyone to be upset by her Hallowe’en stunt, but it definitely conjures ghosts for me, and has certainly tarnished the sterling (heh) reputation of the great state of Tennessee. I don’t doubt that she doesn’t think that she’s a racist person – it is entirely immaterial in this case.
It’s important to state that being an anti-racist doesn’t make you the opposite of racist. Anti-racism is a tool. Much like skeptics can compartmentalize and believe in things that are not supported by science, anti-racists can have very racist beliefs that they either don’t know about or don’t wish to confront. I, for example, have a real issue with Chinese immigrants, an issue which began with my time at the University of Waterloo. As an anti-racist, it’s difficult for me to reconcile these feelings that I have about Chinese people to my stance as a crusader against racism. However, what I do have at my disposal is a mindset that allows me to examine and confront my own actions when dealing with my Chinese colleagues and friends – a mindset that I have to take particular care not to let my feelings affect my decision-making.
It’s funny – even writing that I felt a deep sense of foreboding. Admitting racial biases is incredibly difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t want to cause offense in others. Second, it has deep personal implications about how you see yourself in the world. I consider myself a good person – having a character trait that is so unequivocally negative casts doubt on my own self-concept. However, being aware of it makes me less susceptible to succumbing to it subconsciously. I will always be checking and re-checking my statements and interactions to make sure I’m not discriminating against the people around me.
This is the advantage to the anti-racist approach – it gives you a cognitive framework in which to work, whereby you can mitigate some racial biases, both conscious and unconscious. Dropping “non racist” from our mental lexicon and adopting “anti-racist” instead gives us a powerful tool for identifying and ameliorating the racism we see around us.
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Well played Mr. Crommunist.
I have to say I agree and that I can say I have had an overlapping thought process. There was a time where I may have played the I’m not racist card. To be frank being as they say white, there was little need for me to think about race. I also think of my self as a moral and ethical person to whom causing harm to others is undesirable.
So consider the situation that has played out over the last several years in my life. The majority of my life was spent in smaller very white towns. Then one day I take a job in NWT, and more recently northern Saskatchewan. In both places much of the labour force is first nations. Once I found my self consistently in the presence of first nations the stereo types and biases that I carried around popped up. It would seem that I carry around racist thoughts, because our culture has them in the back ground.
I acknowledge that I carry around stereo types and other misconceptions. I try to make the choice to learn more and I also make the choice to attempt to not let those unintentionally ingrained ideas effect my actions.
Thanks, Alex. It’s remarkable the extent to which merely being aware that you have these things bubbling around in the back of your brain can help you make proper decisions. It’s like knowing that advertisers are trying to manipulate you with the “$X.99” phenomenon. Once you know it’s there, and what its effects are, you can counteract it.
Awesome Ian! You are a blast of fresh air.
Being non politically correct I find some people call me racist just because of my big mouth! I have even been chastised for others’ perceived racism because I defended their right as a trades person to choose who they do work for. As Alex says we carry around ingrained ideas to which I would add experience. As a white person I have found myself the object of racism but of course I am not supposed to even state this. I get my mail at my cousin’s condo in Richmond – ’nuff said.
Hahaha, thanks for the comment Angela. I’m not sure how “we’re all racist” turned into “you’re not racist”, but whatever lifts your luggage 😛
I’m not sure who tells you that you’re “not supposed to state” that white people feel like they are the target of racism, but you’ll have to expect a fair amount of eye-rolling.
I will confess to being slightly bigoted about suburbs, and small ‘white’ towns. My prejudice is that I believe we’d probably all be better off growing up, and living in, dense, multi-cultural, urban cores. Even if you are black, for example, you could grow up seeing/responding to the world from a ‘white, small town’ perspective – and even be a racist…. It’s hard not to absorb the perspectives and reactions of your surroundings. And I do believe that racism and other bigotries are taught, not innate, and that we can unlearn them as well..
You might be surprised to find a significant number (well, you’re the scientist, but I think it might be interesting) of ‘white’ people in my generation who grew up in the 50s watching TV during the horrors of the early civil rights movement, so traumatized and educated about racism that they tended to constantly examine themselves for feelings of prejudice. That, combined with the ‘human potentials movement’ and feminism in the 60s and 70s, had a profound consciousness-raising impact on many.
This is an admittedly small segment of human history, but I do believe it is not as rare as you believe. Some of us also later had to realize that we were hoping our kids would marry someone of a different race, and had to guard against unintentionally influencing them in that direction – for the wrong reasons, if you follow me.
Many of us have been saddened by younger generations expressing the belief that racism and anti-feminism no longer are problems. Actually, I believe today’s ‘isms’ are just more subtle and difficult to spot.
I won’t bore you with the rest of my thoughts, but will just skip to this point: it is so much harder to self-analyze, and self-change, to work on one’s own mind and feelings, that we easily fall into working on other peoples’ racism or beliefs or behaviours most of the time. That’s the ‘default’, rather than looking at ourselves with brutal honesty. Thus even a clever, thinking scientist like yourself ends his piece with ‘…adopting “anti-racist” instead gives us a powerful tool for identifying and ameliorating the racism we see around us.” Or perhaps it’s your very training that inclines you toward valuing your ‘critical, judgmental’ faculties, and away from valuing consciousness-raising, or ‘personal growth’. It’s great to be aware of one’s prejudices, but the world improves a whole lot more when we eliminate them.
Far be it from me to suggest that the racism experienced during the civil rights era is of the same character as racism today. Obviously the quality of life for women, visible minorities, the poor, the elderly, and many other marginalized groups have vastly improved thanks to the hard work of people (many of whom were white) in the middle of the 20th century. You have my eternal gratitude for that. And I am not suggesting that people today are actively racist in the sense of the 1950s. The racism that I am talking about is a 21st-century racism – one that is far more insidious.
