Life, etc

Concept Corner: Passive racism

By Vashthi Nepaul 20 May 2015

Were you minding your own business at the water cooler when someone just up and called you privileged? Have you ever confused yourself arguing about rights on Facebook? Did you accidentally insult a friend by calling them a libertarian? Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Join us every week for a new discussion about common concepts in public discourse. By VASHTHI NEPAUL.

Eulogies are more about comforting the living than honouring the dead. For all we know, the dead might be honoured by honesty but seldom are the living comforted by it. Overwhelmingly eulogies declare the deceased a good person, or a loving person, a kind person or a committed person. They are exercises in reducing a lifetime of varied human behaviour into a handful of palatable absolutes. When we self-identify we also think in absolutes. We think I am a kind person rather than my kindness is dependent on external factors like time and company. We think I am a fair person rather than I am fair when I consciously force myself to be fair.

All the data – historical, anthropological, psychological and economic –suggest that we are creatures of context rather than creatures of absolutes. Even exemplary humans all have their tales of moral shortcomings; Gandhi was a racist, Jefferson was a slaver, Norman Mailer thought a bit of rape was a good thing, Mother Teresa would baptise dying Hindus. The paragon, the model for how we relate to ideological leaders, is often no more real than the illusions that paper over our own conflicting actions.

This is important to remember when we try to grapple with ourselves because it means that even a person whom has never had an actively racist thought may be racist in behaviour. We are too easily misled by tales of overt racism, to the point where many players in the public discourse reduce racism to stark examples of bad faith behaviour. But passive racism is harder to recognise and more insidious; a real possibility that we have to force ourselves to identify and challenge.

concept corner afraid to ask andy

Photo: Afraid to Ask Andy is an Internet meme. It stems from the television show Parks and Recreation when the character Andy Dwyer shares his secrets. One of his secrets is ‘I don’t know who Al Gore is and at this point I’m too afraid to ask’. The meme uses a similar format to confess a lack of knowledge about concepts or events that are often presumed to be common knowledge. It was first used by someone confused by GamerGate.

Many businesses and institutions were formed during Apartheid or in the colonial era before it. Many more were started afterward but modelled in similar ways. Even international organisations have their own legacies of discrimination. These institutions, organisations, even laws and social norms, are hard to shake up and transform. Despite our transformative policies and fiscal encouragement at the top level, real change is slow to germinate and hard won each time. Our foundering society, in which people are racist towards both others and themselves, needs to confront what we have long suspected: we continue to prop up the system for which the end result is racism.

We tell ourselves that we will be more open to considering others for opportunities that they have been previously denied, but the reality of our economic indicators suggests otherwise. Even when we can overcome that initial hurdle, the expectation is still that the outsider should adapt to the existing system, rather than that we should change the problematic system itself. We behave as though the opportunity itself is the prize, regardless of whether the opportunity is actually viable.

In jobs and business, government frequently advantages the haves rather than the have nots, universities will lower entrance requirements to those exiting a foundering education system, only to academically exclude them later on, company hirers will flinch from a candidate on the grounds of not fitting the organisational culture because they could not engage in the rugby small talk that preceded the interview. Everywhere, unseen red tape, harmful stereotyping and language barriers inhibit the enterprising individual’s opportunity at advancement.

Passive racism starts on an individual level but ramps up to influence organisations and systems very quickly. Studies have illustrated that we are all prone to immediate racial bias based mostly on stereotyping. Sometimes this manifests in negative racial discrimination, the kind that makes a family a bit condescending to an in-law of another race, or allows a black South African politician to dismiss a white journalist as racist when he asks a damaging question, or makes a black school girl more likely to be expelled from school than a white schoolgirl guilty of the same conduct. What started as an individual prejudice – like a teacher being harsher on a girl the darker her skin colour is – grew to influence the way an entire education system functions where across the board, American school groups make rulings that are more extreme the darker a girl’s skin is.

This discrimination can also manifest as positive discrimination, like when a businessman proactively employs people of a certain tribe or race because of beliefs about that group’s talent or work ethic. We hear and joke about positive discrimination all the time: about which groups are more likely to own a corner shop or excel at maths or work very seriously or sing and dance better than other people. We do not realise that this kind of racism negatively affects the target group by way of our unfair expectations (What if that German guy doesn’t have a protestant work ethic? What if that Asian kid can’t fathom an equation? What if that black woman doesn’t like dancing?).

It also prejudices any person from another group who does actually possess those qualities you were ascribing wholesale to someone else. If you assume all Asians are good at maths, you’re neither thinking about nor looking for a black maths wizard. If you assume that black people are the best at holding a rhythm you’re going to be extra sceptical about the white girl who auditions for your hip-hop dance troupe. And yes, my examples assume that life is sometimes like the plot of a Step Up movie, but that is still more realistic than maintaining we do not all make hidden and subconscious value judgements on the basis of race.

Now, this is not to say that we should raze everything and start over. Practically it cannot be so and realistically those of us who hold power would never allow it to reach that point. However, we can ask ourselves whether the opportunities we create on paper actually create structural change or whether we are propping up systemic racism in our schools, technikons, courts, companies, media and government departments.

