I wrote a post responding to some of the objections I had seen the Black Lives Matter demands at the Pride Protest, specifically those relating to Police presence. I wanted to continue addressing further objections that I have seen raised. Specifically those dealing with a misunderstanding of racism.
It is not surprising that the majority of people, and white people in particular, don’t fully understand the concept of racism, especially those people who are white. Like many subjects at school, what we were taught wasn’t actually the truth, but a simplification that was meant to act as a primer to make the truth easier to understand as we developed our understanding of difficult concepts. As we grow in specific subjects and develop our interest in them, we begin to piece away at the earlier lies to reveal more complicated truths – the end goal of evolution is not a human being but rather survival and procreation – the solar system is not simply made up of 8 planets and the sun – actually you can find the square root of a negative number but the answer is an imaginary number, also imaginary numbers are a thing – we teach half-truths because we need to build a foundation on which our eventual understanding can be based as a launching off point.
The trouble with this when it comes to matters of social importance, like racism, is that the majority of people, and especially those in positions of power, never move past an elementary introduction into concepts that have a daily impact on countless lives.
In school we are taught that racism is the discrimination or prejudice against a person based on their race. We are taught about triangles who make fun of a circle for being different, or use the examples of grizzly bears encountering panda bears for the first time. We try to explain this difficult concept to children by appealing to their internal sense of fairness and empathy by making them think about how much their own feelings would be hurt if someone were to make a decision about them based on something like how they look.
This definition of racism is a massive oversimplification meant to act as an introduction to a difficult concept that many adults still struggle with. It is also a lie that is never corrected for a great many people. In reality, judging someone based solely on the colour of their skin/race is racial prejudice.
Racism is actually a step further. It is the systemic application of racial prejudice through the use of institutionalized power. It is Racial Prejudice plus Power. What does that mean?
It means that racism is a social system by which racial prejudice is used to inform a social hierarchy where people of one race are given certain benefits and privileges at the expense of people of other races. In the case of North America and Europe, we see this being expressed as white people being afforded certain privileges at the expense of people of colour.
Let’s be clear. Privilege doesn’t mean that everything is easy for you. It means that there are certain things that you don’t have to think about or get to ignore. For example men are not usually forced to consider whether certain actions make them risk being victim blamed if they are attacked. Cis people don’t usually worry about what would happen if someone were to believe they were using the wrong restroom. The fact that you get to not think about these things is a privilege. However, because you get to ignore these things or not think about them, it also means that there are things you miss as a result.
Take bathroom use. If you are a cis woman for example, if you accidentally enter the men’s room you might feel a moment of embarrassment. If someone sees you more often than not they will react with amusement over a silly mistake. Occasionally someone might use a harsh word to point out that it’s “the wrong restroom.” However, what is unlikely to occur is that you face violence as a result of your mistake. In some cases you might have even used the wrong restroom on purpose because the line at the other one was too long, or perhaps it was being cleaned, or out of order. If all of your friends are also cis people, their experiences will validate yours. Using “the wrong restroom” seems like ultimately no big deal. This is because neither you, nor your social circle that informs your opinions will have witnessed what happens to trans women in restrooms.
Now imagine that one day you are out in public and you see a trans woman being grilled about whether she is in “the right place”. You yourself are a nice person, you don’t mind trans woman using the women’s restrooms you think. The other person finally leaves off but the trans woman she harassed is pale, sweating, and shaking. She might even be crying. And you think to yourself “Geez, what’s the big deal?”
To you, that interrogation might seem annoying even messed up, but you don’t see that it merited that level of reaction. You might think even that the trans woman is too sensitive. What you haven’t seen is the times that that same question has led to violence. You haven’t witnessed the times that the angry woman goes and gets her boyfriend or husband who then waits at the bathroom door for the trans woman to come out. You haven’t seen the times that someone has gone to get a manager to throw the trans woman out of the restroom. Or called the police on them. You haven’t witnessed the times that she has been cornered on the street by men who try to undress her so they can see if she has “the right parts”. You don’t notice how this attack, and it is an attack, is part of a pattern of misgendering that reinforces the social concept that she is not a “real woman”.
Because you haven’t seen these things, you don’t see how just being asked whether you are using the right restroom can be a big deal. How using the restroom can be something that provokes fear and anxiety, and can even be a risk to life. To you the anxiety attack is an overreaction to a mild annoyance at best, to her it is a logical response to a pattern of abuse.
