Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Undercover Racism and the Compassionate You

Before sitting down to write my last post on racism, which ultimately evolved into quite the beast, I had been thinking a lot about the fundamentally incorrect way we think about racism in America.  It occurred to me that the discussion generally revolves around whether or not one is "a racist".  Since we've largely gotten to the point in society where we've established that racism is wrong, it's not only taboo to express it but to think it.  And while this is unquestionably good, it has in a way created a weird sort of space for racist thought to exist in a manner that is almost impossible to speak of.  As such it has become a sort of undercover disease.

Basically, most racism now exists as an expression of the unconscious.  It takes the form of subtle biases of thought, leading to prejudice and faulty assumptions about race and ethnicity.  People (aside from a very small minority of avowed racists) are no longer racist with a capital R, but expressers of racism.  They are not actual racists, but some of their behavior is racist.  Some more than others, of course.  And a good case could be made that we are all indeed subject at times to hidden racist biases that course through our hidden minds.

So the question ought not be whether one is a racist, but whether one's behaviors might represent an expression of unconscious racism.  One of the big stumbling blocks to dialogue on racial issues is a feeling that one must either be a racist or not.  So when accused of racist expression, the subject often feels as though they must either choose between being labeled as a "Racist", or not. 

Yet if we acknowledge that the unconscious is an integral part of the mind, and that it will inevitably acquire biases of many sorts, then racism is in many ways a natural outgrowth of this structure. 

No one could possibly function without unconscious bias.  We are biased towards helping small children, or those in need.  We are biased to fear dangerous situations.  We are biased to let our guard down with loved ones.  Unless absolutely necessary, we don't think.  We just act.  In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam details just some of the many ways in which the human brain creates and depends upon biases throughout its life cycle.

Fortunately, we can learn to recognize our tendency towards bias and try and control it.  In many ways, what is commonly referred to as political correctness is our attempt to do this at the societal level.  Obviously, people have taken the concept too far, and created a harmful atmosphere of over-censorship.  But the essential tone of the movement is to try, as a society, to come to grips with our historical tendency towards bias that has unquestionably resulted in a great deal of oppression.  It is an acknowledgment that these biases exist in our unconscious and are, by definition, difficult to control.

The greatest opposition to political correctness has come from those who seem to deny outright that unconscious bias even exists at all.  Yet this is rather absurd.  It is one thing to feel insecure about one's knowledge of self, but quite another to deny the possibility that unconscious bias exists at all.  Now that we've moved beyond racism, they'll often argue, the matter is settled.  But is it?

I would argue that even decades ago, when racism was seen as perfectly healthy and normal, people were even less conscious of their bias.  Sure, if you asked them to own up to it they would oblige.  But if you asked them to explain it they wouldn't have a clue!  There have been attempts throughout history to provide some sort of legitimate, rational explanation - whether religious or scientific.  But this was ad hoc.  They were merely making up stories to justify these unconscious emotions and attitudes they simply felt.  The fact that they were so unaware of where their bias came from just made it that much more of an unconscious process. 

The civil rights movement was nothing if not dependent upon people taking it upon themselves to self-reflect and question their own traditional assumptions.  And just because today we as a society have finally decided that racism is wrong, it doesn't mean that our hidden biases have suddenly disappeared overnight.  The phrase "old habits die hard" may have never been so true.  We are humans and we are imperfect.  Each and every day we wake to face new challenges to our magnanimity, or compassion, our selflessness and kindness.  It doesn't come naturally.  It is something that takes steady, relentless work to maintain.  We can be thankful that we have realized that racism is our enemy.  But now we must do the difficult work of being vigilant every moment, and making sure we smite it when it slithers out from within.

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