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.


Dasia said...

That's a useful way to see it. I was also raised in a casually racist home (Russians hate everyone who's not Russian - and most people who are - but yeah) and my main 'awakening' moment was in my teens.

I realised that making assumptions about a whole group based on your tiny anecdotal experience of its members is profoundly lazy thinking. From then on I tried to deal with everyone I met as an individual and guard against assumptions I had about them. It sounds cheesy but that's what flicked the switch for me.

And of course, learning about white privilege blew my mind.

And you're right, it doesn't ever really leave you. Not-being-an-asshole is a daily uphill when you've been raised to see yourself as superior.

Dude I promise to catch up with your blog. You write the good brain-thinky things.

Eugene said...

Thanks Dasia!