We’re Understanding Society with a Microscope — And it’s Dangerous
You’re doing your Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard. You want to study the stars. Then you buy a very very very powerful microscope.
I hope you get kicked out of your Ph.D. program.
One simply cannot study the vastness of the sky with a device that is built to study the vastness of particles. You won’t have the right perspective. To understand the collective of the stars, you must look at the collective stars. You need a telescope.
This analogy follows for anyone trying to understand the world, society or an intricate system. Set aside individuality to understand the collective.
For me, this idea emerged after reading ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo.
In the context of understanding how racism is present in the societal infrastructure, my takeaway was that we must:
Set aside our uniqueness (individualism) to understand society (the collective system)
Cultural shifts create cultural dogma
There have been large cultural and moral adjustments in society during recent and present history. For example, white women gained the right to vote in 1920, while black women gained that right 45 years later in 1965.
There have been cultural movements surrounding race, sex, gender, sexuality and so forth. They’ve adjusted our societal values.
The recipe for virality seems to be modelled by many people sharing a simple message. (Just look at TikTok as an example: short, catchy messages spread fast).
The oversimplification of messages is effective in instilling a cultural revolution but we tend to lose the appendix. We start to perceive the world in extremes.
On the subject of Racism, DiAngelo refers to this as the ‘good/bad binary.’
“When white northerners saw the violence black people — including women and children — endured during the civil rights protests, they were appalled. These images became the archetypes of racists. After the civil rights movement, to be a good, moral person and to be complicit with racism became mutally exclusive. You could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist.” (Chapter 5, introduction)
To accomplish this adaption, racism first needed to be reduced to simple, isolated and extreme acts of prejudice. These acts must be intentional, malicious and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race.
To increase emotional buy-in and cultural shifts, extreme acts were emphasized. Thankfully, this movement reduced many tragic circumstances that existed for people of color — but this has been nowhere close to finished.
In igniting this movement, two beliefs and bottlenecks seem to have been formed:
- That racist acts only exist as hyperbolic situations
- The belief that racist actions are intentional. (Therefore, if someone does not intend to be racist, they are not being racist).
We use our individuality and lack-of-extreme-action to censor our contribution to the status quo
Since ‘racism’ is associated with violent groups, like the KKK, we become incentivized to dissociate from this label. We become soaked in protecting our ego.
“I am kind to others. I’m not a bad person. Therefore I don’t contribute to racism”
DiAngelo also describes the concept of ‘color-blindness’ in her book:
“According to this ideology, if we pretend not to notice race, then there can be no racism. […] Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it was less acceptable for white people to admit to racial prejudice; they did not want to be associated with the racist acts they had witnessed on television. […] This simplistic idea illustrates how movements for social change are co-opted, stripped of their intial challenge, and used against the very cause from which they originated. For example, a common response in the name of color blindness is to declare that an individual who says that race matters is the one who is racist. In other words, it is racist to acknowledge race.
Consider color-blind ideology from the perspective of a person of color. An example I often share occured when I was co-leading a workshop with an African American Man. A white participant said to him, “I don’t see race; I don’t see you as black.” My co-trainer’s response was, “Then how will you see racism?” […] Pretending that she did not notice that he was black was not helpful to him in any way, as it denied his reality — indeed, it refused his reality — and kept hers insular and unchallenged.
Color-blindness (or any blindness) restricts you from becoming aware. Denial does not lead to growth.
It ignores the privilege that white people have by assuming everyone’s reality is our reality. We must set aside our perspectives to understand another worldview.
There are two steps needed to take action from here:
- Recognizing that racism is not isolated, extreme situations (it exists on a spectrum)
- Become open-minded and curious about capturing our own intentions.
“We can’t change our racial filters if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them”
We operate in the realm of intention over impact.
“[Our] defensiveness is rooted in the widespread belief that racial discrimination can only be intentional.”
This concept is somewhat synonymous with the principle in that outcome should be rewarded over effort. (Although our approach right now is the reverse — we reward effort and not outcome).
White Fragility highlights that because racism is perceived as intentional acts of discrimination, if someone does not intend to do something racist, people believe it was not racist.
This belief seems to follow this premise:
Because I didn’t intend to do it, it had no impact
If the above is true, then we can argue that whenever you intend to do something the impact is ‘valid’ and if not, it is not.
So if you didn’t intend for your youtube video to empower so many people, its impact is non-existent. And if you didn’t intend to make someone smile today, that person isn’t smiling. And if you didn’t intend to burn your cake in the oven, it isn’t really burnt.
You can start to see how this breaks down.
We first must disentangle intentionality from the definition of racism. They’re not necessarily interrelated.
Secondly, we must recognize we are not exempt from the forces of racism.
Much of the modern world has been built as a result of white people’s perception of the value of people of color.
For example, buildings were created by slaves; c-sections were discovered through using black women as guinea pigs; many of our gadgets/products are created by people of color in what we term the ‘third world,’ ‘developing world’ and ‘poor world.’
Almost everything around us, in some way, has benefited from the racial segregation of our past and present. Therefore, it is naive to think we are exempt from the forces of racism. Our world has been built because of it.
Steps towards understanding my place in society
My interpretation of the book ‘White Fragility’ lead me to derive a few core values that guide the philosophy of the book. These are the values one should develop to be an ally in the fight against racism:
- Gratitude for feedback
- A healthy relationship with reality (viewing the world as objectively as possible)
- Personal integrity
- Open-mindedness and curiosity
- Caring about growth over your ego
Further, there were some distinct actions/pieces of advice that resonated with me:
- Be the rare person who speaks up (this one was derived through chapters of examples of white people using humour and other tactics to maintain racist ideologies)
- It’s easy to avoid a subject or divert attention elsewhere. It’s harder to face the subject. Become self-aware of when you’re using diversion tactics and ask yourself “what am I avoiding.”
- Be willing to accept feedback in public to create a ripple effect of change. Don’t protect your ego in private.
- If the doctor diagnosed you with a disease, you would likely care enough to get informed. This is not without effort. Racism, for other people, can be a life-or-death situation (black mothers and babies are more likely to die during childbirth, racial terror exists such as the case of George Floyd’s death, black life expectancy is lower, etc). You have to take an effort to do your homework.
- If a white person has a scenario where they’re a minority, this is typically a temporary scenario. It’s rare for a white person to experience a sense of not ratially belonging. Recognize that your experiences are different and not equal.
There is much to dig-in with this book, so I encourage you to pick it up and thoroughly read it. There’s a lot to be learned about racism but also accepting feedback, understanding the world and recognizing one’s unconscious tendencies.
(Directly from the book!)
Stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism.
Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.
Race is encoded in geography
In backstage settings, where people of color were not present, white students often used humor to reinforce racial stereotypes
In 2017, singer Rhianna introduced makeup line for women of all skin colors. Gratitude from women of color poired in. Many of their tweets inclided the exclamation “Finally!”. These are tweets I have never needed to send.
Claiming that the past was socially better than the present is also a hallmark of white supremacy. Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color. […] A romanticized past is strictly a white construct.
Many whites believe that if they are not talking about racism with their friends of color or if their friends are not giving them feedback about racism, then racism is a non-issue. But just because you and your friend don’t talk about racism does not mean it isn’t at play.
White participants continue to insist that not talking about difference is necessary for unity.
Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than convincing other people we don’t have them.
Our emotions are shapped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks