What hinders discussion of racism?
Racism is most commonly seen as personal beliefs about the qualities of a certain group of people you see as a race, and acting on these beliefs. While it is true that this a form that racism takes (and we could add privately held before personal) this hides the truth of the matter. Racism was once a widely held belief, an ideology, a doctrine with near sacred tenets. This ideology is called white supremacy. The effects of this belief still shape our society today in the form of institutional racism.
Institutional racism is often not acknowledged although knowledge of it is becoming more widespread. This means acknowledging that not only do people hold racist beliefs, but that structures and institutions of society are constructed in such a way to benefit the White race and oppress other races (however you construct membership).
I used to hear the term White supremacy on the Discovery Channel when they did documentaries on gang culture in US prisons. For this reason (and others) I understand that a lot of white people get turned off when people talk about White Supremacy. Most people do not self-identify as misogynistic racists sporting confederate flag belt buckles and dealing in meth.
This and several other difficulties hinder discussion of racism, I hope the above part about race helps somewhat in discussing this topic, but before we can properly discuss racism there are several other difficulties and misconceptions that stand in our way. I will list them here (not in order of importance) a full discussion of them seems impossible, but I want to encourage you to do your own research and will try to list resources here so you can inform yourself.
–Language co-option: How can America go to war for Freedom and Democracy? Right, by claiming freedom is best represented by coups, killing and arms trade.
Language confusion: People will use the same word to talk about wildly different things. Racism is case in point. To one person it might mean: a thing of the past like lynchings in the American south. To another it might mean his brother getting shot yesterday.
Related to language co-option is political correctness: which term are we supposed to use. Although a valuable part of any struggle, because language plays a part in shaping reality. The meaning of words can always change. There is also the phenomenon of policing where more energy goes towards people using the right terminology than actually dealing with racism. Even in writing this article I was wondering do I say , or people of colour? Most white people have figured out we should not say the n-word, even though we might still use it among our white friends (as do I sometimes more so when drunk, I am ashamed to admit).
However this can be a problem because if the reality of racism is still around, but people have simply learned to hide it for fear of reprisal or difficult conversations. Then it never gets tackled. That is why you see a lot of private racism. I have a good friend, who loves to egg racists on, by feeding them racist comments. Because usually a racist will test the water to see if he the comments he is about to make will land well.
–Nominal freedom vs actual freedom: Related to language problems in what could also be called theory vs reality, we see that in many places there is legal freedom for everyone but actual oppression. We see this time and time again. Black people in South Africa had better living standards before the end of Apartheid, because economic freedom was never achieved (under pressure from financial markets). In many other countries there are legal freedoms, which can make people think there is actual freedom, when in fact many things still prevent people from exercising their freedom. Even existing rights are not safeguarded, did you know the UN declaration of Human Rights contains the right to shelter, food and education?
This difference between actual freedom and saying people are free usually has to do with the type of people whose freedom is guaranteed (White people).
–Lived experience: People’s lives look vastly different. That is why to the person of colour who has dealt with racism everyday in his life racism means something different than to the white person, who almost never consciously registers racism even though he benefits from white privilege (and enjoys black culture).
Lived experience also plays a role in shaping our consciousness, the images that are broadcast about POC are vastly more negative and reinforce negative stereotypes and realities.
–Psychology: People of colour are often perceived differently than white people. They are perceived as angry when they bring up the topic of racism. This is related to the previous point of lived experience, because your life goes differently and hence you develop a different psychology (a different way of dealing with things) based on your experience. If you start paying attention to this you see it everywhere, white men generally feel much more entitled to speak on issues, case in point myself (even when they know less about issues than others). White people also perceive Black boys as more mature than their white counterparts from quite a young age onwards. They also feel less empathetic to POC experiencing physical pain. Quite relevant when POC are being shot by (White) police officers for being threatening or when young boys are being sentenced as men.I have several personal and general example of this:
*In classes I took, when I decided not to talk, everybody else started talking, apparently I took up a lot of space.
*In my old job, the boss saw me as a logical successor and assumed some of my non-white co-workers did not want to progress. This is an amplifying effect of racism/privilege, because I am more comfortable speaking it is assumed I have the qualities needed in a role requiring more speaking. But this is not a quality I necessarily inherently possess and others do not, but something which structures propel me too be perceived as.
*One can notice the same thing with women: in group settings you can sometimes observe a woman saying something without raising much dust, watch a man say the same thing minutes later and everyone will notice.
* This list could go on and on.
