Lake St Clair, New South Wales
RANT 26 – RACISM AND ME.
This has proven to be one of the most challenging rants that I have written. If you find it to be circuitous and confused, you won’t be alone. I’ve had to think and re-think as I have written, and I’ve made innumerable revisions “on the trot”, but it has helped me to finally make up my mind about some issues which are of critical importance to me. Had you asked me, even six months ago, if I were racist, I’d have answered firmly in the negative, but during recent months, and with anti-racist activism hitting a high around the world, I’ve had pause for thought.
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Question: How are pregnancy and racism similar?
Answer: You can’t be just a little bit pregnant.
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Racism is one of many forms of negative prejudice, and, like most types of prejudice, it is based on fear.
Fear is created by a lack of knowledge and understanding, leading to doubt and suspicion.
A lack of knowledge and understanding is created by an absence of learning, a failure to provide education.
Prejudice can, to some extent, be overcome through education, but only if teachers and learners are both committed to the process.
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I have to admit to feelings of prejudice in relation to a number of world phenomena.
Not one of these phenomena includes a component related to skin colour or ethnicity.
My prejudices invariably relate to politics, religion and culture. It is coincidental that various racial groups attach to these, and race is not the basis for my prejudice.
My prejudice occurs in differing degrees, depending upon the subject, so it’s probable that there exists a continuum with respect to prejudice. It’s not possible to be a little bit pregnant, but perhaps you can be a little bit prejudiced. If my level of fear is low, maybe my level of prejudice can also be low.
Feeling fear is a most basic, instinctive response, designed to protect us from the danger of injury, or death. It governs many of our behaviour choices, and rightly so. When I choose to wait at a pedestrian crossing at traffic lights for the green signal, it’s not because of a fear of being fined for breaking the law by crossing against the signal, it’s because of a fear of death under the wheels of a vehicle. My fear is rational – it helps to preserve my life.
If I choose to wait until there are no moving vehicles within a distance of two hundred metres, and until there is another pedestrian who is wanting to cross the road at the same time as me, the fear is irrational. If my irrational fear level is so great as to prevent me from leaving my home, we are talking about serious mental health issues.
Whilst racism is an absolute state – you’re either racist or you’re not – might it exist along a continuum, similar to the state of fear? Within the absolute state, are there varying degrees?
Here is where my thinking has become so convoluted as to frustrate me immensely, but, after much “to-ing and fro-ing”, I have concluded that, whilst I may be prejudiced with respect to a phenomenon, I am not necessarily racist.
Although I’m not a great fan of definitions, because they can become too prescriptive and thereby limit thinking, I believe that it’s going to be necessary to use a couple here, in order to set a base line for my raving.
Here’s one I Googled earlier. Racism is:
“prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
“the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.”
Here’s a Wikipedia description of prejudice:
“Prejudice is an affective feeling towards a person based on their perceived group membership. The word is often used to refer to a preconceived, usually unfavourable, evaluation of another person based on that person’s political affiliation, sex, gender, beliefs, values, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, language, nationality, beauty, occupation, education, criminality, sport team affiliation or other personal characteristics.
Prejudice can also refer to unfounded or pigeonholed beliefs and it may include “any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence”. Gordon Allport defined prejudice as a “feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on, actual experience”.”
Although it means little with respect to this rant, I need to acknowledge that, as Allport suggests, prejudice can be positive. I’m prejudiced in favour of Irish and Welsh people because I love listening to them talk, and because I admire the anti-imperialist politics to which many Irish and Welsh subscribe. I’m prejudiced in favour of some of the world’s aboriginal peoples because I admire their understanding and appreciation of their natural environments, and of their efforts to maintain them.
From this point, when I use the term “prejudice”, I’ll be talking about negative prejudice, otherwise I’ll use the term “positive prejudice”.
When I began writing this piece I was fairly confident that it was possible to be a little bit racist, but I now conclude that, instead of feeling guilt about my apparent mild racism, I should probably be berating myself for my rather pointless prejudices.
As I thought and wrote, it became apparent that I needed to distinguish between prejudice and racism, and I’ve concluded that racism is a particular, and evil, form of prejudice.
Now, back to the initial question of whether it’s possible to be a little bit racist.
The basis of this argument is that fear is natural. Extremes of fear are not “normal” or helpful. A total absence of fear is dangerous, whilst excessive fear is debilitating. Fear needs to be manageable and managed, if it is not to impinge upon the living of a fulfilling life.
