I’m Proud to be a Racist

Hi…

I’m an increasingly-pudgy white guy, running headlong into middle age faster than I want to. I’m currently contract-hopping between various teaching positions at fairly decent universities. I’m a bit of a nerd.

Also, I’m a racist.

And, what the heck, while we’re at it, a bit of a sexist, and probably with a dash of homo-, trans- and xenophobe thrown in there, too. Add whatever else you like to the list. It’s probably the case.

“Holy fucking shit!” I can hear you cry already. “No, you can’t possibly say…”

Hold on a minute, Skippy. I’m going to unpack this one piece by piece. Although if you’re absolutely desperate for the reason for the title (it’s a cheeky bit of rhetoric), skip to the last few paragraphs.


Firstly, just to throw it out there, and I’ll re-colour this paragraph to set it aside and may refer to it later, I don’t quite believe the phrasing of “I am a…” has much use. In fact, I believe any phrase or sentence with the verb “to be” (am, is, was, were…) in it has inherent issues in meaning, though some use-cases have more trivial issues than others.

More specifically, I believe any phrase that begins with “I am…” is held hostage to the recipient’s conception of what follows it. “I am a feminist”, for instance, would flag up totally different conceptions if I said it to renowned feminist third-waver and YouTube vlogger, Bitchy McLesbianface, compared to saying it to renowned MRA, basement-dweller and masturbation enthusiast, Neckbeardsley Fedorason. Ultimately, their conception rules the resulting conversation, not mine.

To say that sort of “I am…” statement, I have to worry about everyone else’s prior biases, definitions and connotations in picking the words that follow. I believe such a phrase lacks an inherent meaning. And, if given the choice, I’d avoid it altogether and go straight to what someone actually believes, rather than an immutable identity, particularly a one-word identity. “I’m a feminist” results in a conflict between Fedorason and McLesbianface, but “I believe women are people, too, and deserve to be heard and have their problems addressed in the light of society’s well-documented systematic biases” has less (though, not zero) wiggle-room for interpretation, misinterpretation, and argumentum ad dictionarium responses.

BUT, that’s for another time. For now, I’m going to throw that personal philosophy aside, assume words have inherent, laconic meaning, and go for the phrasing that will resonate strongly with people (since people exist).

And so, instead of avoiding “I am a…”, I’ll unpack it instead.


So, I am a racist.

Oooooh… controversial!

Anyway, the reason I want to say this is because, as an increasingly-pudgy white guy heading inextricably toward middle age, I’ll often end up on the receiving end of such an accusation. Either explicitly to my face (rare) or implicitly when the words “white people” get thrown around as a broad-brush generalisation (pretty much whenever the day has a vowel in it).

Immediately, my first response – apparently – should be to absolutely lose my shit over this.

“I’m not a racist! I have plenty of black friends!” I should shout . Well, two, but I hail from the North, where even that’s considered a cultural invasion.

Or perhaps I’m supposed to get up and scream about social justice warriors and their assumptions. “Hey, you’re making it about race! Who’s the racist now?!” I scream, before high-fiving myself and leaving for a quick wank over how totally awesome that comeback was.

That’s what I’m supposed to do, if reactions elsewhere are any indication.

Screw that. I’ll take it like adult. Yes, I probably am a racist (see blue paragraph above).

Why?

In short, a little thing called “subconscious bias”.

Now, if you’re au fait with those two words, you can probably stop reading. This will mostly be revision. If not, then either keep reading or JFGI, and ram it into your squishy little brain in your own time.

Let’s start at the beginning: We can’t escape our subconscious.

It’s that thing that apparently makes us obsessed with our parents’ genitals, and so leads to like to be tied up in bed while staring at a strap-on shaped like a gummy bear (we’ve all had that one, right, guys? Come, safe space here, just us bros…). But, more than just a one-shot joke for taking the piss out of amateur psychoanalysts, our subconscious is immensely useful to us. It allows us to walk without thinking about the complexities of counter-balancing with our spine and centre-of-gravity, it lets us drive and listen to the radio at the same time after some practice, and it allows us to immediately switch our flight-or-fight response to the ‘ON’ position without having to look behind that rustling bush to see if it’ll eat us first.

But, just like how our flight-or-fight response switches on regardless of whether that rustling bush is caused by a tiger or just the wind, our subconscious is prone to taking a lot of background noise and forming a lot of patterns that aren’t fully helpful in the civilised world.

For instance; commute via train into a busy city – say, London – in the early morning and almost undoubtedly you will come across the sight of a lot of cleaning staff. They’ll push bin-buggies around, empty the bags, pick up discarded paper coffee cups, or scrub out the toilets of the arriving trains. Almost certainly, they’ll be young, black males. Immediately your brain makes a connection, and it begins to wire memories and information together in a complex web for future access and quick reference. See another young, black male picking up litter, and that connection gets stronger. See a white youth doing the job and your brain might remark on it, save it for later, and give you the false impression to your conscious mind that more white men are doing the job than reality suggests. You then pass another black male doing the cleaning job, and the brain ignores it – it’s part of the existing pattern, a pattern that begins to get stronger although your conscious mind begins to block it out.

{Young, black, male} = {blue-collar, low-paid, manual labour}

At the same time, you’re likely to see a lot of people commuting in to high powered office jobs in the Big City. They’ll be largely white,  probably male, a little older, and wearing suits. Again, your brain makes the connection. These are the commuters to be serviced – they’ll throw their coffee into those bins that are emptied by the young, black males. Your brain makes a connection.

{middle-aged, white, male}  = {suit, good job, money}

Now, if you think these demographic descriptions are wrong, I’m afraid there’s little I can do for you. It’s not my place here to prove that they’re right, just accept that they are. But you might assume they’re not right should your brain push the pattern into your subconscious side and highlight the exceptions to your conscious side. Much like someone who assumes 90% of their neighbours are foreign immigrants, when the reality is that less than 10% of them are. The minority and exceptions to the real rule are noticeable, you brain makes a note of them more often.

Your brain makes these connections and patterns automatically. Don’t claim it doesn’t. It does. Denial won’t help you here. This is a process we’ve evolved over time, and we wouldn’t survive without it. These connections and biases are known to be real. They’ve been demonstrated in the lab and in the wild, and they very much have an effect on our thoughts and actions.

Eventually the connections become very strong. Every time we see them reinforced, the connections begin to merge into one thought. And maybe, with a strong enough pattern, it begins to inform us of what the world should be like.

white = {suit, money, good job}

black = {low-paid, manual labour}

This is, of course, just one example. And it’s not just for skin-colour or ethnicity. It works for gender, sexuality, age and anything we can think of. So long as connections are made, stereotypes are enforced (“stereotype threat” is a related phenomenon, yet outside the scope of this), then the patterns will reinforce themselves and inform our attitudes.

The illustration may change location, it’ll change the details, but the overall story is the same. Patterns form – anything that conforms to the pattern reinforces it, anything that goes against it might flag up as an exception. Television advertising, for another instance, plays on this in both ways. It takes advantage of existing stereotypes in order to compress its story down to a few seconds: the woman of the house knows how to cook and clean, the man of the house is a deadbeat and feckless, the children suspiciously uniformly covered in the right amount of dirt to make the power of the washing powder clear, the bank-manager is crisply suited and trustworthy when talking about interest rates, the happy friends eating snacks are  clearly well-paid so you don’t have to worry about “so how do they afford such a trendy expensive apartment to eat their snack food in?”. It’s a cycle of stereotype and aspiration working together. These things prey on our preconceived notions to tell a story, and then at the same time reinforces that pattern by their mere existence.

In this sense, racism, sexism and so on, are all things your brain does automatically. This isn’t to say that very conscious decisions such as “we should string up all the niggers because they’re sub-human” don’t exist, but those attitudes are increasingly pushed to the margins in the modern world. We are “post-racism” in the sense that such attitudes are rare, obviously wrong when presented, and it’s the norm to openly remark upon them as wrong and/or immoral.

We’ve effectively ostracised overt racism (well, just), we now need to deal with subconscious biases and the deleterious effects they can have on society. Simple societal things ranging from casual references to “going for a chinkies” (that’s “Chinese food” for non-English readers) to asking anyone with non-white skin “where are you from?” (and following it up with “no, where are you originally from?”). And, of course, other aspects all the way to things like “that’s totally gay” (that’s “gay = bad” for those more acquainted with older English literature, where it’d mean happy and carefree).

Learning that these biases exist, but are hard to spot, is a first step. No, you shouldn’t really win prizes for this alone, but let’s give credit for the baby-steps here.

The patterns are absolutely everywhere. And then they misfire.

You see a female secretary, and you see another female secretary, and another, and another… soon, your brains says…

woman = {secretary}

…and then you find yourself asking a CEO to make you a cup of tea just before your job interview with her just because she’s a she and dressed that way.

Is the black guy in a suit the doorman, security guard… or the academic researcher you’re meeting? Well, it’s a black suit and he’s beside the door so… Your brain has made so many connections, that its instant response is to tell you something that, upon rational reflection, is completely wrong. Sure, you’ll realise the mistake and come to the rational conclusion – but in those vital moments of a first impression, what have you thought? Undoubtedly something that will inform your thought processes for some time to come. Before long, you’re not just creating a cringe-story for the internet, you’re hiring and firing based on your biases.

Without realising it, you’ve become the linchpin of the cycle yourself. All the while muttering “but I’m not…

Take, for instance, the well-known cases of blind CV studies. By merely changing the name on a CV from a “white-sounding” to a “ethnic-sounding” name, you can reduce the chances of getting a positive response to a job application dramatically. A first-class graduate called Muhammad will have to work harder than a first-class graduate called Dave (or even a second-class graduate called Dave, for that matter, as the effect here is very pronounced). By changing from a masculine name to a feminine name you can cause a significant drop in suggested starting salaries for the applicant, even though the CV content is the same. At no point, at all, do any of the people reviewing these CVs actively think something along the lines of “I just don’t like women and think they should be paid less” or “I don’t think we should employ ethnics because they smell funny” – it’s their subconscious biases talking, and having an unfortunate real-world effect. Their subconscious is so ingrained with ideas like “woman” = “menial typist” and “Muslim” = “terrorist” that they begin to act on them… whether they mean to or not.

And don’t think this is purely a “poor little old me and my oppressed minority” game at play. I mentioned above a bias that suggests “woman = secretary”, and anecdotally I know of a situation where a man’s CV was immediately thrown into the discard pile for a secretarial job, and the reason given was  why would a man want to be a secretary?

So, really, these biases have a wide effect and can seriously pollute our conscious thinking, too. They’ve informed us of how we think the world should be. And that cuts in a lot of different directions when it comes to both individual actions and systematic results.

But mostly, here’s the main thing about these biases – they won’t go away by pretending they don’t exist. We need to seriously examine them. We need to admit they’re there, and begin to look at how we could possibly address them. We need to treat them as real things, that we can address as grown adults.

Yet, instead of that, we treat it as a stigma. We treat it as something that says “those silly little black folk say that I think they’re arbitrarily sub-human!” and act as if it throws us in with the Klan. We’re happy to accept that an overtly-racist and overtly-sexist crowd acts irrationally, but refuse to even consider that we might act irrationally in response to a programmed bias – even if that’s pretty much the definition of irrationality. We panic. We deny it’s true – we shout and scream and demand the accusation be withdrawn because it can’t possibly be true because it isn’t. We interpret an accusation as “You’re a racist!” and counter it with “But I’m not a racist!” (blue paragraph).

As a result, nothing of value happens.

Nothing gets done. Nothing gets improved. We go about our business, as usual, being both the cause and effect of subtle, subconscious, social and systematic biases and prejudices. All the while, stating very clearly that we are not racist, sexist or whatever… yet telegraphing to the world that we very much are. (*cough*blue paragraph*cough*).

So, in that respect, standing up to say “I am a racist” (again, see blue paragraph) may well be a vital first step to progress. It’s the stepping stone to “I’m not a racist” carrying some actual weight. It says I’m willing to admit I may have a bias. It means I’ve analysed the world, and figured out that it doesn’t revolve around me. It says I know what the real problem is. I says I accept it, that I’m not ashamed of it, and will try by best to change. Dealing with it is for another time, but it says I’m ready to at least try. That’s something worth standing up for.

So, yes, I suppose I am proud to be a racist, because it means the people who come after me definitely shouldn’t be.

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