If we’re committed to being an anti-racist and not just an ally (yes, there is a nuanced difference) then we have to make a conscious effort to unpack our own racism — which can be really uncomfortable — and remove the barriers we unconsciously put up when we’re made aware that something we’ve said, done or shared is racist.
It probably comes as no surprise that it’s incredibly difficult for White People — myself included — to reconcile with the fact that we all internalize, carry and perpetuate racist ideas and behaviours. Many of us would never consider ourselves willing participants in racism and the harm it inflicts, but the truth is, whether we’re able to admit it or not — we are. Racism is not just about explicit, violently bigoted, hate-filled ideologies, it’s also hidden within implicit bias that’s fueled by systemic and structural racism. Confronting these biases, which include harmful stereotypes and racial discrimination against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC), is often where becoming an anti-racist begins.
When it comes to healing America of racism, we want to heal America without pain, but without pain, there is no progress. |
So how do you typically respond when someone points out that your words, actions or behaviour is racist? Be honest. If you become defensive and try to justify your problematic behaviour, rather than addressing what you’ve been informed about, you’re most likely reacting to your own feelings of discomfort. And although this is a common reaction — I experience this too — it’s not an effective way of dealing with something as serious as racism, it needs to be tackled head-on. It’s important to remember that there’s no quick fix that will enable us to navigate unlearning implicit bias and racism easily. Actively working on how we react when we’re called out for conduct that is offensive, oppressive and inappropriate is, however, something we can start doing right now.
We all have implicit bias, those very subtle attitudes that associate stereotypes towards people, often without our conscious knowledge (but sometimes with it), that have been ingrained within our mindset since birth. They manifest in any number of ways from criminalizing normal, everyday behaviour and perceiving a threat when there is none and calling the police, to believing negative traits like laziness, drunkenness, etc is particular to certain people, or thinking that certain groups don’t feel pain in the same way as we do, or asserting that academic excellence in particular areas is either harder or easier to reach because of someones race/ethnicity, etc — these are just a few examples. In oversimplified terms, implicit bias is about relating to specific groups of people as ‘other’ and placing Whiteness as the norm through which everything else is measured. Implicit bias and the racism that fuels it, more often than not, places Whiteness as more advanced, better (superior) than everyone else, and we often don’t know we think this way until someone points it out.
Here are six things you can put into practice that will help you respond more effectively when you’re made aware that something you’ve done is racist …
Hear What’s Being Said | … and avoid trying to rationalize your position. You may be embarrassed or horrified by your actions, but don’t let your reactive emotions get in the way of engaging with what you’ve just learned. Listening with purpose means being able to stop yourself from trying to preserve your own feelings or try to prove that you couldn’t possibly be racist (which is itself highly problematic). Pause and take a moment to check your own biases and understand that your perspective has to take a backseat.
Communicate Respect | … and understand that if you’ve never been on the receiving end of individual or structural racism, then you don’t get to debate or compare your hypothetical idea with someone else’s lived experience. It’s okay to be upset, but your feelings are not central to what is being discussed, your education about racism and what you can do to change your thinking takes precedence.
Proximity Isn’t Protection | … and it doesn’t matter whether you have a diverse familial or social circle, you’re still capable of perpetuating racist thoughts and actions. Racism doesn’t disappear, lessen or get excused because you have a Black friend, for example. If you fail to see how you’re part of the problem then your connection to being part of the solution is superficial and performative. If you’re serious about being anti-racist, then you need to actively listen, learn and show up for the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in your life. There is no immunity from racism’s reach just because you have a BIPoC spouse, child, friend, colleague or neighbour.
Intentions Don’t Outweigh Outcome | … and well-meaning motivations do not absolve you from the consequences of your words and actions. By focusing on intention rather than impact, you can end up disregarding someone else’s pain, and that doesn’t leave much room for changed behaviour — which is the best kind of apology. When you know better, you can do better, it’s really that simple.
People Aren’t Getting More Offended | … racist “jokes”, comments, opinions, presumptions and perspectives have always been deeply offensive, you’re just more likely to get challenged about your racism today. People are not more sensitive, they are more empowered. Times change, and there’s a wealth of knowledge out there that can be accessed more quickly and clearly than ever before making it easier to recognize and denounce tired, old, racist tropes.
Don’t Try To Tone Police | … and remember that being educated about systemic, explicit and implicit racism — and not experiencing it yourself — is an extremely privileged position to be in. BIPoC are not obligated to lead you step-by-step through the process or make it more palatable for you to hear. The experiences and knowledge shared through their stories, social media, essays/writing, documentaries, protests, activism, etc are deeply personal and often carry immense trauma. Trying to control how someone communicates their lived experience so that you feel more comfortable hearing about it is incredibly disrespectful.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable when you’re becoming familiarised with your own implicit biases — it’s not meant to be easy. Anti-racism is not a quick course with a certificate of achievement awarded at the end to prove you’re not a racist, it’s a lifelong dedication to unlearning and then helping to dismantle racism in all it’s layers, facets and threads throughout society. It’s a dedication to fighting for equality, equity and then liberation — so it’s worth doing, which means it has to be done well, and if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it properly.
The Psychology of American Racism – APA PsychNet
How We Should Talk About Racial Disparities – Urban Institute
Books: How To Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi | So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo |