Saturday, June 27, 2015

Approaching racism realistically

In the aftermath of the horror in Charleston I've seen some productive discussion about race and racism. Some new insights include the following:

  • Pretending (or aspiring) to be "colorblind" is not helpful. It's easy for someone from a more privileged ethnicity to say, "I don't see or treat other races as inferior, and I don't see any racism, so the problem is essentially done." This negates the very real obstacles that others face due to systematic racism. We have to be able to see and hear about racism in order to address these obstacles effectively.
  • It's great that our culture has gotten to the point of essentially agreeing that racism is wrong. Yet this positive development has ironically spawned a new problem: the "black hat villain" problem. To wit, it's the reasoning that "Racists are evil villains; my friends and I are not evil villains; therefore we are not racists."

This "evil villain" reasoning is particularly counter-productive when addressing racism because it is very, very hard to root racism out of your outlook and attitudes entirely. I think that the whole idea that "either you're racist or you're not" is an inaccurate and unhelpful model. It's better to look at it in terms of how far you've progressed and how committed you are to looking honestly and unflinchingly into your own psyche to continue to seek out and address any residual racism lurking in the dark corners.

If you respond by getting angry, defensive, and insulted every time people point out some racism you have expressed, you are guaranteeing that you will never improve and never be a true ally.

I discussed this a bit in a post from 2010:

Every time you notice an unfounded prejudice that you hold, you should be glad that you noticed it -- because it is only by noticing it that you can root it out. Having empathy for all humanity is something you can work on for your whole life and never truly succeed. Yet, some things are worth doing even though they're very hard.

Another essay has been popping up in my reading list lately which nails the point even better. I would recommend to everyone to read The pernicious impact of "white fragility" by Dr. Robin Deangelo. The author lists 11 defensive ways white people may react to feedback on racism, which sound pretty accurate. The 11th one is particularly grotesque:

To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

And the author offers some practical advice for a constructive alternative:

  1. How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant – it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
  2. Thank you.

Let's work on taking this advice.


Donna Banta said...

Thank you for this. Everybody harbors prejudices and we can't change until we are ready to at least acknowledge them. When terrible things like the Charleston shootings occur people come together - which is a good thing. But sometimes the temporary solidarity confirms the individual's insistence that he/she isn't prejudiced, rather than inspire him/her to look within for improvement.

That being said, the push to eliminate confederate flags is a good thing. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Donna!!!

Very true.