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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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