I’m not sure how many of you are aware of the sheer unmitigated genius that is the comedy of Mitch Hedburg, but if you haven’t heard his repertoire of brilliant one-liners, please do yourself the favour of wrapping your ears around one of his albums. One of my favourites of his goes something like this:
“If you had a friend who was a tightrope walker, and you were walking down a sidewalk, and he fell, that would be completely unacceptable…”
His bits are all like that – observations that were seemingly plucked from the weirdest and most non-sequitur place imaginable. This one in particular resonated with me because it almost perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I hear fellow skeptics repeating, often with no ill intent, the same kinds of racist nonsense I hear from the general public.
The thesis underpinning this blog, at least the part of this blog that specifically deal with race, is that we can use skeptical methods to identify the racial components of attitudes, behaviours, and institutions. In so doing, we can learn to mitigate the damage caused by these things, and find productive ways to address topics that are often fraught with emotional landmines that can be triggered by careless statements, no matter how delicately put. Anti-racism in this context is therefore simply the application of skepticism to issues of culture, history, and social constructs around ethnicity.*
I’ve intimated before that I often walk around with my ‘guard’ up when it comes to racial issues. Whenever I interact with a stranger, experience has taught me that there’s a fair-to-middling chance that I will have to deal with some racial thing or another – whether that be a poorly thought out ‘joke’, or an assumption about my personality and preferences, or even a stance that suggests that I am somehow threatening (or ‘exotic’, which is sometimes worse). These are the consequences of living in a society that is not really that great when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and racial issues.
The part that drives me extra nutty-bananas about dealing with skeptics, particularly those who are interested in social justice, is that I often relax my guard. After all, these are ‘my people’, and one of the defining features of this group is an adherence to the principle of beliefs based on rigorous thought. The problem is that ‘rigorous thought’ doesn’t always extend to every aspect of one’s life. I am sure I am no less guilty of sometimes uttering statements that come from a place of boneheadedness and meme rather than careful consideration of evidence (not to mention the consequences of my words).
Most of the time, hearing unschooled opinions are simply a part of living among other humans. The problem arises when these statements come at a time when our shields are down and we’re particularly susceptible to the harm they can cause. We end up getting knocked for a loop, hit much harder than we expected to – certainly harder than we’re used to. Our reactions are therefore coming from a place of acute hurt, coloured by more than a little betrayal. From an outside perspective, the anger evident in our responses are bafflingly disproportionate – all ze said was that I must be good at basketball, why am I losing my temper like this? This is especially true when the outsider is similarly unschooled about the relevant issue (i.e., ze has never had to think carefully about racism before).
The other side of this, of course, is that the more we know about these topics – about how insidious racism can be, about how seemingly-innocuous statements often mask destructive attitudes, about how deeply-ingrained racism is into our history and psychology – the less it takes to trip our defences. We begin to become (justifiably) paranoid about what people ‘really’ mean when they use certain words or phrases. Every conversation turns into an exercise akin to licking a bunch of supposedly-dead 9V batteries – eventually you’re going to get shocked.
And woe betide the poor bastard who has to enter the lion’s den every time ze opens hir mouth. Every word out of hir mouth becomes a step out onto a verbal tightrope, where the slightest mistake plunges you into an abyss of accusations of bigotry from which there is no escape and no safety net. The wire becomes more razor-thin the deeper you get into the conversation, and often you have no idea you’re treading into such dangerous territory. You especially have no way of predicting that your words are being run through a filter of betrayal – it’s not your fault that you accidentally threw a hook through a dropped guard**.
This is not a call for ‘civility’ or an attempt to point out how ‘both sides’ need to be more courteous and meet each other in the ‘middle’. First of all, I have no interest in playing that game, and I find the idea of policing people’s emotional reactions extremely distasteful. Secondly, in a conflict between ‘hurt’ and ‘annoyed’, I lend my support to ‘hurt’ every time – especially when that hurt is the product of egregiously unfair social systems and the annoyance is more often than not born of a priori ignorance of important issues. You’re not the victim when someone ‘overreacts’ to your ‘just asking questions’.
What this post is is a recognition that this process is often going to suck a lot for a lot of people. We can get better at having this discussion, but we will often find ourselves in situations when, despite our best efforts, we get ourselves into serious trouble. Feelings are going to get hurt, accusations (fair and unfair) are going to get made, friendships will be strained by comments that are free from malice but nevertheless careless. But on the other side of this yawning gulf of misunderstanding and betrayal is a valuable, productive, and steady common ground that allows us to do the important work of making life better for everyone, no matter what type of privilege the circumstances of their birth foisted upon them.
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*I suppose it would be hard to miss the obvious parallels to feminism, since gender is also socially and culturally constructed. This similarity is no accident.