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Everyday Accidental Racism #4 – Seeing in Black and White

July 22, 2016

I have heard British people say (and Americans admit) that Americans are louder than British people. I have heard white people say (and black people admit) that black people are louder than whites.

But these opinions are not based on research in laboratory settings. These are impressions; states of perception that rely on sensory input coupled with internal processing.

We put too much weight on the sensory side, and not enough on the interpretation; for example, “loud” is an adjective that we consider to be almost-objective. In a loud room, there’s a decent chance that you and I will agree that it is loud, because we can’t hear each other over the hubbub.

In terms of describing people, however, the description becomes more subjective and cultural. I do not measure my voice up against yours, nor everyone’s voice up against everyone else’s. I create impressions based on particularly striking examples, and ignore less striking ones. This fallacy is one we often make when we overreact to rare events in the news, and make incorrect assumptions about the statistical likelihood of certain crimes.

In addition, a major part of prejudice is conformation bias, whereby a person remembers all evidence that backs up their theory, and disregards all evidence which refutes it.

For example, if I have a confirmation bias that both black people and Americans are loud, when I meet a quiet African American, I will not remember that he was quiet. If I do, I will consider him the exception that proves the rule, no doubt forgetting about other passing acquaintances.

If he becomes my friend, my preconceptions about his race and nationality are likely to be displaced by actual anecdotal evidence, because Alf the quiet African-American becomes a person to me, and not a concept; I no longer have to remember that I know a quiet African-American. I only have to remember that Alf is quiet, and that Alf is African-American.

Despite being a two-step process, this is actually easier to remember, because Alf has become an important part of my life, so his characteristics are deeply rooted in my memory and at the front of my mind.

Making cultural assumptions based on the appearance of someone else is normal. We stereotype because we love to fit things in boxes. I’m one of those people who shuffles digital files around endlessly, not knowing which folder they best fit into.

The problem comes when people are unable to separate their own natural tendencies from logic, and unable to understand the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. In other words, if I perceive you as different to me, I might think that the “problem” is an inherent part of you, rather than a problem with myself, or simply able to be interpreted multiple ways.

The pattern of assuming that the difference always belongs to the other side comes as a natural part of being an animal; we automatically see things from our own perspective, and see things from other perspectives only after a second thought.

Racist comments like “They all look the same,” “They speak funny” or “They smell” are used more commonly by children for a reason; they betray an inability to imagine the world as it is for the other side, and see yourself as a subjective observer rather than someone with ultimate knowledge.

If two PoC look the same to the white person, who is the being that decrees that the fault is in appearance of the PoC, rather than the eyesight of the white person? It is the white person who decides this, and their perception cannot be trusted because of its automatic bias.

The path to re-examining their preconceptions is slow, and takes many odd turns through the dark and winding forest of hypocrisy. For example, I have a gay friend whose family is homophobic, though not unpleasant towards her. The fact that she is their beloved family member makes her homosexuality less problematic, because she is a person to them and not a concept.

Instead, they make allowances for her as long as she is not too in-their-faces with her orientation (such as bringing their worst idea of a lesbian to dinner). They make exceptions because they want peace.

This tendency to say “I don’t like X-group-of-people, but you’re alright, for one of them,” is typical of racism. How often the more virulent racists are pleasant as pie to their black or immigrant neighbours, because it is in their best interest; no one shits where they eat, unless they think they have to.

Racism is one of many tools by which people separate “us” from “them”. The racist with the black neighbour may consider “us” to mean himself and his black neighbour, depending on the context; if the next town over is creating a civic problem, for example. Because racism is usually latent, it is fallen back upon when there is no other obvious enemy. People of different races become scapegoats for ill-feeling which needs a target.

One mistake PoC or immigrants make on that score is to behave as though the fact that they are an exception to the racist rule is somehow a compliment. When a person insults “your people”, they must be made to understand that they are insulting you, whether they mean to or not. That goes for any group, be it social, political or inherent (race, nationality, sexuality etc.).

The fact that racists often do not mean to offend is their shelter from the bullets of racism accusation. They genuinely think that if they have one black friend, they should be bulletproof. They do not understand that simply discounting individuals one-by-one is a slow and unsteady path towards a reduction of racism, not indicative of an instant, total absence of racism. As soon as they find someone they dislike from the negatively-perceived group, they will fall right back onto racist sentiment.

It is easy to fall into, because the switch between positive, neutral and negative is not as stark as it seems. For every neutral or positive adjective, there is an negative synonym. For every “assertive” there’s a “bossy”; for every “chilled” there’s a “lazy”; for every “confident” there’s “arrogant”; for every “passionate” there’s “angry” and for every “articulate” there’s “opinionated”.

This is nothing new in gender politics. Feminists often note that whereas the positive connotations are often used for men, the negative is too commonly tacked onto women.

When people suffer at the hands of an outgroup, they tend to assume that the negative behaviour relates to the outgroup. A classic example is the individual who recently told me that she doesn’t like Eastern Europeans because one of them beat up her dad. If the man who beat up her dad had been British, she would not be able to make a racist assumption, because she herself is British and it would be too obvious a failure of logic.

She would have to find some other reason why that man beat up her dad; because of the nature of us-versus-them mentality, she is likely to have attributed it to the next largest group she is not a part of. She could have picked working class people, men, people who live in council houses, divorcees, and all the way down the chain to the most specific and least-likely reason you’ve ever heard.

I think the strangest prejudice I’ve ever heard was against bald men with beards. Funny to think of my dad causing anyone to break out in cold sweat.

However, profiling doesn’t usually get that far; people usually settle on class, race, nationality or specific city of birth / residence. These are obvious, broad, divisive categories that stand out in the mind.

As further evidence for the arbitrary nature of characteristic-blaming, the process is cultural; it is time, place and event dependent. For a few months now, and for months to come, people have been blaming every negative characteristic under the sun on whether a person voted In or Out for the EU referendum. Blaming and scapegoating are compulsions.

To avoid falling into the trap of profiling, there is a thought game you can play with yourself. Seek someone out in the room who you don’t like the look of. Meditate on the assumptions you make about them based on their appearance; stupid, conservative, pretentious, intolerant, anything.

Now imagine that they are not that thing at all, but completely opposite. Equate them to someone who is not like that, whom you like and respect – perhaps yourself. When I do this, I often notice that the appearance of the person I’m looking at seems to change; I should say, the sense of them changes. My perception has changed, not the visual information coming in.

Your mind seeks to align what you see with what you perceive, so if you purposefully invert your perceptions, what you see appears to change its form into something more pleasant. Think of the friend who you used to think was ugly before you got to know them, but not any more, because they are your friend.

This process is particularly useful for any prejudice derived from an instantaneous disgust reflex; for example, racism, ageism, homophobia, etc. It helps finish those forms of prejudices, which is better for the minorities in question but also helps ease the mind of people prone to anger, blame and scapegoating; after all, it is always better for one’s mental health not to fall back on these mental systems.


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