Sunday, 16 September 2018

Prejudice, the Individual, and "Aphorism 4"

Sepia photograph of Belgian royals visiting the Congo in colonial times.
I've had a generally good response to my recent posting of my “Maxims & Aphorisms”, which is good. There's still a lot of them to come – I've done a few of each, and there's actually 12 of each in the full collection (so far). Healthy debate has sometimes been sparked, and others have provoked general agreement or support.
The one I posted last Saturday, however, Aphorism 4, has provoked pretty emotive reaction. Indeed, to me it seems more so than the reaction to Maxim 4, which I perfectly expected to be controversial in some circles.
To save you the trouble of clicking through (though following the link above will allow you to view it in all its “text overlaid on a stock image” glory), Aphorism 4 reads as follows: “Every prejudice that exists in your society is a part of you. To deny it is to refuse to fight it.” Challenging, yes, but some of the reaction has been, rather than that of being challenged, that of being attacked. Some Friends, mostly American as far as I can see, have seen it as an extension of the “all white people are racist” attitude that they have felt regularly attacked by. I do not mention the nationality of those Friends to disparage them or their nation; rather, observing that perhaps social discourse in that country has led to a different reaction than might be found elsewhere.
The reaction has been such that I have decided, for the first time, to write a little commentary on the aphorism myself. I have not generally done that, because each of them has come to me as written ministry, complete and entire, and I do not consider myself to automatically have better insight into them than anyone else. To comment on them would be to compromise the delivery of that very short message. However, this one fits into a societal debate regarding which there are many experiences and perspectives, so I am going to share my reaction and understanding of the message – with the caveat that I do not consider it in any way authoritative.
Let's start with “all white people are racist”. Now, depending on how you understand these terms, and depending on the society in which you are making that statement, it has different shades of meaning, and thus validity. Some understandings of racism tie it directly to institutional or societal patterns of oppression, often including violence. It is this understanding of racism (and likewise of sexism) that leads to the idea that only white people (or men) can be racist (or sexist). Other understandings of such terms are that they speak only of the prejudice of the entity concerned – an individual, an organisation, or a society.
We might say that one version holds that racism only exists where society is racist, while the other has no such condition, being concerned only with the immediate context. It is worth noting, however, that even under the first definition, an individual can be the bearer of prejudice that is not in line with structural issues in society. That might be called racial prejudice, but it would not be racism. It's a bit of a toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe thing, though like the social model of disability the philosophy underlying the difference can be very important. For the purposes of any given discussion, a good starting point is using consistent definitions.
Think what you like of those definitions. I'm fairly agnostic, asking only that any conversation be clear which of them it is using. But take either of them and consider “all white people are racist”. In the first definition, that statement would be a corollary of “everyone bears racial prejudice” in the context of a society where white people are dominant. In the latter definition, it would also be clearly implied by the same proposition, it would just be leaving unstated the fact that people other than white people are also all racist. I'm going to avoid the issue by largely avoiding the use of “racist” and “sexist” and so on for the remainder of this post, and instead talk about prejudice and discrimination.
I know people who don't like that statement, either specifically about white people or about everyone, because they see it as needlessly confrontational. They see it as accusatory, as blaming, and not in any way constructive. I would agree, without any conversation developing from it, that it is confrontation, accusatory, and blaming – but not needlessly. It serves a purpose, but it is our defensiveness, especially for those who treasure their liberal/left-wing credentials, that stops it from achieving that purpose so much of the time. The real strength is where conversations develop from it. What do we mean that all white people are racist, or that everyone bears racial prejudice? It is fairly obvious that we don't mean that all white people are white supremacists (though where our society, the global economic north, has been shaped by white supremacist attitudes we – white people – all gained from that shaping). We don't mean that everyone wants a race war to show the supremacy of their own particular ethnic group or phenotype. I don't know what everyone who says it means by it, but I don't recall coming across anyone who actually meant that.
For me, part of the message of that particular saying is closely related to Aphorism 4. It is an indictment of those people, especially those in a dominant ethnic group, who claim to be “colour-blind” when it comes to people. Basically, it's calling bullshit on that idea.
