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Working On Subconscious Racism

How’s this for a hook to get you reading this article: I am racist. But then, you are probably, too. Let me explain.

Racism doesn’t just mean actively hating or attacking People of Colour (PoC). I think that is a very crude way to understand racism.

Like it or not, we are brought up in a racist society. PoC find it much harder to advance in middle-class jobs. PoC are much more likely to be imprisoned. Abuse from police is practically a fact of life for PoC.

Most people don’t think of themselves as racist. I don’t think everyone who discriminates against PoC thinks of themselves as racist. But then, PoC still report experiencing these discriminations. Probably, when someone discriminates, most of the time they don’t even think that they are discriminating because of race. The discrimination is subconscious.

I experience something similar as a queer (trans and bisexual) person. I noticed clearly that when I came out as queer, people started to treat me worse in general. They’d do things to me they never would have done before, such as throwing me out of groups and spaces with nothing but paper-thin excuses. But they never admitted to me, and seemingly not to themselves, why they were doing it. Simply put, no matter how progressive they thought they were, subconsciously they felt uncomfortable about me.

In the same way, even though I don’t want to be racist and I would never consciously do a racist thing, I still am racist. I have unconscious thought patterns inherited from my racist society which cause me to discriminate unconsciously.

I believe that the only way to change this is to make a continuous effort over time. I don’t know if you ever finish this task, but I certainly am not finished.

A Couple Of Notes

A couple of notes:

1. I’m writing with a European view: in the United States, black slavery was historically much more widespread than in Europe, and seems to have left a particular legacy. I think this causes the situations in Europe and the USA to be different in many ways, though I believe that the basic structure of racism is the same.

2. On terms: PoC is a term meaning anyone who is not white. This encompasses black people and others who experience racism, including those who have ethnic origins in India, South America, East Asia, and so on.

The other term I use in this article is “black”. I used to be uncomfortable with this term because I wasn’t sure if it was politically correct enough, but “African American” is absurd to use in a European context (and even in the USA it’s not always accurate). “Black” nowadays seems to be the most common term, including among black people, so I go with that.

Incidentally, “white” is actually an interesting term, seeing as a white person from Italy might have a darker skin than a Person of Colour from Japan. As well as this, in the USA “hispanic” is classified as a non-white race, even though many hispanic people are ultimately of European origin and are as pale in colour as many “white” US-Americans. It seems that rather than referring to colour itself, “white” refers to a group that enjoys dominance over the others.

Discovering My Subconscious Racism

I first discovered my subconscious racism when reading a Timothy Ferriss blog post. I mildly dislike Ferriss and don’t feel like giving him publicity, so I’ll just copy the part that started me down this road of self discovery:

Would you call yourself a racist? I bet you wouldn’t, and I bet you are.

Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) for race as many times as you like. I’m not a betting man, but I’ll bet you come up as racist, regardless of race.

(The rest of the article is about investing and is completely irrelevant to this post).

I took the test then, expecting to be the one to defy his expectations, and came up with the result: strong automatic preference for white people. Subconsciously, I was racist. Strongly racist, apparently. (To be exact: in the top 50%).

I felt incredibly uncomfortable then. I’m not a bad person! I don’t attack or insult black people! But subconsciously, I was more likely to associate negative things with black people. My conscious mind can work to overcome that bias, but still, a lot of things we do are subconscious. In subtle things, like the warmth of my voice and facial expressions, or the general opinion I have of a person, this bias would be likely to come through, and that, in turn, can affect someone’s self esteem and general wellbeing. I was subconsciously contributing to the oppression of PoC, whether I consciously wanted to or not.

I didn’t know what to do then, and so that fact, while disturbing to me, ended up on the backburner. It was some years before I returned to thinking about my subconscious racism and what to do about it.

Thinking About Social Justice As A Whole

The trigger for me to start thinking about racism again was getting into social justice topics as a whole. Undergoing a gender transition hit me with a triple whammy: suddenly I was the subject of sexism, transphobia, and homophobia, which I hadn’t been before. These oppressions both came from the outside and from the inside: though I had never thought of myself as sexist, transphobic or homophobic, I found myself dealing with extreme personal discomfort towards my own identities. In order to be halfway functional, I had to learn to find positive associations with my identities.

Once I dealt with these three oppressions enough to feel functional, I started to think about how I might be discriminating against other groups subconsciously. As well as this, I began surrounding myself with people who were aware of social justice issues, and my social environment began to be supportive and encouraging towards exploring anti-racism.

Subtle Thoughts

As I became more aware of how oppressions work, and more able to admit to myself that I was subconsciously oppressive, I started to notice subtle thoughts that had been completely unconscious before. Sometimes I would look at a black man and just assume he was dangerous. Or I would see a woman wearing a hijab and think angrily, “what are you doing here??”. Noticing these thoughts shocked me, because they were so at odds with my conscious thoughts. It was almost as if a different person was thinking these things.

It took me a long time to be able to write what I’ve just written above. To begin with I was far too ashamed. Over time, I’ve started to see that I don’t have to be ashamed of my subsconscious patterns. I mean, they are harmful. But shame helps nothing. And if I can accept my subconscious racism, then I am more able to bring it into consciousness and then work on it. Shame about something tends to push it into subconsciousness.

So I’ve forgiven myself my oppressiveness, and also forgiven the oppressiveness of others. I no longer think someone is a horrible person just for being subconsciously oppressive. I’m much more ingratiated to them if they choose to work on their oppressiveness, but I do recognise that this is something you have to work on and not something you change just by deciding to be a good person. Actually, who in history has ever decided they wanted to be a bad person?

One day I was looking at a picture of different flowers. They were all the same species, but there was a white one, a red one, a blue one, and so on. I had the sudden thought: white is a colour. I mean, that’s obvious with flowers, right? A white flower feels the same as a red flower, just slightly different in appearance. So how is it that a white human seems like the “normal” sort of human, and the other colours of human are the anomalies? Imagining us all to be different flowers with different colours gave me a perspective that seemed to conflict with how I had been raised to see people.

Listening To The Viewpoints Of PoC

My experience with gender transition was so powerful and so enlightening I almost wish I could try being a black person for a while just so I could be forced to deal with my racism in the same way. I’ve thought very briefly about trying to pass as a black person, but I think there are about a hundred reasons why that would be a bad idea.

Still, I guess if I put the same effort into anti-racism as I did into anti-homophobia and anti-sexism, I’d manage to change something in my head. Perhaps because I’m racist, I still haven’t put the same level of effort in. Perhaps it’s also because I’m overwhelmed with my transition, though, and I hope to go much further in future when I have more energy to spare.

For now, I think the most useful thing for me has been to listen to the viewpoints of (politically aware) PoC. I get some articles in my Facebook feed. I read the rants of some of my political PoC Facebook friends. When racism-related events come up in the news, I try to get a perspective on them from PoC (e.g. from This Week In Blackness).

Incidentally there is something a bit weird about a white person trying to teach other white people about racism, and the only way I know of to deal with this discord is to suggest to you that you go and read three articles written by PoC in order to balance out reading this article. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be writing this, but I suppose that if you hadn’t read it you wouldn’t have even thought to go read articles written by PoC. So really. Go read them. Here are some suggestions:

Unemployed Black Woman Pretends to be White, Job Offers Suddenly Skyrocket

Meet The Somalis (Drawn by a white person but featuring stories told by black people. Particularly interesting for me because it provides a view of racism in Europe)

10 Simple Rules For Being A Non Racist White Person

And if you’ve read those here’s another for bonus points:

How Racism Works In 2014

Making Black People More Visible

Another way I think I’ve improved on my racism has been to make black people more visible in my life.

Once upon a time, I met a woman with a tattoo of the African continent. When I asked about it, she said that she wanted to make Africa more visible to people. She also had an email address that started with africavisible. Every time she sent an email, people saw that simple message.

Over time since then, I’ve become more aware that black people and Africa are not much talked about. There is so much culture in Africa, yet we only hear about Africa when someone is talking about foreign aid. For that matter, Rock and Roll – or to put it another way – modern music – was invented by black Americans, yet most people seem to be completely ignorant about this.

I recently contemplated a packet of potato chips which was labelled African flavour. I had actually eaten that variety of chips a couple of times before then, before I suddenly realised how strange the name was. African flavour? What other continent could be summed up in a single flavour? What would it sound like if we made a pack of chips labelled European flavour or North American flavour?

I think the fact that it’s possible to make an African flavour bag of chips without many people complaining is because most people around here know incredibly little about Africa and care even less.

Invisibility Carries Its Own Message

And why is this? I thought about it and it seemed there was a parallel with my experiences as a queer person. I experience a lot of discrimination as a bisexual trans woman, and yet I suppose most – or at least many – people weren’t brought up with overtly negative messages about queer people. I wasn’t; at least not from my parents and not so much from the media. Instead, my parents and the media simply acted like queer people didn’t exist. And I think this sends a message. Why would you avoid talking about something in such a pointed way unless you found it shameful? I think that we pick up on this message subconsciously. Queer people are not appropriate topics of conversation. Queer people are not appropriate.

Now, as I contemplated my bag of potato chips I thought there was a parallel here. Our culture just doesn’t talk about Africa. Our culture just doesn’t talk about black people. Again, the message: black people are not appropriate topics of conversation. Black people are not appropriate.

I thought that a good way of countering this in my head was to go out and seek greater black visibility in my life. For instance, I spent some time reading about erased black history (I can’t find the website I was on, but I do recommend googling “black history”). And, inspired by the potato chips, I decided to spend some time reading about African cuisine – as in, the different cuisines of different cultures in Africa – and start making some of those recipes. I subscribed to a Facebook group called “I Love Being Black” to see more positive images of black people. And so on.

The Invisibility Of Oppression

I think part of the way oppressions work is by being invisible. So many non-queer people seem to think that queerphobia just doesn’t exist nowadays, whereas I experience queerphobia as a constant drain on my wellbeing, energy and mental health that accumulates until it is practically crippling. In the same way, people seem to think racism doesn’t exist or is simply the realm of a few, caricaturish thugs rather than the pervasive, everyday thing it really is.

When you recognise that an oppression exists, you can start to work against it. So that is the first step.

I can’t speak for PoC, but I can say that in my experience as a queer person, I feel most comfortable with people who admit they have subconscious queerphobia, rather than those who think they are completely not queerphobic at all. I often say that the only person who says they are not queerphobic is the one who has never examined themselves very closely. I suppose this goes for all or most systemic oppressions.

So, I guess, examine yourself and try and see where you are racist. Seeing it is the first step. Then you can start work.

Incidentally, I just tried the Harvard Implicit Association Test again. The result? Still strong automatic preference for white people. Another small blow to my ego, but less unexpected than last time. I’ll keep working on it.



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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Albalida November 19, 2014, 11:32 pm

    Jane Elliott created a quite controversial program to answer her kindergarten students’ questions about the death of Martin Luther King. I think it simply activated an already-present acceptance and encouragement of bullying, except when they realize that the motivation must be challenged into definition rather than something to be accepted as part of the world, then they realized that it’s bad to direct harmful behavior towards it.

    So, if you’re curious about exploring the thorough experience of racial marginalization, there’s that, but so few people who are put through the program see it that way.

    I’ve heard that playing Mass Effect does the same thing, too, because it’s set up where a person is othered as a human among more dominant extraterrestrial races or something. I watched my cousin play and kept half an ear out, and, from what I heard, there’s frequent attention called to how human the human is but at the same time the human would be invisible in the sense of that the intergalactic infrastructure and culture isn’t made specifically for the human.

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