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Everyday Accidental Racism #1 – Self-Defence Profiling

July 1, 2016

In the aftermath of the referendum, the rallying cry of Brexit people has been “We’re not racist!” accompanied by a series of comments which lead me to question if people fully understand what racism is.

Racism is a taboo. You can’t admit to being racist, which means you cannot allow yourself to think you’re racist, because that would make you a Bad Person. The heavy connotation of the word makes it difficult for onlookers to highlight terms of phrase and sets of behaviours that definitely imply a level of discomfort around race. Over the next few blogs, I will highlight a few forms of accidental-racism with culturally relevant examples.

Practising certain racial profiling “just in case”.

It’s better to be safe than sorry,” says auntie, bundling you up in sixteen coats and forty-five hats to protect against the cold weather. So blinded by hats are you, you step out into the road and are instantly hit by a bus.

This ironic parable takes many real-life forms; parents who drive their children to school to avoid death by abduction and murder, only to contribute to the number of child deaths by car; people who avoid flying because of 9/11, leading to an increase of people killed on the road, way beyond the number killed in planes per year.

The “just in case” mentality isn’t just self-defeating. It manifests in prejudiced ways, such as when we lecture young women not to wear short skirts “just in case” they meet a dodgy fellow. In fact, countries with no short skirts still experience sexual violence, often more, so obviously it makes no difference. All that’s happened is that the responsibility of the act has been shoved away from the person who actually does the act.

For racist reasons, people often avoid different races on the street “just in case”. This is not usually a conscious mentality, but it surfaces during discussion. People think that it is impossible to be racist while simply protecting yourself. We know this is not true. Many a story comes from America of black teenage boys being shot because non-black people have found them intimidating.

When a society is permitted to be paranoid about getting to close to a particular race in case of attack, that society sanctions unwarranted pre-emptive strikes against the stigmatised group, which increases the bad feeling and paranoia in the area. This makes race relations worse, and increases the risk. This self-fulfilling prophecy, the act of creating a spiral of aggression thanks to pre-emptive strikes, is called a Hobbesian trap.

Crossing the road is the non-violent version of the Hobbesian trap. It may not create a spiral of violence, but it does create a spiral of distrust. Further more, when someone crosses the street to avoid a PoC “just in case”, they convince themselves that it has made a difference when it has not.

The calm they feel at having taken steps to protect themselves makes them think that they have dealt with an external threat, when actually the threat came from inside their mind. Moreover, they make themselves dependent on the irrational relief they feel when they cross the street.

The threat in the mind doesn’t go anywhere unless challenged. I can attest to the lack of effectiveness in dealing with a phobia by attempting to remove the external source of the threat; I had arachnophobia, and invested in all sorts of spider deterrents, none of which worked. They all made the problem worse. I would start to see evil intent when there was none. “Why do they keep coming back, when I hate them?” I’d ask myself. “It’s almost as if they want to mess with me.”

Of course, they didn’t want any such thing. Our tendency to assume malevolence from things we irrationally fear drives us to hate that thing. The only way to deal with it is to challenge the fear itself. For racism as for arachnophobia, desensitisation is the key, though the process is different. In the case of spiders, a person who can’t look at them must train themselves to be able to look at them without flinching.

We don’t tend to do that for other humans – the fear is more subtle. The method for badly reasoned “logical” avoidance of harm is to break preconceptions by looking at violence statistics, and reading around the subject of the complex relationship between race, poverty, region and crime.

Engaging in the culture of that group can work, as well; My Wife and Kids doesn’t teach anyone anything, but it does put white people in the houses of black people; white people who, prior to media of this type, would have been afraid to do any such thing in real life.

One mistake I think white progressives make is to baldy wave away fears about racially motivated violence from minorities to majorities. Looking down on racists simply makes the problem worse, because rather than receiving guidance through a fear, people are told that their fears are contemptible because they come from ignorance and stupidity bordering on superstition.

Which of course, they are; but so are most fears, including arachnophobia. Everyone is ignorant about something, and harbours some form of stupidity. When we find it abhorrent, we can’t discuss it, and when we can’t discuss it, we can’t fix it.


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