Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Racist Hole

So it seems everyone's talking about racism these days.  Some are talking about how it's a problem, others are claiming the only problem is that people are still talking about it!  Now I'm going to take a somewhat controversial step here and say that racism is a BAD THING.  Furthermore it's a bad thing THAT EXISTS (whether you want it to or not).  Therefore we should talk about it, even if it makes us uncomfortable.  Bad things that exist do not stop existing when you stop talking about them.  In fact, they tend to thrive in the dark.

OK so maybe now you're thinking "Yay! Another lecture about race!" or maybe "Yay! Another white guy is finally online to explain to everyone how racism works!" but rest assured that is not my area of expertise.  I'm not here to even pretend I know what people of colour go through or how much systemic discrimination can hurt.  I don't have vast qualifications in the area and I'm not here to heal centuries of damage done by racism both overt and subtle.  No, I'm here to talk about race as a reformed racist.  This isn't going to be for everyone.  If you don't think you've ever been racist then you're probably not going to find anything of worth here.  If you're racist and happy with that then I doubt you're going to like anything that follows either.  However if you do know in your heart that you can sometimes be racist and you really dislike that about yourself then maybe my story can help a little bit.

I don't know what your story is or how you came to be you but I used to be racist because I was raised in a small town in Apartheid era South Africa.  Racism was pretty much our way of life.  Growing up, I didn't even consider the names we had for other races to be insults or racial slurs, they were just the names you used to refer to other races.  It's not like we were having big evil meetings and planning to how to make other races miserable, growing up, that was just the only way I knew how to see the world.  OK sure, I had an uncle who ran a whites only resort till way after that stopped being considered OK in this country and who proudly framed the newspaper article on the Indian family he turned away but we weren't all like that.  My parents were pretty liberal all things considered.  Growing up I just thought we were in charge of all the other races for their own good.  Eventually though, Apartheid ended and it was right around the time I was finishing school and had to go away to study in the big city where I finally got to meet and live with other races and that's where things started to change for me.

But this is not the story of how I stopped being racist, I'm just telling you all this so you know where I came from.  I was racist through and through and I saw no problem with it.  Now I do and I try not to be.  Your story may be less severe than that but hopefully you can relate at least somewhat.

OK so with all that out the way I hope you didn't stick around for the secret of how to be cured of racism forever because I can't give you that.  Believe me, if it was possible to make racism disappear through the sheer power of wishing really hard and declaring it to be so then there would be negative amounts of racism in South Africa at this point!  So no, I can't offer you a cure because there isn't one.  Racism - especially if it's something that got deep inside you at a young age - is not like a disease you can just be cured of, it's going to be a part of you for as long as you live.  You can be fine for long periods but every once in a while you're going to get mad and suddenly find a racial slur on the tip of your tongue.  Or you'll be watching the news and see something upsetting and before you even realise it you're saying something not about "that person who did that bad thing" but instead talk about "those people".  Or maybe you won't even be mad, you'll be in a great mood and without thinking make an assumption about someone that is just a horrible stereotype and say something hurtful.  It sneaks up on you.  It's subtle and even with the best of intentions it's going to surface from time to time.

So no, racism is not like a disease or at least not a disease you can take a cure for.  Being racist (while wanting to do better) is more like being on a life long boat journey and your boat has a hole in it.  Often things are going to go fine but every now and again you'll find that something starts leaking through the hole.

So here is my advice, do with it what you will.  Accept that the hole exist, no good comes from pretending it doesn't.   I know it can be more comforting to tell yourself there is no hole and that you're whole and that everything is fine but that's not helping anyone.  Check for leaks often.  When the leaks happen - and they will, don't kid yourself - then stop, clear it out and continue on your journey.  Eventually you may be so good at spotting leaks that you have to spend very little time bailing.  Maybe that never happens and maybe for you this will always be work.  Just remember, it's not a disaster until you decide to give up.  The hole is bad, don't let it fill up your boat.  Facing it head on is hard work but you grow into a better person by doing it.  This is a good work, do not tire of it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shut up and listen

Have you heard about those students who came up with the date rape drug detecting nail polish?

When I first saw this news making the rounds on social media I thought it was awesome news!  Unlike a certain locally invented product, this can actually prevent rape from ever taking place so surely this would be good news for everyone (except rapists).  So I was more than a little bit surprised when I saw that a lot of people were actually very unhappy with this development and they weren't rapists, they were my feminist friends!

They were arguing that once again this "solution" ignores the real problem - the rapists - and instead adds yet another weight to the already massive burden we place on women to prevent their own rapes.  Now added to: don't go out alone, don't wear a mini skirt, don't flirt, don't drink too much & don't get separated from your friends we are adding "wear date rape detecting nail polish".  This makes not getting raped the woman's problem and does nothing to stop guys from being rapists.

Now my first response to that was to say, "You know what? I get it!  Teaching about consent should be a prominent part of sex ed and guys need to be taught that sleeping with a girl too drunk to know her own name is not sex but rape, etc BUT those are all long term strategies and this nail polish can help someone right now.  Why can't it all be part of a multi-pronged approach to ending instances of rape?"

But then I went to breakfast.

While waiting for my food I couldn't help but overhear the table next to me talking.  So one young lady at the table seems to be some kind of traveling salesperson, not sure for what and she was telling a story of something that recently happened to her.  She had an appointment with a guy living on a homestead just a bit outside of the city.  When she arrived the guy asked her if she wanted a cooldrink which she declined.  He then became very insistent that she have a drink but she kept on refusing and eventually he said he was going to get himself a drink and she should have one with him.  After clearly hearing him stirring something in the kitchen he returns with one glass and claimed that he had his drink in the kitchen and she should have her drink now.  She still refused and quickly became aware that he had no interest at all in whatever she was selling and was just focused on her drinking her drink.  So she left and now got to tell this as one of those "a funny thing happened to me on the job the other day" stories and not the obvious horror story it almost was.  No, scratch that, it was still a horror story, I was horrified just eavesdropping!  But to her, and I assume her friends at the table, this was just one of those things that happens and you have to deal with.

That's when it hit me.  The truth was that no, I did not actually "get it".  I don't know what life is like for women.  I can't.  Their experience of this world is at time completely alien to mine.  And this goes way beyond that.  There are social, racial and political realities I do not and cannot experience.  Why then do I feel the need to say, "Look guys I may have no experience of your problem but I'm a smart guy so shut up and listen to me while I hand down the solutions to all your problems"?  That sort of thing really makes someone seem like a huge asshole, even if those aren't the exact words used.  I think we all do it sometimes and we probably don't even mean it that way but that is kind of what it sounds like.  At least that's what it sounds like to me whenever the roles are reversed.

So maybe the answer is to not be so quick to give my 2 cents in every single matter.  Maybe the best thing would be for me to shut up and listen.  Really listen, not just wait for an opening to step in and unveil my solution.  After all, even if I'm right, why should anyone give me the time of day if I'm not willing to make a real effort to understand where they're coming from?

Look, I'm not saying you should never get to speak your mind or have an opinion.  But seriously, if you feel the need to always have your opinion heard, valued and admired in every situation regardless of how well informed you are then what kind of person does that make you?