If a degree of fear is a natural part of life, and if a degree of prejudice is a product of fear, and if racism is a type of prejudice, might it be said that a degree of racism is also natural? I think not, because racism is an irrational, unmanaged prejudice, which focuses solely upon racial or ethnic differences.
I’ll suggest that a continuum of racism exists, ranging from the lowest level, perhaps a degree of suspicion or uncertainty, to the highest level, violent bigotry.
In my own case, and in my defence, what I previously perceived as low-level racism on my part, was more likely to be a negative cultural response to circumstances in which I felt uncomfortable.
Here’s an example.
During a career spanning four decades and more, I taught numerous Aboriginal students, who, according to their parents, enjoyed their time with me. Whilst mindful of some cultural differences relating to interpersonal interaction, I treated those students in the same way as I treated non-Aboriginal students. During those years I interacted with Aboriginal parents and co-workers, for whom I had great admiration and respect.
The only fear that I felt during this time was a fear that, due to my lack of knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture and behaviour, I would inadvertently offend someone. Never did I anticipate or experience negativity being directed at me.
Yet, as recently as 2013, when we visited the town of Katherine, in the Northern Territory, I was forced to deliberately put down feelings of prejudice created by passive interaction with local people who happened to be indigenous.
Whilst shopping, I felt as though we were being assessed by Aboriginal people who were gathered in groups in the shopping centre, and, on occasion, that we were the subject of unfriendly stares. The marked police presence was perhaps a factor which contributed to our feeling that we were not necessarily welcomed by indigenous people in the town.
I distinctly remember feeling at odds with myself. All of my previous interactions with Aboriginal people had been immensely positive, but here I felt unwelcome, a little uncertain, and I took pains to avoid looking at the assembled groups. Since then I have wondered if, had these people been non-Aboriginal, I would have felt so uncomfortable.
My latest thinking has encouraged me to believe that my low-level fear response was not created by the fact that these were Aboriginal people, but by the fact that they appeared to be a cultural group that passively expressed rejection of foreigners, that is my wife and me.
Had we been walking through a Sydney suburb and seen a similar number of young people from a non-indigenous ethnic group, I might have felt similarly “threatened”.
It was almost as though I anticipated trouble with these residents of Katherine, not because they were Aboriginal, but because they were gathered in a group and demonstrating body language which I interpreted as mildly threatening. I was prejudiced against their universal “cultural” display, not against their aboriginality.
My wife and I have returned to Katherine several times since that initial visit and we have felt entirely safe and welcome on each occasion.
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Lipson Cove, South Australia
So, we can’t be a “little bit racist”.
We either discriminate against others on the basis of their race, or we don’t.
However, racist attitudes may exist at a low level. Perhaps we could call people who display these “low level” attitudes, “benign racists”:
“They (insert an ethnic group) are OK, but I wouldn’t necessarily want them living next door”.
“Malignant racists” operate at an extreme level:
“They (insert an ethnic group) should all be shot.”
How then can we explain those negative feelings, which I experience occasionally, towards groups whose origins are not recently Australian?
I suggest that my feelings, whilst prejudicial, are not racist.
In order to be classified as racist, my prejudice should be based upon a racial profile, commonly indicated by physical characteristics such as skin colour, but I don’t care what people look like. My prejudices are entirely based upon perceived culture.
Against which particular cultural groups am I prejudiced?
In a contemporary Australian context, I feel some degree of prejudice against criminals, certain “sportspeople”, monarchists, the obscenely wealthy, politicians, religious fundamentalists, and probably a few more.
I don’t like thieves who choose to take from others, rather than contribute in a positive sense to society. That covers the basic petty thieves, burglars and so on, many of whom ply their trade in order to finance drug habits. I’m strongly prejudiced against violent thugs, especially those who commit domestic violence – a predominantly male group, and “white collar” criminals who, in some cases, use the laws which benefit the rich at the expense of the not rich, in order the steal superannuation funds and the like.
I really don’t like people who kill others in a premeditated fashion, but I reserve my absolute hatred for rapists and paedophiles, because their victims may suffer for an entire lifetime.
Having spent my entire working life in the service of the community – yes it was my choice and yes, I could have sought other employment, which might have made me financially rich – I have issues with people who can throw, hit or kick a ball extremely well, making more money in ten years than I could ever hope to have earned in ten lifetimes. It’s a value for money thing. Society just didn’t value my work as highly as it might have done. As a male, I also reject the “alpha male”, macho image, projected by some “sportsmen”, as the sole appropriate male identity.
