Thursday, September 24, 2009

I'm not racist but... again

Australians aren't racist. It's true, ask any one them, you'll tell you they aren't racist. I'll tell you I'm not racist, because I'm not, obviously. Only truly stupid people are racist.

I was having a conversation about Aboriginal people with a (younger) friend the other day, and we had a "I'm not racist but..." moment, regarding the assumption that it is reasonable to judge people on the basis of their petrol sniffing and other self-destructive behaviour. There was a discussion about choice and all the reasons why it isn't justifiable to judge people on that basis. We moved on to our own prejudices in various contexts and a discussion of the messy line between "I really don't like many of the acceptable behaviours in X culture" and racist thought and behaviour.

The thing that stuck out in all of this, is that racism means two things, and most people only consider one. Racism, as it is understood by most of the people I have known to say "I'm not racist but" (including myself) is about believing a particular race of people to be inherently inferior. I don't think very many people in Australia really hold this kind of racist belief.

In fact, it is precisely because they believe that Aboriginal people (or insert whatever racial group here) are inherently equal that they look down on those who engage in self-destructive behaviour. Everyone has the same potential as everyone else, so it is their own fault if they don't live up to that potential, right? This isn't really racism, this is just ordinary ignorance. Very, very destructive ignorance, but ignorance just the same. (I'm not going into why it's not "their own fault", because I'd be here all day - just take it as read that I don't believe it is "their own fault".)

But then there is the other kind of racism - the racist thought. It is widely held that a person has to be truly stupid to adhere to the first kind of racism, but the second kind of racism actually takes some pretty serious higher level functioning to overcome. To give you an example - recently I saw an Aboriginal woman driving out of a car park looking decidedly anxious. The thought crossed my mind that she had stolen the car. It was rapidly chased away by "WTF? Lots of people look stressed driving out of car parks!!!"and then a good dollop of shame. Holding racist opinions and thinking racist thoughts are not generally regarded as "real" racism by the local dominant race (white people in Australia), but of course they are.

The problem is that they are created by two of the biggest influences on our thought (at least - no doubt there are more, but these are the two that I know contribute to my thinking). The first one is just straight socialisation - you hear other people repeat stereotypes and you just absorb them. Even after spending some serious time analysing and debunking these things, it can be hard to avoid falling back on them out of habit.

But for mine, the second is harder to fight. It is the massive inductive power of our reasoning. This is based on a combination of our direct experience and that delivered through the media. I'm going to switch to discussing Indian people now, because this is one where my racist thoughts are based entirely on experience and not on media. I have had an overwhelmingly negative experience with Indian people I have met in my real life. I know it doesn't match the way Indian people are portrayed in popular culture, or the way people discuss visits to India. And you know, obviously, I've met people who don't fit my own created stereotype. Indeed, my friend has had quite different experiences and holds totally different stereotypes. So where does it come from? Human beings are hopeless inductive reasoners. We can generalise like there is no tomorrow. It makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view (with thanks to Robbie who stated this so succinctly years ago) - If you eat the purple berries and then you get sick (or you see someone else eat the purple berries and they die) you never touch another purple berry. The cost of incorrectly deciding that it was the purpleness of the berry (excluding purple berries from your list of food options) is much smaller than the cost of incorrectly deciding it was a coincidence (getting sick again or dying). So our logic circuits are optimised for not concluding coincidence. Which means patterns stick with us much more strongly than is deserved.

I need to state very clearly here that I am NOT justifying racist thoughts and opinions in this way. Quite the opposite, I am thinking that I understand why racist thoughts and opinions are so easily (incorrectly) reached by people who know they aren't racist. If you add the false correlations with the valid statistics, you end up with a driving force for racist opinions. By valid statistics, I mean the simple fact that a person of X race is more likely to be Y. This is valid - at least as far as such a statistical statement can be valid. But it never means that any given person of race X should be personally regarded as more likely to be Y - or indeed that we should assume that this statistic will continue to be valid in the future, or that it reflects some "truth" about...well anything really. In other words, the fact that an Aboriginal person is more likely to be stealing a car than a white person, combined with my personal experience made me think that thought, but it does not justify it. That woman did not deserve to be a target of suspicion, no matter how fleetingly.

This is racism. It is the racism that dominates Australia, and I think we need to accept that everyone is prone to it (member of the dominant culture or not). It's one of those kinda sorta instinctive behaviours that we need to keep in check, and that we need to acknowledge, override and defuse. We need to extend that understanding of racism from "inherently inferior" to the thoughts and opinions that feel so much more justified in our own minds - and with it accept that not just stupid people have them (ie other people).

I'm not racist, but my brain throws up racist conclusions that I must reject. I must recognise them as they happen and do everything in my power not to let them affect other people. Otherwise, I'll justify myself right into holding exactly the kind of racist beliefs that only stupid people hold.

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