Here comes the longest blog post I have ever written. Go get a cup of tea.
Last week I claimed to understand racism from a point in my logic brain, but not in my heart. This is true. I was asked to elaborate on this, which this post is all about. Please remember that I am not an expert; I am just trying to put together some of my random knowledge. Another disclaimer goes out to the academics in the audience. I am trying to keep it ultra simple – it is not a peer-reviewed paper (though 2000 words – by golly).
So what is racism?
Our biology is the main component to understand racism. Pernille touched upon this in the comments. We are biologically programmed to discriminate between “good humans” and “less good humans” (I like your way of phrasing it Pernille). This is (one part) of how we select our partners and it is how we identify enemies. Our frontal lobes are programmed to focus on our survival. This includes reproduction and the survival of our offspring. Through this, our instinct is to be cautious of threats to our territory and most importantly to our children. Overall, our instinct is to live in peace as this is the best way to keep our young alive (I love this research study). This is also why we live in groups; it creates the best environment for our babies to survive. However, we are mainly programmed to protect, so we are naturally suspicious of intruders. This suspicion is (among other things) based on recognition. If you look like us, you are probably like us. If you don’t, you need to be examined.
Our brain obtains tons of information each day. If it all just floated around in our brain, without structure, we would go mad. Our subconscious mind works as a massive filing cabinet that filters everything we see in a systemic way. We are not always aware of how the different categories in the filing cabinet came to be and how the knowledge was created. We often believe something to be true, without really knowing why. Key words are obviously family, media, school, friends and so on.
It is because of this, that keeping an open mind is not as easy as it sounds. Keeping an open mind challenges how our brain works when receiving new information and it challenges everything we know to be true (and where it came from) when re-evaluating old information. Unless you grew up in a society with no race (or gender), which I doubt many people did, it would be hard for you to not have preconceived ideas about the meaning of race (or gender). Your brain would have worked something out for you, whether you liked it or not.
c. social status
My main reference for this category is a series of research studies done on groups of neo-Nazi’s in what was once Eastern Germany. As far as I know, the same studies have been done on bikers and hooligans with the same result. These studies are generalisations, so there will always be exceptions – don’t bombard me with the story of your cousin, who was totally different. Anyway. Most of these young men, who choose to join the white pride bandwagon, come from problematic social backgrounds. They are often raised in poor, dysfunctional families, live in social housing, have experienced violence in the home, had a hard time in school, found it hard to get a job etc. You get the picture. As a consequence they find it hard to get status in society. But at least they are white. By claiming superiority through colour, they get a status they otherwise wouldn’t have. They also get to be part of a social group which protects them, in an environment where they cannot fail. Their entry ticket (their colour) is a test they will always pass. There are studies on the girls who hang around these blokes (who are often very sexist as well as racist), but I don’t know them so well. As far as I remember, it has to do with wanting protection.
d. ignorance and fear
When I lived in Denmark, I worked in an anti-racism campaign. This was at a time where the ultra right-wing had a field day in Danish politics. A study from then showed that the majority of those who voted for the ultra right-wing were women aged above 50, living in rural or remote areas. They had limited education (if any), limited work experience and thus very little exposure to other ethnic groups. The classic picture would be a fear for what would happen to their grandchildren in the future. This fear was often fuelled by media.
e. killing the enemy
When we send soldiers to war, we ask them to be prepared to kill other humans. This is not an easy task. The most used strategy has been to create a picture of the enemy as a non-human – an animal. We tell stories of how they are not like us, how they display savage behaviour and threaten our peace (the survival of our children). The enemy is given a new name, which becomes synonym of the savage – such as Goons during the war in Vietnam. In recent years we didn’t have to invent it, as the word was foreign to the west and thus wasn’t value loaded yet: Taliban (I cannot count how many Australians I have met who think Al-Qa’ida is a country, where the population is the Talibanese – I kid you not). Overall, killing a Goon was easier than killing Vietnamese. We are killing Talibans, not Afghans.
