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Extending the benefit of the doubt

As a young(er) person who was broadly quite accepting of the notion of a non-racist Canada (or a post-racial society in general), it was deeply disappointing to gradually become more aware that the way I saw myself didn’t mesh with how others saw me. To be sure, nobody is perceived by others the way they perceive themselves, but the fact of being judged as deficient because of something that I took some pride in was decidedly unfair. To be denigrated according to a deeply inaccurate and unjust bundle of ideas that have formed about blackness was, at least at first, a profoundly painful betrayal of a society and people in whom I had placed a great deal of confidence.

As I began to become more aware of the ‘background radiation’ of racism in our society, I realized that just maybe everyone else was as ignorant of what was going on as I was. I thought that by talking about it, by educating people about my experience, that our shared desire to see racism eradicated from our society would motivate us to make improvements and to listen to the experiences of those who have so often been on the receiving end. I thought that it would be a simple fix – those who didn’t see racism because it wasn’t relevant to their lived experiences would say “this is new information that I wasn’t aware of before. Now that I know this, I can incorporate that into my new understanding.”

Yeah… that didn’t exactly work.

Instead, what I got was a strong pushback from people who were seemingly ready to affirm on a stack of holy writ that I was just “race baiting” – introducing race into conversations where it wasn’t relevant. That I was griping about slavery. That I was just too ‘angry’ to see past my own biases. That I was just trying to weasel cookies out of people’s white guilt. That I was dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy, ignorant… the list goes on.

I also encountered people who relied on a seemingly coded language. They would begin an argument on seemingly-innocuous grounds where there would be broad agreement from most reasonable people, and then through a series of ever-widening logical holes would steer the conversation towards their real position – that the victims of racism deserved what they got for one or more of a variety of reasons: laziness, cultural deficiency, an entitlement ethos, biological inferiority, lack of ‘personal responsibility’… again, a long list.

Perhaps most frustrating were the people who claimed to be, or otherwise seemed to be, allies in the struggle against racism who nevertheless made statements reminiscent of those in the first two groups. In their own frustration and difficulty accepting the realities of racism, a situation further coloured by the fact that they themselves had never needed to confront racism in a personal way, they fell into the same cognitive traps that made the race-baiting-accusers and the coded-linguists so galling. It was based on the tacit acceptance of a handful of unwarranted assumptions about members of minority groups who talk about race, or about the groups themselves.

And so, over a number of years and bruised friendships and self-recriminations over al of the racist statements I let slide because I was “picking my battles”, my skill at detecting racist sentiments grew. I knew, within a couple of sentences, where a coded or dismissive line of reasoning was going – often before the speaker hirself knew that there was any racial component to hir speech. I could rattle off refutations and dig my heels in on things that seemed innocent enough, but that I knew were the first baby-steps toward victim blaming and racial attack. I began to see the racial elements of things that even I hadn’t considered relevant before. It was like a goddamn Spidey sense.

This wasn’t, however, the same thing as developing a skill set to gain some kind of advantage in blogging or in winning arguments or seeming erudite on internet comment threads. For me, like so many racialized behaviours that I developed over the years, it was about survival. I couldn’t afford to accommodate where those conversations were going, because at the end of the conversation came an attack on me. I couldn’t afford to accept the accusation of ‘race baiting’, because it meant that the next time that person was confronted with a racial issue, they’d use my tacit approval as a loophole to escape confronting their own flawed cognition. I couldn’t afford to let my friends make racist arguments out of benign ignorance, because ultimately the chickens of their ignorance would come home to roost on either my head or the head of another person of colour, maybe not through active oppression, but through the propagation of a racist system that is built on axioms never uttered aloud, but acted upon with impunity.

My story is not unique. People of colour, LGBT folks, women, anyone on the lower side of a power divide have developed this kind of reflexive ESP for dehumanizing statements. They (we) have learned to navigate the waters of these discussions after years of failure. We’ve put in hours, many of them against our will, battling the forces of oppression and the selective blindness of privilege in our day-to-day lives. We have to. Failure to develop these skills means getting washed away in the undertow of those waters when the tide of public opinion turns against us.

People who have complained to me about feeling “ganged up on” or “bullied” when entering into minority spaces, often with seemingly-benign intentions, therefore get little sympathy from me. After all, there’s the obvious issue of separating the honest confused from the willful abusive, but even allowing for that I don’t find such appeals for “the benefit of the doubt” persuasive. Extending the benefit of the doubt to everyone who doesn’t saunter into a conversation wearing a “bigot” badge means that members of minority groups are being asked to unlearn what they (we) have learned – to forget that our emotional and psychological survival sometimes depends on early detection and rapid response. The world that forges us does not often give us the ‘benefit of the doubt’ when talking about our own stories, and more often than not punishes us for speaking up.

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