I know that there are situations where, with all other things remaining equal, black people will leave me feeling more threatened than white people. Very few the other way. Does this mean that I bear racial prejudice? Absolutely, positively, from the definitions involved. I don't bear this prejudice because I think black people are more violent, more inclined to do me harm, or even more objectively motivated to do me harm. That reaction is in me for various reasons, some personal – bad experiences with one particular person as a child – and some born in on by society. Those particular bad experiences probably wouldn't have left the wide impression they did without that social impact, coming from the way people talk, the way things are presented on TV, even pop culture sources like TV, films, books, video games. I certainly had bad experiences at the hands of other non-majority phenotypes, including smart people and redheads, but I don't have the deep reaction to those in relevant situations that I do to black people.
Much as you may hate the idea, I promise you that every single one of you has some similar reactions. Maybe to different groups, maybe of different natures, but they are all there. Society tells us that it's a sign of hooliganism for teens to wear hoodies, and so we are more on our guard around a group of teens in hoodies. We act based on reputations of neighbourhoods, whether the reputation is deserved or not. Sometimes these reactions are even logical, like women being wary of strange men when they are alone, or people of colour in America being wary of the police. Society around us is shaped by the collective prejudices of that society. Even those prejudices against us will always be within us, which is why programmes to encourage women and girls in STEM, to encourage people from working class backgrounds to consider advanced academic education, to reach out to youth in deprived areas, are all so important.
So yes, I bear prejudice related to race, related to class-cultural behaviour, related to gender, related to sexuality, related to half a hundred other things. And so do you. It is only by acknowledging this simple fact that we can identify what in our reactions and behaviours comes from that prejudice, and resist it, train ourselves out of it, or at least take action to mitigate it. I know that I will tend to think someone is smarter if they have a middle-class accent, so in a situation where I have to compare people I try to compensate. Sometimes I'll overcompensate, sometimes I'll undercompensate, but I have to try. Denying that I have such a common prejudice would be self-deception and unfair to the people I deal with.
Experience tells us that even those people who have a characteristic that is discriminated against will tend to discriminate against it to some extent. Sometimes this is because they have succeeded by becoming more like the people who don't have that characteristic, and don't respect the capabilities of others who are still more typical for that characteristic. Sometimes it's just because that prejudice is so deeply ingrained, thanks to social conditioning, that they see its effects – often even when looking at themselves.
That's just part of what Aphorism 4 means to me. I could go on about it at some length, but I hope what I have said so far helps to indicate why it's not something that we should react to with anger. It's a challenge, yes, but it's a challenge that we have to face up to, each and every one of us. Those who take relative advantage from these socially ingrained prejudices just have a little more to face up to regarding them. We – and I say “we” because I benefit from several axes of oppression, even as I suffer from a smaller number – have more to lose by them being addressed, whether it's a challenge to our “just world” view of our own successes, modest as they might be, or the actual loss of structural advantage. In the end, a more just world for everyone will be better for everyone, but the immediate result is challenge and loss for those who currently experience advantage. We're also, collectively, more responsible for the way society etches the prejudice into everyone. To make the world better for the future, we are the ones who have to make the most changes. And those who have the greatest advantage have even greater contributions they should be making – both because they have the shiny side of the coin in so many ways, and because they have the power.
I can't make the rich and powerful, the entrenched dominators of society, change their ways. I can't make you change your ways. Heck, I'm not even sure I can make myself change my ways. But I will try where I can.
Postscript: It occurs to me that white is used in this piece in an everyday sense that may be seen as overly simplistic. There are communities that would generally be considered “white” at first glance who enjoy few if any of the broader cultural advantages of being white, even in the global economic north. In many countries, including Britain and the United States, the question of what constitutes “white” is often contentious, both in the population at large and in academic and governmental circles. Please do not assume that I think the question of ethnicity and whiteness is a simple one, just because I did not get into the detail of its complexity in this post. That complexity is not central to the point made, and I believe it stands whether or not one considers the complexity of such matters.
Also, please do not assume that this is all about “race” just because that is my main example. That example is drawn from the reactions of others to the original ministry – those who reacted negative generally focussed their reactions on race and white guilt and so on. As such, it seemed an apposite example, nothing more. My understanding of the ministry is that it applies to all dimensions of prejudice, even prejudices regarding non-human things.
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