My prejudice against monarchists stems from my hatred of monarchies. It’s a social value thing. I ask myself why someone who, through an accident of birth joins a “royal” family, should be considered a “better class of person” than I am. I despise elitist behaviour, and royalty is about as elitist as you can get.
The obscenely wealthy are people who have so much money that they would need to live at least twice in order to spend it all. Enormous inherited wealth galls me even more. Gross amounts of money spent in expanding a power base and in abusing the less fortunate, can incite violence in me, metaphorically speaking.
Although I have been guilty during my lifetime of “bending the truth” on occasions, I can’t stand the type of liars who lie to your face, who lie in order to rip you off, who lie in order to have power over others, or who sprout the most absurd lies and expect that you are stupid enough to believe them. Yes, we’re discussing politicians, or the bulk of that detestable group, at least.
I really hate the “smug bastards”, the ones who deliver their bullshit spiced with an idiotic grin, secure in the knowledge that you can’t do anything about their deceit. We’ve had a couple of prime ministers who fitted that description all too well.
Religious fundamentalists, not just religious terrorists, have climbed pretty close to the top of my “Despicable Tree”. Whilst I have absolutely no time for, or interest in, people who choose to believe things which have been scientifically disproven, or who choose to believe that, because of a lifestyle choice, they are better people than me, or who wish to help me to discover their particular brand of truth, I reserve my prejudice against people of religion, for those who brainwash children, those who persecute women, and those who murder, in the name of their god.
In a world context, I add to my list of prejudices, imperialists, rabid communists, rampant capitalists and dictators.
Imperialism is basically theft on a grand scale. It has always, and will always exist, although the methods employed to create new empires will tend to be more sophisticated and marginally less bloodthirsty. Imperialism says “I have the right, because of who I am, and because my culture and/or religion is superior, to take from you, that which I desire. You have the right to be subjugated or die in the resistance.”
Some individuals, particularly those whose nations have a history of empire creation, and the atrocities which that entails, will try to defend imperialism on the grounds that, during the imperialist era, society was not advanced to the stage at which ordinary people would perceive those atrocities as unacceptable human behaviour. Although I wasn’t alive during those allegedly pre-moral times, I am happy to call those claims as rank bullshit. Even people of the most primitive cultures would have known that theft, rape and murder were wrong, purely because of their human emotional responses to such events.
Communism exists on a continuum, ranging from moderate socialism to insane “total domination of hearts and minds” stuff, which can be seen, especially in a country like China, which utilises capitalism when it suits them. I object to the total domination of a nation by a group which preaches equality, whilst practising its own form of elitism. The old saying “Under communism all people are equal, but some are more equal than others”, sums up my view. The whole concept of communism to premised upon a flaw. It reckons without the human trait of pursuing self-interest, even at the expense of others.
So, whilst I reject the Chinese Communist Party as a totalitarian dictatorship, I have no prejudice against the rank and file Chinese.
Capitalism also exists on a continuum, ranging from moderate to insane “total domination of hearts and minds” stuff, which can be seen perfectly in a country like the Unites States, and on a slightly lesser scale in Australia.
Capitalism is not a purely wealth creation concept, it’s also about the gaining and exercise of power. We capitalists gain more power by gaining more wealth. Money buys power, and all that power brings – control, the right to do anything at any time, anywhere to anybody, and the right to justice.
A moderately capitalist society allows for wealth creation and some wealth distribution. It functions with some sense of social justice, a belief that people who are unable to create huge personal wealth are still entitled to share in the wealth of the community, commensurate with their efforts to support that community, with labour.
Rabid capitalism is nothing other than a process of satiating enormous greed. The fact that so much of the world’s wealth is held by so few people, is testament to the fact that rabid capitalism is not just alive and well, but is actively thriving.
Dictators are also about power. They are invariably emotionally damaged individuals who seek to compensate for their personal inadequacies by the exercise of power over others whom they perceive to be “weaker” than the dictators themselves.
It’s a mistake to think that dictators only control nations or states. They also control families, workplaces and institutions, in fact anywhere that control needs to be exercised for a common good. For the dictator, however, the common good is an irrelevant concept. For him or her, it’s the drive for personal advancement which matters. The commoners are simply stepping stones.
So, after enduring a cyclical process of thinking and re-thinking, what have I learned about racism and me?
So, I know that I’m not racist, but that I am prejudiced. My prejudices range from mild to extreme, from rational to irrational. I’m acutely aware of some, whilst others lie dormant or hiding within my consciousness. My prejudices affect, and are affected by, my world view and I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone sees the world as I do.
Homestead, Coolah Tops, New South Wales