There remains a big disconnect between what the numbers tell us and what the people who create those numbers tell us. Numbers tell us that a white person is more likely to get a job in many sectors. The employers in those sectors tell us that they do not discriminate when hiring. Is this evidence of a massive cover up? Hardly. Sometimes, though increasingly less frequently, it indicates a skills vacuum in all the other race groups. More often, though, it means that we often do not recognise that our justifications have a racial slant to them. Doesn’t fit our organisational culture, she has too much attitude, our clients/members will not trust him is some of the more vague reasoning provided for rejecting a candidate of a specific group. It should be noted that this sort of reasoning is so context dependent that it could be used by white hirers to stop a young black candidate from getting a nice corporate job and be used by black hirers to stop a young white candidate from getting a union representative job.

Passive racism does not just apply to hiring opportunities though. If you put your child in an all-white English medium school, and the area around it slowly gains more families of colour but the school itself does not gain non-white children at anywhere near a similar rate, have you questioned the admission policy? No, you have not selected the children yourself nor have you influenced the governing body’s policy against children of colour but your silence could be allowing racial exclusion to flourish. Your payment of school fees is tacit permission to continue unchanged. Of course this is a hard ask. It is more difficult to spot passive racism because it is a reflection of a past we recognise and may not be primed to question. More so, it is exhausting, requiring us to train a whither eye to our everyday life and pose uncomfortable questions to those we love and trust the most. It is, however, more difficult and exhausting for those who continue to be excluded.

Many schools in South Africa and the US have at turns banned students from wearing their hair in dreadlocks or afros – a rule that overwhelmingly policed the natural bodies of black children and brought negative connotations into their learning environment. Yes, these children were attending the same school as their white counterparts and yes, on paper they had been given the same opportunities. However, the system that they were in helped to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about their race groups in an environment where they were meant to be learning and performing well. Small aggressions like this may not seem very impactful but here is an excerpt on the power of racialising supposedly equal environments: “Black school children in North Carolina completed a 10-item mathematics test. Participants who reported their race before taking the test performed more poorly than participants who reported their race after completing the test.”

This study was done by some social psychologists at NYU in 2009 and when they got the results they were motivated enough to try it again. They did so with undergraduate students at Princeton University, this time using a socio-economic indicator instead of a racial one. Again, the results were the same. They only thing that could change the outcome was either not bringing up someone’s race and background or bringing it up in a positive way.

The reality we live in is often quite the opposite of positive framing. The back-handed compliments of a boss like “you’re so well spoken” or “you’ll go far with today’s policies” can discourage a candidate from negotiating a raise or applying for an internal promotion. Meanwhile, people from a more privileged race group will not be hesitating over these same discouragements. Do they have the same opportunities on paper? Yes. Perhaps there’s even an affirmative action policy that could help combat racial inequality even further, if a black candidate ever applies. But now there’s a chance that he or she never will. So again, equal opportunity is not enough. Environments also have to be conducive to equality. Environments that are negative about race are not.

Here are a few more examples of passive racism:

  • Refusing to believe that other people can be disadvantaged in society just because of their race

  • Refusing to believe that you can be advantaged in society just because of your race

  • Assuming that another disadvantage cancels out racial advantage. For example: women are more disadvantaged than men are. However, a white woman still can leverage some benefits from her race despite her gender – especially compared to women of colour. In other words, types of privilege can stack up and types of discrimination can intersect.

  • Participating in opportunities where only your race is represented without questioning why other race groups are absent

  • Using race as a mental qualifier for someone’s good or bad behaviour, even positively

  • Assuming that because a race group did not access an opportunity, people from that group must not want that opportunity

  • Assuming that opportunities are equal even when data shows that one race group always benefits more than others

  • Assuming that affirmative action policies negate a person of colour’s ability to do their job, have talent, advance and work hard

  • Accepting discriminatory policies like police racial profiling because they ‘keep society safe’

  • Expecting other race groups to be pleased by your engagement with, or appropriation of, aspects of their culture

  • Knowing that the outcomes of a system or process typically advantage an already dominant race but never attempting to change the status quo

Often the people perpetuating a system that has racist outcomes – and this is important – are not aware that they are doing so. They may be unhappy with new scepticism and defensive in the face of challenges but even then they may not be acting maliciously. Because we often imagine ourselves in moral absolutes we are primed to hear ‘I think that action is racist as meaning I think you are a racist’ and that’s a bitter pill that few are willing to swallow. The resulting miscommunication can shut down all further dialogue on the subject and any changes made may be more of the same: demonstrable on paper but not in society.

Passive racism is propped up by our own desires to be recognised as benevolent and fair people. Institutions and social mores allow us safety in numbers because if everyone is doing this, and everyone thinks we’re doing good, then any challenges to the contrary are fallacious, unfair and spiteful. But there are kernels of truth if we are brave enough to look for them, even when we have to look in the mirror.

The fact is that we’re all prone to forms of passive racism. If we open ourselves up to that idea, we’re more likely to take a step back and try to consider someone’s point of view when they say something is racist. We’re more likely to sit down and count whether all the people whose input we value also happen to be people who look just like us. We can consider if some of our own assumptions or the actions of an organisation/system would be as easy to stomach if they also negatively affected our own group. Whether it is a stray off-colour joke in a job interview or the seeming co-incidence of an all-white programming class, the question we need ask ourselves is simple: does this help to perpetuate a racially unequal status quo? DM

Main photo by Reuters.

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