We are not done with psychology yet. Interestingly there is the well-documented phenomenon of White Fragility, which is basically white people getting on the defensive whenever race is brought up. Looking at lived experience again, it is understandable that POC get disheartened in discussing race with white people. Oppression that affects their daily lives, is not only not seen by white people (who have a different lived experience), they get accused of being angry and have to take care to avoid white people’s feelings. So why do white people get so upset?
Two reasons seem likely to me:
Firstly everybody wants to feel good about themselves and acknowledging that racism is something which affects everyone. Including themselves means admitting that they profit from white privilege and that means either giving up some of that privilege. Or the uncomfortable realization that some of their achievements are not due to their efforts, but due to their place in an oppressive system. Admitting this clashes with another of our deeply ingrained beliefs of individualism.
Secondly part of White supremacy has been to put everything bad about our psyches and project it as an attribute of being Black. We equate whiteness with goodness and light and darkness with evil and bad behavior. Hence White people have sincere blockages in viewing things differently.
–Politics of power and capitalism: this is kind of a vague one because I can’t fully put my finger on how this operates, nor have the time to discuss it here. But some of the same expediencies that pushed people towards implementing racist ideologies, objectifying people in the process, are still around. As long as it will serve somebodies (economic) goal to have lives that are worth less, we will experience racism-like forms of exclusion. It also makes sense that power structures will support those ideologies and knowledges that support their continuation.
–Forgetting the past: related to the previous point (and to the next) is the process of forgetting, what do we remember and why? Since ideas of nationhood are deeply intertwined with ideas of race, and since how we remember the nation’s past, influences how we see the present. This is a big hurdle to understanding and fighting racism. An example of this is how Nazism is painted as a singular evil, when in fact anti-semitism and other racist ideologies part of White supremacy were common throughout the world for a long time. Other genocides by other White perpetrators do not get the same attention. The soldiers of colour that fought for western powers are also rarely remembered.
–rational and consciousness OR irrational and unconscious
Before we finally get to discussing what racism is (although you might have some idea by now) I think it is important to discuss how we view human beings. We tend to think people are rational and conscious as opposed to irrational and unconsciousness. Although viewing the human intellect as the crowning of creation is a quite old christian tradition (correct me if I’m wrong) the viewing of people as mostly rational (economic) beings is a relatively new one. Especially against the backdrop of billions of years of evolution to get life to the point where we are today.
These billion of years of evolution have left an imprint on our (collective) (un)consciousness (they have created it) according to Jung. Experiences accumulated throughout evolution have left certain templates of thought and certain ways of experiencing the world in our minds. Sounds logical right?
In my opinion we tend to overestimate the size of our rational conscious mind compared to the (not necessarily irrational) unconsciousness part. Now it is important not to misconstrue this point as either determinism (we are on a path and no matter what we do we follow that path) or as saying (in a related manner) people have natural categories for judging others (so racism is inevitable). While we might have certain categories, this is all a product of evolution and evolution is change if anything.
Things can be brought to consciousness from the unconscious (and vice versa), and we might be able to interact with the unconscious in a number of ways. Why is the relative overemphasis on the rational problematic?
This is because it leaves a large part of human nature out of consideration. It is also problematic because it hides the possible irrational nature of the universe. Why is this related to race?
As we shall see in a bit, those enlightenment philosopher who were the pinnacle of enlightened reasoning played a huge role in justifying and creating racial ideology.
The problem with constructing rational systems of thought is this: One must always make an assumption of an irrational premise, to start off one’s reasoning. Much intellectual effort goes into covering one’s tracks in circular reasoning to somehow hide this irrational premise.
The human irrational mind wants security and thinks that logical coherence, and lack of contradiction can achieve this. But in fact contradictions, paradoxes, mixes, appetite, emotion, intuition, poetry and shades of grey are as much or more part of humanity as oppositions, logic, reason and efficiency are. As much as we make them be.
Now the focus on rationality is particularly troubling, with regards to the unconscious and forgetting the past. For in a mere generation, ways of being, thinking and remembering can be overturned. Let alone what happened in the 400 years of colonialism and slavery or even the millions of years of struggling for survival before that. This focus gives us the illusion that this troublesome history can be overturned with some new legislation or exclamations of support (nominal freedom). But rational understanding alone cannot undo the past, if anything can, it must take the form of transformational healing. Being present for each other in all shades of life in the present moment.
Once you make an irrational choice for a certain belief: whether it be science, patriotism, capitalism, nationalism, racism, religion. You can make (relatively) rational choices on the basis of that belief, but you can never choose to be fully rational. The reason I choose to believe in a common humanity which is yet to be realized, is because I believe that we will destroy each other. If we do not extend our compassion to every living thing, possibly the whole of creation, the universe, the world or whatever else you want to call this place we find ourselves.