Think of it like a heart attack – the surgeon gets in there and does all of the hard work of removing the blockage. But once that part’s done, you can’t just rest on your laurels and say “well that’s taken care of.” There are long months of rehab and permanent lifestyle changes that are required to become truly healthy, which requires a shift both in thinking and in the way one addresses the problem. What I am suggesting is that anti-racism is a useful way of ‘rehabilitating’ ourselves from racism that is “sub-clinical” and often goes unnoticed.
And yes, I imagine that I am speaking more explicitly to my own younger generation than attempting to lecture my elders.
I don’t know how one goes about ‘eliminating’ cognitive biases. I know that we can learn to anticipate and control for their influence, but eliminate them altogether? A colleague of mine just came back from Las Vegas. She told me that while she knew that there were identical odds every time she spun the roulette wheel, she could not shake the feeling that red was “more likely” since the last 3 spins had been black. Those kinds of heuristics are deeply programmed, and it’s hard to overcome their influence. I thought I had made it clear that anti-racism, like skepticism, is something that should be applied in equal measure to our own thought processes as well as those of others, but maybe I wasn’t explicit enough on that point.
Nice one. I think I may need to follow this blog, Sir Crommunist.
Just came back to this post because I was thinking about sexism, and got to thinking of this post.
It’s interesting how the different kinds of privilege can be swapped out for one another without changing the general shape of how they work.
Damn good post.
This is an enlightening post, and making people aware of this is important. When I say “people”, I’m often distancing myself from them on some level.
That said, I am at a loss as to what sort of bias I might have. When you said “Unless you are born in and live your life in a place where all people are so similar that lines are drawn around some construct other than race (perhaps religion, or politics, income, geography), and never come into contact with any other cultures, you will inherit the racism that exists worldwide.”, it actually came close to home. I live in Oklahoma. This is not a place free of racism, but it is a place rather free of a lot of open racism, or even talking about it. I grew up in a family that, at least in their behavior and speech around me, was not racist. I learned about racism in a technical school setting, not from any sort of direct experience (this should expose some info about me by the way).
In other words, as near as I can tell, I never developed any prejudices about the typically labelled races. However, I can say I developed prejudices about nationalities. There’s only so many Sesame Street episodes with a little chinese girl talking about her heritage a kid can watch before one gets the idea “chinese people are all buddists”. Seriously, there are ways to teach multiculturalism that don’t involve always plugging in the “traditional” race of the culture in question. Toss in a black korean! Actually it could be bad if it gets to “last of the mohicans/samurai is white” stuff. In fact it’s uncomfortable to watch that episode of Star Trek where the asian woman wants a “traditional japanese ceremony” because of just how stereotypical it is. She speaks perfect english! Why would she want that? I mean sure SOME might, but it really didn’t sit well after all the effort to make the fictional alien clearly apart from his fictional stereotyped culture.
So I’m rambling now. Anyway, I can’t say I relate to the chinese immigrant thing. I understand these old prejudices can be hard to wipe out, but it is alien to me. Not to everyone in my generation, as I recently found out, but to a lot this would also be the case. I have never had a “there goes the neighborhood” moment. The latest trend about arab and spanish people is right along with that. I just don’t get how people can’t see it. Now, in some I think there isn’t some subconscious thing (usually revealed in their assumption that the spanish guy walking down the street is “probaby illegal”, or supporting “random” “reasonable” demands of citizenship (I can safely say I don’t have any on me most of the time). In talking to them, they really do seem to hate illegal immigrants and don’t reveal any prejudice against spanish people in particular. (My opinion on it is simply that the situation could be mostly resolved by just making it very easy to register one’s self as a citizen.) The terrorist thing is also a clear thing. If someone’s looking at someone they think is arab and says things like “that person makes me nervous, not that I think all arabs are terrorists but I’m just being cautious”, yeah, they’re making excuses. Someone who hates terrorists, thinks more things should be done to “stop them”, and then speaks of terrorists from places aside from the middle east, including “home grown” is probably just way too into self defense.
Damn Dutch… All their wind mills…. Ya know they’re dragons! Plannin’ an invasion I tell ya…. not on my land… I try to end on an ill advised joke that proves the point someone’s trying to make unintentionally.
Hahaha, thanks for your (somewhat rambling, but don’t worry about it, it’s a blog) comment, Derg.
The trick to understanding this issue is not to look at your overt cognition and scan for racism. That may yield some insights, but our conscious mind is pretty good at shielding us from things that damage our self-conscious. What I advocate is that we constantly monitor our behaviour and note any differences in how we perceive others, particularly those outside our ethnic group. Maybe you do that already, in which case keep it up! Did your parents talk to you about race differences at home while you were growing up, or was school where the conversation first happened?
Being free of talking about racism isn’t a good thing though. We should be just as comfortable talking about racism as we are talking about any human cognitive failures – it helps us to notice them in others and ourselves.
I also think it’s funny that you call them “Spanish people” – very few immigrants to the United States are from Spain 😛
There are some projects like this one from Harvard that test your subconscious racial biases. They’re pretty illuminating – I was definitely surprised by how mine turned out.
Oh, I forgot one very important thing. I’ve heard of certain self evaluating questions that are intended to reveal latent racism in everyone. I assume they’re a little more subtle than the overtly racist questions of the “well if you were in a ghetto and a bunch of black people with guns came up to you” variety I hear people ask me in some weird defense of their own view. (For those who aren’t aware of it, the obvious thing to do is remove or replace the race in question in that sentence and see if your reaction is still the same, which for me it is, I’m afraid of any big group coming at me with guns.)