By challenging racism: could we actually be perpetuating it?

The Function of racism

‘The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ Toni Morrison

There seems to be two different kinds of people when it comes to dealing with experiences of racism or at least two main types of response.  On the one hand, we may react; indeed we may make it a point to react. People who react tend to be those who argue, who wish to demonstrate the folly of racial prejudice to those who utter offending comments. These may be principled people, conscious people, and/or rational or reasonable people.  People who may feel that they have an ethical or liberatory obligation to respond, to correct, to evidence or to have their voice and experience heard.

On the other hand, there are those who seemingly chose not to engage, those who ignore the offensive or bigoted comments or theories or who seem to turn a blind eye to them. They either appear to take no notice or seem not to care.  Naturally, most of us oscillate between these two poles and may spend much time somewhere in the middle.  Many believe that speaking out is an intrinsic part of the liberatory process.  That it is absolutely necessary and indeed that being silent amounts to complicity, to letting people off the hook and in doing so, to contributing to the perpetuation of oppression.  Not everyone however, is aware of the emotional demands of both challenging and being silent.

Reinforcing racism

Though mindful of the courage both positions require and of the potential material risks and perils associated with challenging racism, it has always felt as though there were higher psychological costs to being silent.  I had too been certain that in the longer term, gains in terms of equality and dignity could only be achieved if we spoke individually and collectively. Thus, for long, speaking out seemed a pre-condition to tackling racism. Tony Morrison’s quote somewhat challenges this position.  It proposes that such actions serve the function of racism.  Whilst she posits that distraction is the core function of racism and we may or may not agree, one issue I will reflect upon here is whether responding intellectually or emotionally to racism may be in the interest of those directly impacted upon by racism.

So, what if actually, some or all of our actions to combat racism actually perpetuated it, inadvertently?  I am aware that this is often a defensive premise which may be advanced by those with social power who are unwilling to contemplate the thorniness of the subject matter or to sit with their own racism or privilege. But do bear with me… As is plain to see from the above quote, Toni Morrison does not believe that expanding energy rationally disproving racist claims is necessary. Doing so according to her is futile because there will always be one more claim to disprove. I believe doing so is also a lost cause because racism does not belong to the realm of the rational. Critically, challenging racism may also be unhelpful if not harmful…Firstly, from a behaviourist perspective, every human behaviour serves a function.  Behaviours can naturally have multiple functions, some (or all) of which may well be obscure.

The core issue here is that when the function of a particular behaviour is served, then that behaviour will likely remain.  It would have been reinforced thus, maintained.  This is a fundamental behaviourist principle. This simple tenet may have significant implications for how we tackle racism. For example, if the function (or one of the functions) of racist ideologies is to inferiorize people of colour and, people of colour as a result of such ideologies internalise this inferiority, this function would have been fulfilled and racist ‘ideologizing’ reinforced thus likely to be perpetuated. Or, if a function of racist language is to offend or to hurt and, such language does get to us, then behaviourists would argue, the likelihood or such language being used again would have been increased.

Self-care and boundaries 

I am aware the above propositions have the potential of being seen as victim blaming. This is far from my intention. The responsibility for racist and discriminatory acts, in my book, remains firmly in the hands of perpetrator(s). However, if it is or can be within our control to reduce the occurrence or the impact of racism on us, then, we may start to reclaim some of the power oppression robs us of. It is clear to me that the impact (or consequences) of racism feeds into its existence, it is what gives it its potency.  Though I realise this may betray the dim view I have on humanity, my sense is, in a nutshell, that as long as racism works or hurts, it will invariably continue to exist.

This may help explain why in spite of major gains made in terms of race equality, it is quite evident that processes of othering and marginalisation remain and seem the most difficult to address.  Perhaps this is because the hostility, contempt and fear we have for the Other now manifest in more subtle and covert ways. So, if much racial bias and prejudice find their refuge in our unconscious and, become externalised without our awareness, could it be hypothesised some equally unhelpful processes may become triggered outside our awareness, as racial minorities, when we respond, argue, defend, and evidence our humanity, again and again?

Could it not be hypothesised that arguing our way out of racist encounters and discourses may actually also allow something in? And that perhaps, our psychic integrity or boundaries may somehow become compromised?  To challenge a proposition entails a degree of internalisation since we need to hold it in mind to consider it.  When such propositions are hate based and carry with them projections, trauma and violence one may be rightly concerned about potential impact of such repeated internalisation (in addition of course to the more observable psychological and health consequences).  Even though this internalisation may only be momentary, perhaps its potential impact on our psyche, on the struggle for liberation and also on the possible unconscious needs or processes which may get fed ( in those who other us) may need more attention.

Thank you for reading.

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  1. This is a really thought provoking essay with much to consider. My wife is an applied behavior analyst so I’ve heard before that all behavior serves a function. I agree that it is important to consider whether our behaviors in response to another’s behaviors reinforces the original behavior in the end or extinguishes it. By endlessly justifying our own existence we lend credence to the debilitating view of those who view as less than or inferior. Now, you’ve made me go and start thinking deeply again. 😉

  2. Thanks again for your thoughtful and empowering analysis! It brings up a few thoughts. In my own practice as a counselor and facilitator, I see some folks who have never or rarely used their voice to defend themselves or speak up on their own behalf. When that is true, it is a particular treasure for them, and the group their in, to hear their voice. Even if it doesn’t change the racist, they may come to know their own power- something that even helps their inner life and how they have internalized racist assault. Second, as a person, a Jewish brother, I can sometimes speak against racism viewpoints in a way that may allow other people of color to not have to do it. Lastly, to your point, some folks have “burned considerable wood” over their years, and it does seem that speaking up does not only, or always, serve their psychic well being.

    I sometimes think of racism as a kind of fundamentalism, sometimes hidden by the fact that it is unconscious. Thus, as you say, it is hardly subject to rational analysis or argument. Getting at the deeper psychological root is a powerfully difficult task. I am thankful for you, and the work you do, to educated and enlighten. Respect, David

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment again (and kind words).
      I agree that it can be important and empowering for people to make their voice heard or to defend themselves, regardless of the change they may effect. Especially if they have never done so. One can only choose NOT to speak out when one is able to speak out. In that sense remaining silent can be as empowering and self-affirming maybe? Thank you for speaking out in your own voice, this is very important to ease the burden (psychological & physical etc…) on all of us. I was planning to end the article on considering the role of allies in challenging racism but the post was getting too long, so may write a separate piece on this. It is encouraging that increasingly, people are recognising the place of unconscious processes in all forms of biases and that empirical evidence is mounting.
      Not so long ago this stuff was seen as ‘mambo jumbo’ so, I am really glad science is finally catching up with what many have been experiencing phenomenologically for centuries…

  3. I wish spoken conversations came with footnotes, so I could use this post. Beautifully said.

    I’ve found with off hand, racist remarks generally not to say something, unless it rocks me so deeply I can’t stay silent. One reason is that the majority of remarks I hear are based in straight up ignorance, and in the past my speaking up has been taken as condescending- like I was trying to make a point of being well traveled/read or worldy. Obviously that was never the case, but after feelings were hurt I realised trying to be an example of tolerance while criticizing someone is redundant.

    Best to say what you need to and let the rest be said through how you live.

    1. Thank you! The point about ‘being rocked deeply’ by remarks resonates. I am curious how you regain a sense of equilibrium after such experience, what helps. Looking into writing something on that. I also agree re: ignorance. Sadly too ignorance can be a defence…

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