Another aspect of privilege is that society reinforces the idea that things are meant to be about you. That your feelings are a priority. Almost all of us experience some form of privilege: be it male, white, straight, cis, abled, class, and so forth and so forth. There have been a series of scientific studies that have shown for example that when women make up 17% of a class, movie, or other social group, men perceive the group makeup to be about 50-50. When woman make up 33% of the group makeup, men perceive it as being female dominated. Similar results have been seen in other examples of social power dynamics. Meaning white people perceive a smaller population of people of colour as representing a much larger percentage of the social makeup than they actually do. As a result, when efforts are made to encourage diversity, the perception of the more socially powerful group is that they are less represented than they actually are.
The socially powerful group is taught that their race/gender/class/and so forth represents the “norm”, the default, the neutral position. It is why a supreme court made up entirely of men is seen as being acceptable and still capable of neutrality, but a court made up of entirely women is believed to be biased.
Because the social group in power is taught that their population is the neutral/default one, this also leads to a tendency to be more responsive to receiving information from people who are in the same social group. This is part of the reason why I am writing this post, even though all of this has already been said, and even said better by People of Colour, including all of the incredibly talented writers of colour here on the orbit. Because I am white, I am more likely to be listened to and to receive a positive response from other white people on this issue, than the same words being said by a person from the vulnerable population. What’s more, it’s not just the people in the power group that are likely to respond this way. Women are also more likely to grant men greater authority on topics than they do women, and so forth.
Oh come on! That’s just sour grapes. If someone presents an argument reasonably and with evidence I will believe them no matter if they’re woman, or black, or gay, etc.
A few years ago, at a meetup with CFI Ottawa which was hosting a meet and greet with a known twitter personality, this same issue came up. I mentioned the exact thing mentioned above, including mentioned of studies that have been performed on this issue. A gentleman in attendance had the same objection above. Then the exact same thing I said was repeated by the personality almost word for word, citing the same studies. The gentleman then paused and accepted what was said. To give credit where it is due, the personality then followed up by pointing out exactly what had happened, at which point the gentleman felt somewhat embarrassed and changed the subject.
The reason situations like this occur and the reason people resist the fact that it is true is a phenomenon known as Bias Blind Spot, a form of Illusory Superiority: cognitive biases that lead people to view themselves in a more positive light than what is actually demonstrated to be the case. In the case of Bias Blind Spot, many people believe their own motivations to be clear of bias even when they are willing to attribute bias to anyone who disagrees with them.
The tendency to view yourself in a more positive light is a natural one. We all do it. But the truth is that everyone of us is raised with biases we learn from the society around us. It can be so subtle that most of us don’t even realize that the opinions we hold are influenced by them.
For example: most people will consider AAVE or what some people call Ebonics or Slang to be representative of low class, low education. People who use that type of language will be inherently treated as being less intelligent or as possessing less education than those who don’t. Why is that? It is because specifically AAVE is a dialect of English made up and used primarily by black people who are also socially viewed as being less intelligent and less educated.
In reality a linguistic observation of AAVE shows that it follows similar sets of linguistic rules as any other language. Claiming that people who use AAVE are less articulate or less intelligent is comparable to saying that people who speak German are less intelligent than people who speak French.
Similarly Black hairstyles, clothing trends, and so forth are all seen as being less professional, or symbolic of the same stereotypes of less educated, more likely to engage in criminal behaviours, and so forth. When those same styles begin to be appropriated by a white majority however, they instead get called edgy, trendy, and so forth.
The tendency to perceive the socially dominant population as being more competent than members of vulnerable populations has been well documented. There have been a series of studies in which identical resumes, papers, and talks have been presented as coming from a man versus a woman, or from a person from a privileged population versus from a minority population. Consistently it has been shown that even with the exact same information, with the only change being the identifier (racialized name versus white-perceived name on resume, exact same presentation given by a man and a woman, both actors) the one in the dominant population received higher competency marks, larger offered salaries, and more offers of work.
People with racialized names were less likely to receive job offers or even call backs or interviews than people who used “whiter-sounding” names. There’s an old saying that women and people of colour have to be twice as good to be perceived as half-as-good.
Ok Fine, but I’m not a racist. I don’t think people should be judged on the colour of their skin.
Even if you don’t consciously hold racist ideas, even if you yourself are not “a racist”, you are also a product of the culture you grew up in. You don’t have to consciously hold racist ideas to subconsciously still be influenced by them.
