Thursday, February 14, 2008

Banal, Inconspicuous Racism...

What is it you see in this picture? Pick your choice:
A). A bunch of Chinese
B). A bunch of Asians
C). A bunch of people

If you answered A or B, you have a problem. A banal, inconspicuous problem. You see race before people. You take race to be something that defines people. Which, in a banal and inconspicuous manner, does make you a racist.

The other day, I was reading this blog post about dealing with racist stereotypes and prejudices within your own social network. Should one react to them? Should you confront your friends and acquaintances? Should you just avoid the discussion and pretend you didn't get the racism? I even left a comment on the blog, feeling like one who has been there and found the balance...

Well, I was wrong (and I hate to admit it). There is no balance. I've forgotten how difficult it is to live in a world where people judge other people based on their skin color or shape of the eyes. And how difficult it might be to react, out of many reasons (age, social status, social ties and so on). I simply left the room as soon as I could with that bitter feeling that change is next to impossible, to say the least.

The discussion started innocently, as most racist discussions do, with a story about a trip by bus.

Oh, there are so many Chinese taking the bus... Yes, many indeed, but if you think this is many, then go to Vancouver... There are almost only Chinese there... So many you (the White voice, my note) feel like a minority there... Yes, they are everywhere... And they go everywhere... They'll soon be everywhere...

I confess I didn't react. The people involved in the conversation are intellectuals, with a rich cultural experience, who traveled the world and back. The people involved in this conversation know exactly how I would react, or where I stand on this type of inconspicuously disguised racism. I know I should have reacted.

The same people are however enraged when they themselves are placed into groups and homogenized. They take offence when they are stereotyped and labeled and when they experience the status of being a minority (hard status for a white person!). Yet the logic doesn't seem to be the same when encountering other people. People are almost always perceived through what is taken to be the sign of difference: the skin, the physical traits, the ethnicity, the nationality.

I remember a girl once saying "I will never date a Russian". Why, I asked naively. "Because he would be Russian", came the self-explanatory answer.
In his 1995 book entitled Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig discusses the concept arguing that we recreate daily and in a banal manner the ideas that the world is naturally divided into nations defined by particular ethno-cultural-psychological traits and that individuals are primarily defined by their belonging to their nation. The argument is pliable to racism as well. Yes, some of us might live in places proclaiming themselves to be multicultural and tolerant, but it is the daily recreation of racism, nationalism, homophobia and intolerance that needs to be seen, investigated and addressed.

Photo Credits: ernoldino


ionuka said...

I empathise with your description of "that bitter feeling" when you know you could have said something and you didn't. But I tend to slightly disagree with you on the more general issue.

It's true that people who are more prejudiced tend to notice race more and are quicker to categorize people by race than by other categories. Also, they tend to explain negative behaviors of people from other racial groups more in terms of their race than other (thousands!) of possible factors ("He dropped out of school because he's Black" instead of "He dropped out of school because the tuition got too expensive.") However, I don't think that not seeing people's group membership is a solution to decreasing bias. Total decategorization - perceiving a person as a human being and not a member of a group - was found to not be the best way to reduce bias toward that group. For example, there were some studies that showed that the color-blind perspective was less successful in decreasing prejudice than the multicultural perspective. The key is to maintain group memberships and be aware of group differences: people from different groups ARE different, the DO have different cultures. The important thing is to know those differences, to understand them, to accept them, and to not use them to rationalize prejudice.
Some social psychologists propose is a "dual-identity model" in which a person of Chinese descent who is now a Canadian would maintain both identities and cultures - Chinese and Canadian. This is what I understand by true multiculturalism, actually. Although I know it's hard to achieve.

k. said...

i don't know where to stand on this one. if we simply notice differences - skin colour differences - does this make us racists? we do not say that one is better than the other, just that they are different. can we blind ourselves to - in this case -colour? see, i still have questions.

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