The purpose of [un]·learning isn’t about forgetting what you know, or about being wrong, it’s a conscious move towards critically examining what influences our expectations, behaviours and beliefs — about ourselves and other people — and seeks to challenge what may explicitly or implicitly lie behind them.
The most important aspect of [un]·learning that we can do right now is to tackle the cultural norms that perpetuate racism and oppression. Although I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States, it’s not an issue that’s exclusive to the USA. [Un]·learning is something we can all be committed to doing because we all have a part to play in dismantling everything that helps maintain racism within society.
Cultural norms are created and enforced by the dominant culture that governs and oversees the social systems that typically inform what we value and treat as enshrined societal truths and identity. Unpacking all the ways that racism and racial bias intersects with every interaction we have — from education, healthcare, relationships, news/media, professional and beauty standards, law enforcement, criminal justice, etc, is key to the critical thinking needed to [un]·learn.
Positioned as innocuous — which is a complete fallacy — norms present things through a White lens and place Whiteness as the default humanizing mirror by which everyone else is measured. This then provides an air of normalcy when mistreating and dehumanizing Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC).
Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared. Whiteness is also at the core of understanding race in America. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal. | Talking About Race – National Museum of African American History & Culture
If you’re new to [un]·learning your explicit and implicit racism — yes, we all have it to some degree, particularly as White people, even if we’re unaware of the influence it has on our thinking and behaviour — then you’ve got to get accustomed to critically examining where racism hides (in plain sight) in your life.
At every opportunity you get — whether it’s scrutinizing history education to see if there’s Whitewashing and colonial bias, or deciding what costume to wear for Halloween, or employment/school policies that show favouritism for European beauty and hair standards, or the news and media using tokenism to tackle a lack of diversity, or allowing police brutality to kill BIPoC with impunity — wherever you see discrimination being enforced in ANY context, you need to look carefully at whose perspective and voice is being centred.
Ask yourself who is being protected? Who benefits? And most importantly, who does it harm? And how can you make sure that changes? If you’re uncertain if Whiteness is being held up as the norm or default by which something is being measured or tailored to, consider who is being left out and why that may be. Ask who gains an advantage from other groups being overlooked. Your answers to these questions will help guide you.
This is [un]·learning in action.
And it doesn’t just stop with racism. When you start doing the work you realize that the purpose of [un]·learning is to disentangle all the ways in which narrow sets of standards or societal norms hold us back or try to impose some kind of otherization. We can embrace our bodies and celebrate the value that we inherently have as people without it being tied to how we look or how well our bodies fit into a socially constructed ideal. We can let go of the idea that our life’s successes have to follow some kind of timeframe or order. We can [un]·learn internalized misogyny, ageism, ableism and so much more. And if you feel exhausted just thinking about all the work this will entail, it’s not meant to be something you do to reach an end goal. It’s an entire journey of its own that needs to evolve with us.
It’s an opportunity — will you take it?
The Great Unlearn – Unlearning America’s Birth – Rachael Cargle
Teach and Transform – Liz Kleinrock
3 Things Schools Should Teach About America’s History of White Supremacy – The Conversation