Unfortunately, this (war-) strategy extends its long arms into other parts of society. In Australia, Aboriginal people are thus called abo’s and portrayed as alcoholic, child molesting, dole spongers. If you don’t believe me, read the “Little Children are Sacred” report, which is the basis for the Northern Territory intervention.
f. darwinism, power and education
It hasn’t been that long since the power of the world was almost exclusively held by white middle-to-upper class men (if you catch me on the right day, I will even argue that this is still so; I can think of very few world leaders who do not act as if they were Churchill, despite colour or gender – but that is another discussion). The colonial empire was huge. One major justification for the continuation of colonialism was Darwinism and the theory of “the survival of the fittest”. The Aboriginal people (and most other Indigenous peoples) where put under “supervision” as they were under threat of extinction by coming in contact with the white man (who was supposedly superior). This is still alive today. We are still trying to convince the “third world” that we are superior in the west and that we are the model for others to follow. We have democracy, we are free, we have rights, we have high levels of education, we are rich.
The way we are educated in the west fuels a lot of direct and indirect racism. We still trot around the world as the grand saviours of the poor unfortunates. We are also convinced that of course everyone would rather live in the west than in, lets say, Libanon. Or Peru. Or Indonesia. Of course they want to be like us. And we absolutely need strong border security because if we didn’t, everyone would want to live here. This lesson is being taught to us from very young. We are the fittest.
g. religion, politics and media
Religion, politics and media do not explain why people are racist, but they are very important fuel to the fire and thus should not be ignored. All three have a strong portion of superiority and fear included in the package.
h.white people don’t know what racism is
This is the hardest to explain. I put it last because, in reality, it disqualifies me from explaining what racism is. In reality, I wouldn’t have a clue, because it is not a lived experience of mine (on the same account, I do know what sexism). It ties in with one of the most important lessons I have learnt in my life: I am white. Not neutral. White. People see something, when they look at me, including my colour.
I can live a whole life without having to worry about racism, as it doesn’t happen to me. Working against racism is something I am very passionate about and dedicated to, but I can take a vacation from it when I want. If I was, let’s say, Aboriginal I would still have to walk into the world as a black person on my day off. Jenny Tannoch-Bland from Griffith University has written a fantastic article on this particular subject (I will email it to you if you ask me). Another woman who is probably more famous for working in this area is Jane Elliott and her experiments with Blue eyes/brown eyes. She can explain it better than I can.
In short, I do not have a lot of negative stigmas attached to me because of the colour of my skin. On the contrary. I am also not a minority in most of my lived experiences (this all ties into the biology section on recognition of the people we trust). I do not have to worry about Mr Husband when he goes to work. When I go for a job interview, the people on the panel look like me and they recognise me as one of them. I do not have to worry about having respect from my students when I teach (only the male testosterone bombs who will challenge my authority as a woman). If Mr husband and I go to a bar and get drunk, we would be a couple on a good night out; if we were Aboriginal, the judgements would be so very different.
Overall, racism is a very real part of the everyday lived experience of a huge amount of people around the globe. Biology, psychology and sociology can explain the mechanisms of racism and why it happens, but, in my heart, I still cannot accept that this needs to be so. I think we can do better.
White people often try to talk down racism by using other words for it such as prejudice, xenophobia, discrimination etc. Some try to ignore that racism exists. One of the things I hear very often from good spirited white people is “I do not see colour, I just see people”. This, I’m sorry to say, is racist in itself. I know that it is good intentioned and if our biology was different, it would be great. But it is not and to ignore someone’s colour is to ignore their lived experience. Personally I try to say “I see your colour, I recognise the prejudice that comes with this, but I will do my very best to meet you with an open mind all the same”. Well, I have never actually said that out loud, but I will try to call the cards for what they are: my perception of you, which is socially constructed, based partly on instinct and a filing cabinet for a brain, and it may be totally wrong. I try to make it about me, not you. Hopefully, in all my openness, it will not escape me if you are a right arsehole.