In a situation where you are faced with judging someone, your conscious mind will look for excuses as to why you formulated the opinions you did based on sub-conscious bias. In the studies discussed above, no one said that they didn’t hire the black sounding name because the name sounded black. There was always another reason: an unnoticed typo, a certain experience missing, a vague feeling that this other person would “fit in better”. The fact that the exact same typo or lack of experience appeared on the white sounding resume somehow doesn’t register.
That’s because at the same time that our society teaches us these racial biases it also teaches us that racism is a bad thing. These two opposing ideas conflict in our minds and since our cognitive bias is to view ourselves as being less influenced by bias than others, to protect our feelings of superiority our minds look for other excuses.
The existence of these social biases however have also been recorded using studies that get a large sample of people to choose two descriptors for a person: a negative one and a positive one. Most people assume that the point is to see how often a positive association is given to a PoC rather than a negative one. Truthfully however, ultimately most people will still choose the positive association for the PoC. What is actually recorded is the time it takes to make the choice. When faced with pictures of white people, the choice is near instantaneous, whereas there is hesitation prior to making the selection for PoC. The longer the hesitation, the more influenced you are by racial prejudice.
Does this mean you are doomed to always be racist: Yes and No.
It means that we have to work harder to be aware of how racial bias influences our feelings, reactions, and ideas. We can never fully eliminate the influence of social biases on our subconscious minds, but we can work on improving it. We can work on recognizing it and fighting it. We can work on helping eliminate these biases when teaching future generations. But it means we have to always always always be working on it. Just knowing that these biases exist isn’t enough. Even when you are aware that they exist you are still vulnerable to missing things, to making assumptions or participating in microagressions that are influenced by these biases. This is why you will hear people say that if you are not actively working to dismantle these ideas, you are participating in them. And even if you really are trying, even if you do everything you can to always be aware of your privilege, you need to accept that you will still make mistakes. And when you do, when you do something that is a racist microaggression, even if you didn’t mean it. Even if you actively fight racism as often as you see it. And even despite all that you need to accept that it is still on you and that black people don’t owe you forgiveness when it happens. And yes, this includes me as well. As much as I try very hard, I still get it wrong sometimes. I too am a product of my privilege in society and of the social biases I grew up with. And when I make those mistakes, I am in the wrong. And no PoC owes me forgiveness, understanding, or a second chance, no matter how much I may regret.
Let’s say I agree with you, isn’t Black Lives Matter also racist. All lives should matter.
I have a hard time understanding why so many people seem to think that the words Black Lives Matter are preceded by the word “Only”. It’s not.
Black Lives Matter is not meant as an isolating statement saying that these are the only lives we should care about. Rather it is a statement – a response – to a social message that says the opposite. Think of it as part of a larger conversation:
Society: Black lives are worthless and don’t matter.
BLM: Yes they do! Black Lives Matter.
That has been shortened to a simple statement or hashtag.
The idea that black lives don’t matter is reinforced daily: in our news, our justice system, our media, our schools, everywhere. References to this trope even make their ways into popular culture. Consider this quote from Evolution – a comedic sci-fi movie about alien invasion.
Harry Block: Ira! Come here, look at these little things!
Ira Kane: Oh, cool! Great. Snag one!
Harry Block: Snag one?
Ira Kane: Yeah. Snag one and put them in the bucket!
Harry Block: I seen this movie, the black dude dies first. YOU snag it!
The idea that the black man dies first is a recognized TV trope.
Black death is treated differently in media and in our society. When black people, and other PoC, are killed, the media doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of their deaths and injuries, whereas more consideration is shown for white victims. The pictures used to represent the victim in the case of PoC are often those that give unfavourable impressions of the victim. I remember one particularly glaring example where a white couple was guilty of assaulting a black man. The picture of the violent offenders was one of them taking a cute picture together and they were described as cute and baby-faced. The victim was represented by a mug shot which was in no way relevant to the story. Pictures of victims of police violence are often chosen to make the victim seem more threatening, implying that their deaths were justified.
The social reaction differs as well, with the murder of black folk often being justified with things like: “feared for his life” “shouldn’t have run away” and all sorts of victim blaming. This despite the fact that there is no crime for which the legal punishment is death by state without a trial. This despite the fact that cops are supposed to be trained to have a measured and as non-violent response as possible and to react in measured ways in the face of fear, whereas the victims are all civilians with no such training. Yet, despite this, the victim is the one expected to maintain calm and control, rather than the person trained to do so.
What does it say that when Cecil the Lion and Harambe the Gorilla were killed, there were entire movements devoted to punishing the killers which were often successful, money was raised for memorials and for education, people spoke out against the need for violence.
