Thursday, December 1, 2011

Racists = Bad People?

Recently I've been collecting nonfiction children's books (mostly from the 1990's, mostly library discards) addressing racism, including these titles: What Do We Think About Racism?; Talking About Racism; Let's Talk About Racism; What Do You Know About Racism; and How Do I Feel About Dealing with Racism. 

As a group, the books have some useful information, but most define racism as a confusing umbrella term that includes prejudice based on ethnicity, culture, religion and nationality as well as race.

But the biggest drawback shared by all the books is limiting the discussion of racism to overt, personal acts. The take-away message: Racism is something that bad people do.

Focusing only on individual racial bias overlooks the reality that racism is a system of advantage based on race. It fails to grapple with the ways in which all of us are socialized to play roles based on the racial group(s) we belong to. It doesn't address institutional racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, or the influence of the dominant racial culture, all of which are far more pervasive than individual acts of personal racism.

And it implies that well-meaning, well-intentioned people aren't likely to say or do something racist. This constricts our conversations because any suggestion that an action, attitude, or statement might show racial bias causes people, especially white people, to get extremely defensive, completely resistant, or deeply ashamed, because it's heard as an accusation that the perpetrator must be a bad person.

Recently, social commentator Jay Smooth gave an engaging and illuminating TED talk at Hampshire College - "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love Talking About Race" - addressing the problem of people's resistance to the idea that they might be showing racial bias.

Smooth advocates, with delightful humor, that we move from the "good person/bad person binary" to "the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse." He suggests that we equate a correction about race to the observation, "You have something stuck in your teeth."

Over the years, I've found the direction of remembering my own goodness to be quite useful in processing any feedback that my bias might be showing. If I know that my intention is good, then I can appreciate the mirror showing me any dissonance, offering me the chance to clean it up so that the impact matches my intention. I can choose to see the intervention as a kindness and respond, "Thanks! I needed that."

1 comment:

The Elephant Rag said...

He's brilliant, Jay Smooth. Thanks for the link and the tonsil-paradigm.