Beginning to Understand Our Impact

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North America » United States
June 3rd 2020
Published: June 4th 2020
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Have you ever tried to tell someone that they’ve upset you, only to feel like you’re talking to a brick wall? Like, what you’re saying to them might as well be in a different language, because they just aren’t wrapping their mind around your perspective. Have you ever become so utterly flustered, so teeth-grittingly frustrated that your hurt has turned into anger and then the whole conversation turns into how you’ve over-reacted, instead of fixing what was broken in the first place?

I know I have. I know I have had conversations that started out civil, and by the end of them, I’m acting in ways almost uncharacteristic of myself, crying angry tears, slamming doors, because it’s so clear I’m not getting anywhere with words— like the wall of ignorance to my suffering will not come down.

Fact- I don’t know what it’s like to be black. Also fact- we all know what it’s like to be human. There are extremely important distinctions there, but hear me out:

We all know what it feels like not to be heard, and how it hurts especially when it’s happening with someone who has some sort of grip on the essentials of your life. We all know that when we don’t feel heard, or validated, we get angry. For many of us, however, we become livid over subjects far inferior to the subjects of our safety, or our children’s lives. Nonetheless, we have learned from these experiences that when people stonewall something that is important to someone (or to many people), minimize it, or know too little about it to have an opinion, they not only hurt those involved, but exacerbate the eventual outcry.

I’m not a sociologist, or an anthropologist, or a Person of Color, for that matter. But I’m pretty decent at explaining social concepts through writing—it’s my art of choice. From an academic standpoint, I had the knowledge to be a slightly better person when I understood certain social constructs and, therefore, began to understand that white people’s ignorance to those constructs is detrimental to People of Color. Since our world today is polarized by the offense and the defense, perhaps having an opportunity to read about these ideas at leisure (in, say, a blog) might be an approachable introduction to them. The circumstances at hand certainly question the effectiveness of approachability, but for those of you who haven’t been introduced to these social factors up close, approachability is a start.

The introductory theme I have found most difficult to explain to my friends and family when debating the magnitude of racism is explicit racism versus implicit racism. If you’ve already studied up, maybe you can stop reading now—but if you can’t name 5 examples of each, then keep reading. This is the beginner’s guide to how you’re totally a racist (and so is every white person, so sit down).

The word RACIST throws dinner tables into Armageddon, putting dads on the defense, and eliciting whines from sweet grandma, sung “I’m the least racist person everrrrrr…..?!” We love you, grandma, but do you even know the history of your new-years collards recipe? ( Didn’t think so.

Let’s just assume that most people (except for sociopaths, yikes..), don’t wake up thinking “I’m going to be an asshole today.” Most people are doing what they have been socialized to believe is their best. “Good” people try not to be explicitly racist:

“Explicit racism is overt and often intentional, for it is practiced by individuals and institutions that openly embrace racial discrimination and hold prejudicial attitudes toward racially defined groups, which they assume to be scientifically identified through genetics (”

In other words, it’s intentional. These bottom-feeders do exist in unfortunate numbers. Most of us, however, know not to be a Klu Klux Kelly or use the “N” word. Before you give yourself a pat on the back, just know that you’re still definitely a racist (keep saying it, it gets easier), and your passive racism is actively hurting black people every day.

Let’s talk about the racism that has unfortunate deniability: Implicit Racism (It’s got you, me, and those collards, Grandma, so buckle that ass up.)

“Implicit racism is an automatic negative reaction to someone of a different race or ethnicity than one’s own. Underlying and unconscious racist attitudes are brought forth when a person is faced with race-related triggers, including preconceived phenotypic differences or assumed cultural or environmental associations. Since this type of racism lies beyond the awareness of the person displaying the attitudes or actions, it is quite possible for someone to report that they hold few, if any, overt racist ideologies and yet display implicit racism in their everyday interactions with people of different racial groups (”

I’d like to add that racism can only exist in a social power-dynamic, like white people being racist against black people. In the same regard, all -isms exist in a power dynamic. It’s the power majority practicing the -ism against the power minority. Often, the immediate reaction from white people in talks about racism is something about “my ancestors faced prejudice too.” And that, they did. Understanding racism doesn’t mean you have to give up the pride in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps as a white person. It means you understand that racism is racial prejudice accompanied by power. If that concept isn’t adding up, the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Center explains it pretty well: www.aclrc/racism-and-power

In other words, implicit racism is the sum of the biases you’ve been white-knuckle gripping for your WHOLE (insert clapping hands) DANG (insert clapping hands) LIFE (insert clapping hands).

To break down our own experience of this, we have to do a little brain-ninja-ing. Because this kind of racism has been socialized into us from early on, we often can’t admit we are racist until we do a self-study. Let me give you some examples of what it looks like, and again, more importantly, how it negatively affects black people.

Exhibit A: Rides car past a black woman on a bicycle

Conscious thought (or statement)- “Oh, that’s actually a pretty nice bike.”

Subconscious thought- “It is not normal for a black woman to have a nice bike.”

Indication of subconscious thought- “Black people can’t afford nice things. Black people are poor.”

If everyone with implicit racist biases (every white person) subconsciously feels that black people can’t afford nice things, how might that affect our feelings about black people and theft? Black people and crime? Black people and employability? Are we more likely to accuse a person of stealing if we subconsciously feel that they can’t obtain those things for themselves? Are we less likely to anticipate professionality in a job interview with a black person because we subconsciously think black people are poor?

Exhibit B: Receives a hand-written thank-you note from a black neighbor

Conscious thought (or statement)- “wow, that handwriting was actually impeccable.”

Subconscious thought- “I don’t expect black people to have good hand-writing.”

Indication of subconscious thought- “Black people are less educated, and/or can’t perform basic tasks to the same standard I would expect in a white person.”

If every person with implicit racist biases subconsciously feels that black people can’t perform tasks as well as white people, what does that mean for work, life, and educational opportunities for black people? If the work, life, and educational opportunities for black people are negatively affected by implicit biases, what does that mean for rates of illicit work, or cycles of poverty?

These examples may seem silly, or the indications disproportionate, but that’s exactly why they are important. When these thoughts and feelings about black people are compounded, the entire aura around the white to black relationship is marred by them, limiting our ability to build meaningful relationships, and otherwise destroying the ability for black people to feel valued in a society that is largely dominated by white people. Living the way we have, we see only “other,” despite our hope of being “colorblind.” If we aren’t consistently checking in with our thought processes, and asking ourselves “If everyone’s subconscious was shaped by this thought, what would that mean for black people?” then we are participating in a system that destroys black lives before they’ve even begun. We are discrediting our critical thinking skills by saying we are not racist.

So, as a beginner’s guide, maybe today’s not the day you’ll march, or outwardly support protests or even admit you’re racist. Maybe today is the day you’ll begin thinking critically about your thinking, paving a path to clarity. Maybe today we work, together, to not be so afraid, so trigger happy, so quick to devalue a life because our subconscious is telling us that black life is not valuable.

Let’s return to those conversations, when we couldn’t get our point across-- when someone was apathetic in their ability to understand your suffering. When you didn’t feel heard, didn’t you wish you could punch through that wall of numbness, just to make them hear you? Here’s a chance (insufficient as it may be) to start taking down the wall of our ignorance to implicit racism. The wall is coming down either way.

*shout out to Chris Oliver @chrisomusic for dope editing skills!*


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