In response to the deaths of black men being killed by cops, excuses are made for the cops, money is raised for the cops, and in every single case the guilty cop is found not guilty of any wrong doing. I lost every last shred of hope for fairness when I saw Tamir Rice’s killers go free. When our society sees anything justifiable about the death of a child innocently playing in the park, a 12 year old boy playing like any other 12 year old boy might, playing games many of us played ourselves as children… how can we deny that we as a society have declared open season on people of colour?
Okay okay, the concept of Black Lives Matter isn’t racist, but the BLM people refused to sell me a t-shirt/accept my donation because I was white. Also I’ve heard lots of black people say they hate white people. That’s racist, right.
Actually it’s not.
This is where we go back to that more accurate, actual sociological definition, as opposed to colloquial use represented by dictionary definition, of the word racism as being the combination of Racial Prejudice plus Power.
A Black person could walk up to me and say “I hate you because you are white” and that would still NOT BE RACISM. It is racial prejudice but it lacks the power component. In fact, it is racial prejudice in response to a LACK of power.
A black person’s hate of a white person is a response to systemic racism. It is a survival mechanism. A safety tool. Black people face daily microagressions and examples of institutionalized racism. Whenever they interact with a white person they have no way of knowing if they are going to be forced to put up with those microagressions, if the person is someone who holds conscious racist ideas, if this person is prone to violence and likely to make trouble. Much like the trans woman from the bathroom example earlier, there is a whole weight of personal history that leads to each such interaction being a potentially dangerous one for them. A violent white supremacist can look exactly the same as an empathetic white person who is aware and conscious of their white privilege until it is too late. And even if the person they are facing is “one of the good ones”, that doesn’t mean that they will completely avoid using any kind of racist microagressions. Microagressions can be even more psychologically damaging than microagressions.
Much of the system that works against them, many of the boots on their necks wear white skin. It’s not about hating a person because of their race, it’s hating what that race has represented and done for hundreds of years to Black people (and other races as well. A long history of colonialism). It’s hating a symbol of their oppression that is still being used to oppress.
Hating white people is also an act of rebellion in a world that suggest that whiteness should be adulated instead. That punishes you for not conforming to it, for not striving for it. Black people that disdain whiteness, or just don’t show “sufficient” reverence for its supposed superiority, risk losing their jobs, losing their homes, their children, their very lives. Black children are 3 times more likely to be suspended than a white child and there is a link between a suspension and a doubled risk of that child dropping out of school and/or ending up in jail. School disproportionately provide more severe punishments for the same level of misbehaviour to black kids when compared to white kids, a pattern that is repeated again in the judicial system. The way in which schools criminalize black children is part of the School to Prison pipeline.
When a white person hates black people, when a white person has even unconsciously held beliefs of white superiority, even when they have the best of intentions, there are entire systems in place to facilitate doing something about it. Killing black people doesn’t even carry the same risk of punishment to discourage the more hateful people. Just ask George Zimmerman.
When a black person hates a white person, there is no system in place to facilitate turning that hate into something more that an individual interaction. Yes, if the person is interviewing you, you will probably not get the job, but that specific unhired white person will go on to face a system that still disproportionately chooses them over applicants of colour. Does that mean they will find a job easily? No. Does it mean they don’t face other types of discrimination? Of Course Not. My own example springs to mind. Even if one specific employer didn’t hire me because of my white skin, and then I went on to apply for other jobs where I was denied because of my disability, that one instance of where race was the issue was not part of a greater systemic prejudice against my skin colour.*
*if anyone really thinks I need a reminder that it is more difficult than that and that there is a system of discrimination of disability that might have played a role in the lack of job offer yada yada yada yada, think of who you are talking to and take a damn seat. This is not the time*
When white people complain about the way black people express their outrage in the face of overwhelming discrimination and racism, we are actually participating in an act of racism. We are taking a conversation that isn’t about us and making it center on our own hurt feelings. In the midst of grieving, in the midst of rage and suffering, you are forcing them to perform emotional labour, to expend energy, to make you feel better.
It would be akin to someone being hit causing a drop of blood to fall on your suit and you taking their ambulance as a result. Sure it sucks that your suit has blood on it, but it is not the same level of harm, nor does it require the same level of response, and it certainly doesn’t excuse you taking away their ability to heal and/or save themselves.
As for refusing to sell you a shirt or accept your donation: in a world of cultural appropriation that lets white people be cool for stealing what black people are punished for, they have a right to keep certain things for themselves. It’s not yours and they are under no obligation to give it to you. You should have learned that in elementary school too.