I sometimes find myself in a social situation where I need to say, politely, "I'm not sure I agree with what you just said about that ethnic group". In my head, this feels like a non-confrontational way to get a conversation going that doesn't use the R-word - racist - but it never seems to work as well as I hoped. Here is how those conversations go for me.
When I say: "I'm not sure I agree with what you just said about that ethnic group" it seems that most people hear I think you are a bad person. I hate you and your whole ugly family. And then they get angry, and then they aren't listening to anything else I say and then we're both angry and I wish I'd never opened my mouth, even though I knew that I really needed to say something.
A comment about what you said is heard as a judgement on what you are. I think this happens because, as a society, we've tied ourselves into a big ugly knot when it comes to talking about race and racism. We've made racism such a huge taboo that we've set up the following logic chain within people's heads:
- Racism is really, really bad
- Therefore only bad people are racist
- I am not a bad person
- Therefore I cannot possibly be racist.
I think this is incredibly unhelpful. I find this tricky because hey! Racism is bad! But I think we're all predisposed towards it, too, and I think that our failure to admit this to ourselves, to each other, makes dealing with the issue as a society worse, not better. After all, how can we address a problem in our attitudes if we won't admit it exists? It's much easier to shunt the problem to the sidelines, as an issue that only members of the KKK or people who shoot innocent teenagers or people who shoot Jewish schoolchildren need to deal with. Much less constructive, but much, much easier.
Admitting the alternative - that I have a problem with this too - is far from easy. It was a big deal for me to realise that I, personally, struggle with racial prejudice. I mean I struggle personally. I mean that I find it easier to assume good things about people who look like me. I mean that I am prone to leap to conclusions about groups of people based on stereotypes. I mean that I am working on all of this and I've come a long long way but it does take work. I mean that I wasn't born with an attitude that truly sees all people as equal, that never gravitates towards people because they remind me of myself.
I don't think any child is born with this attitude; not really. Children start to 'sort' from when they are very young. They don't know about race but they can see skin shades and they aren't stupid; of course they use it as a sorting tool, as a way of determining who 'belongs' and of course they are sometimes unkind about it and sometimes downright horrible. Why does this surprise us? Why would we expect that kids would get this right? People who think that children are pure and know no evil - have you ever met a child? Children do a whole lot of stuff that I wouldn't want to see in an adult: tantrums, hitting, biting and a whole lot of smearing vegetables in their hair. Our job as adults is to take all of their baser instincts, face them head on, and guide them towards being the kind of adults that we want in society. This includes being adults who have learned to see people for their whole selves - including ethnicity and skin - but not define them solely by it. It also includes not telling the world when you are about to poop, but that one is a long way off in our house.
It seems to me that racism is the ugly flip-side of the desire to belong. Humans want to be part of a group, and that's a good desire. But wanting to define my group too easily turns into defining those who are not in my group: not liked, not welcome, not equal. Excluding one group of people fosters a feeling of belonging in those who are included. Children love this, and adults often love it too. Stretching one's definition of belonging to include people who dress differently from me, look different and speak differently is not automatic. If it was automatic for you, if it never, ever feels like an issue - well, good for you. That must be nice.
And I think you're probably lying.
But I feel like this lie is what we all should be saying; anything else leads to much clutching of pearls. It's that only-bad-people-are-racist thing again. (Did you hear her admit that she doesn't always love people who are different? That she is raaaaaaaaaaaacist? And her with those two precious brown children!) If I'm honest, I find it kind of odd. After all, admitting that we all tend towards racial prejudice doesn't mean it's okay. Far from it. It's like selfishness or greed or envy or any one of the other awful things that we humans do which come naturally to us. I am ashamed of how far I still have to go in dealing with this, but I'm not ashamed to talk about it. Again - how can I possibly work on something if I won't admit that it's there?
(It's probably worth saying at this point that yes, I think we are probably all the same on the inside when it comes to this issue. I don't think that Black people, or Hispanic people, or Asian people are any 'better' than White people. I don't think they are made of different stuff. I don't think their almond or cocoa or copper hearts are any purer than my peachy-pink heart, even though it's us peachy-pink ones who benefit from most of the power structures that are in place in the West. I'm sure that people of all shades have their own heart issues to work on. But in a way, that's none of my business. It's vanilla-flavoured racism I need to deal with because I am White).
And I am dealing with it. My thoughts and attitudes have changed immeasurably over the last few years, and I'm nothing but glad about that. The irony, of course, is that when I knew absolutely nothing, I thought I knew everything. I thought I had nothing of which to repent. And now that I know a bit more, I realise how far I have to go.
Being racist isn't about being a good person or a bad person. That's not how it works. It's too serious an issue to pretend that it's something that other people do, something that only bad people need to deal with. I still don't know how to talk about this issue with people who are still at the 'denial' stage, but maybe I need to work on being more open about how I think this is actually something that affects all of us; including me; especially me.
So. My name is Claudia (well, okay, actually it's not) and I struggle with racial prejudice. And I bet you do too. And I would love to reach a point where one of us would be able to say to the other "I'm not sure I agree with that generalisation about that group of people" and for the other to then say "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I was being prejudiced. Thanks for calling me out; I need to work on that". And then the first person would say "Any time; and by the way, I think your family is very good-looking" and we would high-five each other and go on our way.
A girl can dream, right?