When I started this blog it was not my intention to dwell on heavy topics all the time. I have a finely honed appreciation for the absurd (perhaps as a result of too many SCTV episodes), and I wanted to share that lighthearted side of myself here. Recently however, I keep having these really good conversations around racism so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts today.
Last night, my partner and I were discussing the pitfalls of pointing out their racism to liberal friends. Because they are liberal and often well-intentioned, they really have a hard time hearing that some of the things they say or do or attitudes they have are racist. They are insulted and think that you are categorizing them with cross-burning, tree-lynching fanatics. And when that happens, it stifles any further conversation which is unfortunate because the opportunity to alleviate ignorance is lost.
The way I see it there is ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is simply not knowing about something but having the ability or desire to learn. Stupidity is having the knowledge about something but choosing not to act on that knowledge. Ignorance is treatable. Stupidity is terminal.
People who consider themselves liberal like to think of themselves as pretty smart cookies. So when you tell them they are racist (or hold racist beliefs or attitudes), and that their racism stems from ignorance, they tend to get riled and defensive. I know that you are not personally responsible for slavery. I know that you never use the “N” word (at least in my presence). I know that you are not a cross burner. That’s not the racism I’m talking about. It’s the subtle words (some said in jest), actions and attitudes that betray a person’s racism.
I’ve often referred people to a little book I picked up years ago at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival (that obligatory lesbian pilgrimage). The book is titled, “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned” by Amoja Three Rivers.
Chapter 6 is titled, “Just Don’t Do This, Okay?”. The first “Don’t Do” item listed is my personal favourite: “Do no grab, pat, pull on, feel caress or touch the hair of a person of color, unless you have a personal, equitable relationship with him/her; unless you know them well enough to flirt with them, unless invited to do so. … Remember, people of color are not specimens or exhibits, and this is not a petting zoo. Touching the hair is considered a very personal thing to many people.”
Amoja writes a very good chapter on ethnocentrism. My Oxford dictionary defines ethnocentric as: “regarding one’s own race as the most important”. Dictionary.com defines ethnocentrism as: “The tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one’s own ethnic group, especially with the conviction that one’s own ethnic group is superior to the other groups”.
As I move through my menopausal milestones and slip into my dottage, my experience has been that everybody tends to “evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one’s own ethnic group”. I think it is human nature to seek others like ourselves and to be guarded when we encounter those not like ourselves. I don’t know if this is a primitive protection mechanism or simply learned behaviour but when you honestly examine it, do we not tend to associate with others with whom we can identify or share common beliefs or experiences? Of course by saying this I am not making an excuse for racist behaviour or attitudes but simply acknowledging a point of human nature.
We live in a world which seems to be sustained by continually reminding us of “otherness” – look at them, they look funny, they wear strange clothes, their food smells different, they talk with an accent, their skin colour is not like ours, their religious beliefs are mysterious etc. We are conditioned to be racist.
I remember years ago hearing an anti-racist worker saying that it was impossible for minority people to be racist. Her rationale was that since minorities had no real power in the dominant society, they could not perpetrate racism. I say that’s bullshit. Let’s think about this minority thing for a moment. Yes, it’s true that here in Canada and the US, people of colour are in the minority. But if you look globally, people of colour actually constitue the majority of people on this planet. So why don’t we call ourselves, “World Majority People”?
My point here is that since we live in a society which conditions us to recognize and fear anything unlike ourselves and our experience, all people are infected with racism.
Racism, to me is like a strain of the herpes virus. There are seven strains of herpes viruses known to infect humans. I’d like to mention two of them. The first is the Varicella Zoster virus. Varicella is commonly known as chickenpox while herpes zoster is known as shingles. You ususally get chicken pox as a child but later in life the virus can reappear as shingles. The other is the Herpes Simplex Virus.
This is the virus that causes things like cold sores and genital herpes. Incidentially, for more information about genital herpes visit this link.
I’m not a virologist but I’ll try to give a basic explaination based on what I remember from my university days. Virtually 100% of adult humans have antibodies for the herpes simples virus. That means that we all have been exposed to it and the virus resides somewhere in our bodies. As far as chicken pox, I don’t know anyone of my age group who didn’t get chicken pox as a child. So that means that we also carry this virus within our bodies.
The thing with these herpes viruses is that although we may recover from an initial episode and go on to show no symptoms, the virus lies dormant in our systems until some stressor (possible stressors include: stress, febrile illnesses, menstruation or immunosuppression), triggers the virus to resurface. Hence the cold sore popping out the day before your wedding or the bout of shingles you get just when you think you’ve recovered from the flu.
In this way racism is like these viruses. Even though we hate to admit it, we are infected with racism. The antibodies of etiquette or political correctness may keep our racism at bay until a stressor is introduced. I don’t know a better way to illustrate this than to compel you to see the movie Crash.
“Having racism” doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. Archie Bunker wasn’t a bad person, he was simply ignorant. As a matter of fact, Archie is the perfect illustration of the ignorance-stupidity thought. Watch a couple of re-runs and I think you’ll understand what I mean.
Finally, in another conversation I had with a friend about racism in Canada vs the US, I told her there is a big difference between the racism in the US and in Canada. In both countries the racism is systemic but in the US they will call you a nigger to your face where in Canada, they just whisper it behind your back.
I think I like the US brand of racism better.
I say it’s like dog shit. When it’s out on the side walk in plain view you can step around or over it. But when the shit is hidden in tall grass, you can’t see it so you’re more likely to step in it. In Canada, the shit’s in tall grass so you can be going merrily along thinking everything is fine when, squish, you step in the shit and didn’t even see it coming.
Once in the late 80s I drove down to Daytona Beach, Florida. It was a long drive but we took our time and traveled through Tennessee and Georgia stopping occasionally for gas, food or a little shopping. I immediately became aware that in every store I visited, if I was not outright followed, I was kept an eye on by the store’s staff. This has only happened to me once before on a trip to Chicago.
In one restaurant while waiting for the hostess, I noticed that all the white people were sitting on one side of the restaurant and the black people were seated on the side closest to the kitchen. When the hostess came to seat me, of course I was seated in the section with all the coloured folk. Later, when my white traveling companion arrived to join me, she asked if we wanted to switch tables and seemed quite uncomfortable when we refused. None of these incidences really bothered me as I expected to experience some of this in the US. I actually found it rather amusing and when things like this happened I made a point of engaging the person in pleasant conversation.
In the early 90s I had the opportunity to work in a Canadian community north of the Arctic watershed. (that’s a whole other blog) My kids and I would spend weekends at a coworker’s camp by a lake. Every weekend my friend and I would visit in the little country general store to shop for provisions and chat up the women who ran the store. I thought these women were very friendly and were nice to me whenever we stopped in. One afternoon I went to the general store by myself to use their air compressor to blow up a couple of inner tubes I brought so my kids could play with them in the lake. When I asked to use the compressor they told me it was broken and I should try driving up to the lodge and maybe they would let me use theirs. I drove to the lodge and funny, their air compressor was broken too.
When I returned to the camp with the still deflated tubes I told my friend, who by the way was white – hmm, I believe she still is – that the compressor was broken. She wondered how that could be possible when she saw someone filling their tires earlier that day. So she took the inner tubes to the general store and guess what? The compressor was working! See what I mean? Dog shit in the tall grass.