Thursday, 4 April 2019

Stepping Away From Being Part of the Problem

There have been a lot of tough discussions over the last few weeks about racism and unconscious bias and the roles they play in our every day lives.  It was prompted by this year's RITA finalists (RITAs are basically the Oscars for romance novels) because once again, the list is almost uniformly white authors.  (There are other issues of discrimination at play as well, but for this post, I'm going to focus on race.)

It's not easy to talk about racism.  When I was a kid, I remember people talking about racism as if it had been eliminated, like measles and polio (both of which are once again destroying lives, but that's another post).  There was an emphasis on moving beyond defining people by skin colour and that would ensure everyone had the same opportunities.

It was a lovely idea, but it was unfortunately wrong.  Because even if a person isn't stereotypically racist (using slurs, physically or verbally attacking, refusing to serve, etc.), they can still be implicitly racist due to unconscious bias (non-Anglo names getting fewer callbacks for job interviews, interpreting expressions as angier/more threatening if the person is black, assuming that a black person did something wrong to prompt a police shooting/arrest/search, etc.)

There are still plenty of people who don't accept unconscious bias and believe it doesn't play a role in people's lives.  They believe that life is inherently fair and equitable and anyone who isn't achieving the desired results simply isn't trying hard enough.  It's a tempting worldview, because the idea that people can genuinely try their best and not succeed due to their skin colour is horrible.  (The experience of it is even worse, just for the record).

Maybe I'm too much of an optimist, but I truly believe that most people don't want to hurt others and want the world to be a more fair and equitable place.  Yet there seems to be a real disconnect in listening to the experiences of people of colour and accepting those experiences as valid.

I'm not a person of colour.  Which means I'm not subjected to daily microaggressions on the basis of my skin colour.  Which means that some people are more likely to listen to me than to an actual person of colour (though I highly encourage those who are concerned about the such matters and who want to help to seek out the voices of people of colour and listen to them).  So I thought I'd share some of the reactions which may seem harmless or even helpful, but which actually play into unconscious bias.  I'm hopeful that people reading this will catch themselves before making such a reaction.

You misinterpreted (insert action/event/results here)

Who wouldn't want to know that the situation isn't as bad as they feared?  The problem wasn't racism, it was a misunderstanding and now everyone can feel better.

Here's the problem with that approach.  With unconscious bias the person acting on that bias usually has another conscious reason for their actions: I was tired, I was feeling edgy that day, I wasn't comfortable with that specific person/incident/event.  So there's always a bunch of ready-made excuses that aren't racism.

Any particular incident can usually be explained away by alternate causes.  It's in the statistical data that unconscious bias becomes overwhelmingly obvious.

It's important to remember that those subjected to these biases face such incidents in every aspect of their lives.  It's everywhere and there's nowhere to go to escape it.  Yet when they bring up an example, it's dismissed.

What "you misinterpreted" boils down to is telling people that their experience isn't valid, that they have overreacted, that they are at fault for trying to fight back against something that causes them pain.

I don't see colour.

I think this one is a bit of generational marker.  It's based in the idea that by refusing to acknowledge skin colour, a person will end up judging only by merit or by individual.

Except that refusing to acknowledge skin colour ends up erasing a significant part of people's experience.  I personally struggle with this one.  I don't like describing skin tone or referring to someone by skin colour.  However, I'm working on it because it prevents me from working on my own unconscious biases.  Taken to an extreme, refusing to acknowledge skin colour puts the person in the position of saying "I know better than you" to people of colour, which is extraordinarily dismissive.

I'm not like that.

On the surface, this can seem like a vote of support.  Bad things are happening but this person is not one of the people doing them.  They don't support racism and aren't one of the bad guys.  Surely those suffering from racism will be happy to see they don't have to worry about this particular individual.

However, it's not quite that simple.  On a very basic level, it derails the conversation into being about the person protesting they aren't a racist instead of focusing on the experience of those targeted by racism.

There's also a tendency to either/or thinking.  If person X isn't a racist, then the things they do must not be racist.  We all like to believe we're good people who treat others fairly, but if we insist our actions are therefore above reproach, we can't learn to do better.  And the only way to maintain this insistence is to tell those who have actually been harmed that they are wrong and that they haven't been hurt.

Don't be angry, be nice.

This one is another tricky one.  There's a grain of truth in it because it is true that when people are directly faced with anger, their ability to retain new information shuts down.  However, seeing others' anger is a more effective way of bringing awareness to an unjust situation than calm discussion of that same situation.  Humans remember things better when their emotions have been brought into play.

This is one of the big areas where people can step up as allies of those affected.  We often have the opportunity to discuss and educate without anger, because we're not the ones being directly affected by racism.

But it's also really important not to tone police when people are hurt.  (For those not familiar with the expression, it refers to invalidating someone's statement because you don't like how it was said while ignoring the actual content.)  This technique is often used by explicit racists to derail conversations and discredit those bringing attention to the issues, which is why its such a sensitive topic.

Here's my take: if a person truly cares about not causing harm to others, then the onus is on them to look past the speaker's anger and focus on the message. 

Separate but equal.

Sadly, this is one that pops up whenever there is complaint about systemic racism.  Teachers are treating black and white students differently, get two different school systems.  Authors of colour aren't winning the award, create a diversity category.

This solution assumes that people of colour are incapable of competing with white people in a fair competition.  And that is in and of itself an implicit bias.

And even if the intention is good, it does nothing to address the implicit bias that is the real issue.  The concept of separate but equal has been disproven for decades and it causes immense harm because at its root, it says that we don't want to associate with you, we don't want you to be part of our organization or community.

A lot of this boils down to a very simple set of conditions:

Does a person believe that systemic racism (both conscious and unconscious) is a fact of modern life?

Do they want to change the impact of systemic racism?

If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then listening is the first and most critical step.  It's not easy and it's a hit to the ego when we recognize ourselves as part of the problem, but it's the only way to make the change.

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