race. social justice. law

‘Why does it always have to be about race’?: Blocks to meaningful dialogues on race and racism (Part 1)

Talking about race

I like to think about race. I like to write about race. I like to talk about race. I find the subject matter fascinating.  I make absolutely no apologies for this. Critically, for me, like for many others from racialized groups, thinking, writing and talking about race is making sense of the world and processing difficult experiences. I accept that there are many Black people and other individuals from the racialized minorities who may not see race and racism as salient features in their lives and that of course, Black people do have other issues, joys, concerns and fears that are unrelated to racism, I hope no one would doubt that. Nevertheless, people find intellectual and personal fulfilment in various pursuits and passions. As a Black woman with Black parents and Black children, race and racism have shaped much of my existence hence, I believe I have become quite adept at identifying racism for what it is (to me, at least) and I have lost my inhibitions about naming it a long time ago. This may not make me a very popular person is some circles.

Whilst it is not always about race and racism, I do find the range of defences the subject matter attracts even more gripping and see no shame or
pathology in my choice of subject matter and passion. I have written a bit about my position and epistemology in a previous post (to access it, click here). Thinking and writing about race/racism isn’t exactly a walk in the park for those who experience race discrimination and other forms of race related violence on a regular basis, but, by far the most challenging is to talk about racism ,or more precisely, to create a dialogue on racism.   I have spent much of my career and personal life encouraging discussions and dialogue on these subjects but continue to find that similar processes often become engaged when attempts at broaching the subjects are made.  Contrary to what many may assume, I have not found that the blocks to such conversations are dependent upon intellectual ability, levels of education or even psychological and social ‘mindedness’. In the current post I aim to identify the three most common barriers I have come across in my attempts to make space for racism in discussions.

1. Cognitive dissonance: It can’t be that bad…

Cognitive Dissonance theory propose that people tend to interpret personal experience in a way that does not disturb prior beliefs. According to the theory we hold various cognitions about the world and about ourselves; when new information clashes with the latter, a discrepancy is evoked resulting in a state of tension: cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance creates discomfort, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance or harmony. When excessive dissonance is produced, intellectual defences may be triggered to restore cognitive consonance. If people are socialised to believe firmly in meritocracy and in the accessibility of justice and fair treatment for all, there is little wonder accepting the prevalence of structural racism would cause much dissonance. Moreover, people, by and large, like to think of themselves as good and many aspire to be ‘colour blind’ and ‘liberal’. Indeed, individuals from dominant groups probably more often than others, are projected images of themselves as benevolent, fair and ‘reasonable’, such expectations of course clash with the possibility of being capable of committing discriminatory and racist acts.

2.  Undue focus on the individual intention: We/I don’t mean it.

Following from the above point, many have noted that when racism is evoked, those with race related privileges often focus on intentions in the belief that the absence of discriminatory or racist intent diminishes responsibility.  A cognitively focused perspective. Undue focus on intention may be one of the manifestation of race related privilege and social power. People at the receiving end of racism, unsurprisingly, often emphasize consequences- an affective standpoint. Those differing frames of reference may problematize meaningful dialogue on racism.  However, it is important to bear the law in mind.  The Equality Act (2010) defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct’ related to a protected characteristic, that has the purpose or effect of violating other individuals’ dignity or creating an intimidating or hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.  When it comes to racial harassment, Impact is clearly embedded within the law. Further, there is no legal justification for acts of direct race discrimination.  In other words, it can still be racism even if racist intentions are absent.

3. Misplaced guilt? Or, feeling responsible for the ‘sins’ of our forefathers.

I used to find responses based on such beliefs quite perplexing until I realised how pervasive and strongly they can be held. Guilt may well be a by-product of any race/racism centred discussions for many.  Guilt can be unhelpful and disabling because it often inhibits reasoning and encourages defensiveness rather than connection and reflection particularly if it cannot be contained. There is absolutely no rational reason for anyone to feel guilty over what their ancestors, great grandparents or even parents did in relation to racism, slavery and/or colonisation years if not centuries ago (no one chooses his/her lineage). Nevertheless, it may be legitimate to experience guilt for one’s failure to challenge racism and race related privileges that result in the perpetuatation of racial oppression which of course was started by long dead and buried forefathers. Emphasizing our distance from our ancestors’ actions can serve to distract from responsibilities we might personally hold for present actions or omissions and their associated feelings and emotions. The task then appears to be, for many, to transcend feelings of guilt (and at times, shame) and accept some personal and collective responsibility for making on-going race privileges visible today.

I hope this initial list will generate some input from others who may have got stuck in race discussions.  I’d love to hear what additional barriers/blocks people have encountered as naturally there are many others, some seemingly more elaborated and complex. I will aim to focus on these in the second part of this article and then suggest a few ideas to facilitate dialogues.

What are your thoughts?

To access the Equality Act (click here).

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