I recently got an email from a friend asking for my advice. She’s in a hockey league and at the end of their season they celebrate by doing musical performances at a local bar. They picked a set list of feminist anthems that spanned decades. My friend chose an ’80s Salt-N-Pepa song and planned to wear a big gold chain while she rapped. All the members are white, including my friend. They got into an awkward and unsatisfying discussion over her song and outfit choice, arguing whether this was cultural appropriation, a form of racism. So, my friend wrote to me. Was it?
First, I thanked my friend for giving me a Dear Ann Landers moment, an unrealized lifelong dream for me. I just want to give people advice, lots of advice. (“Good luck to those who take it, ha ha!” I wrote.)
Then I got serious, quick, because I recognize that these kinds of conversations are painful. They cut right to our most tender core, that part of us that screams, “I’m not racist, I swear!” But here’s the thing: We all have good intentions, and we also all have biases and knowledge gaps. That’s why taking a hard look at our own thoughts and emotions is key. In Shakil Choudhury’s book Deep Diversity, Overcoming Us vs. Them, the author outlines how unlearning our implicit biases means understanding how humans think, interact and emotionally regulate. Our neurology plays a role, too.
“In brain science terms, we have to disrupt and alter the neural pathways that result in biases that do not serve us collectively. In plain language, [that means] we have to break some bad habits regarding issues of racial difference,” Choudhury writes. What he’s saying is, overcoming racism isn’t about policing others. It’s about questioning ourselves.
Looking inward is difficult for a few reasons. None of us thinks of ourselves as racist, right? And yet, how do we square that with the unalterable fact that we live in a Western society that was built upon racial hierarchies? Valuing, or devaluing, people based on race is how slavery, colonialism and racist immigration policy was justified. (And yes, we did have all of those here in Canada. Some would say we still do.) Systemic or structural discrimination, the kind of racism that props up entire systems, is a layer in the engineering of our society. What can one person do in the face of this?
I like to flip that question. Think about what you can control and where you can make a difference. Then look at the vast terrain that is your inner world. And here’s the good news: this is where you’re totally in charge.
Here’s a short, by no means comprehensive, list of ways self-reflection can combat racism.
1) Accept that you might hold racist views
We tend to see racist behavior as something loud and scary: the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, N.C., for example, or a viral video of a racist rant. But racism can be much quieter, manifesting as passing thoughts and assumptions we make about other people. This “everyday” racism can have a cumulative, sometimes crushing effect for those who experience it over a lifetime. Learn to listen to your inner monologue and unpack your own thoughts by asking yourself why you think or feel a certain way. And after you’ve answered that “why,” ask another “why.”
2) Understand that it’s your job to learn about racism
It might seem like a good idea to ask your Anishinaabe friend questions about Indigenous cultural appropriation, but don’t. Answering questions about race might be traumatizing or emotionally draining for some people. Thank the Google gods that you can learn by reading academic research, news stories and opinion pieces. Check out cultural organizations to see what work they’re doing in community education. Just remember: go for vetted, reputable sources. Don’t rely on the conversations you see among your friends on Facebook, unless they have expertise—I follow advocates and academics for that exact purpose.
3) Know when and with whom to have conversations about racism
If you want to have face-to-face discussions about race, do it with consideration. As author Ijeoma Oluo writes in her book So You Want To Talk About Race, it can be especially difficult for racialized people to have these conversations with people they’re close to. Oluo is biracial, and in her case, she’s talking about her own mother, who is white. “She asked if she at least got Black credit for doing my hair for all of those years. I said no. We talked about when to not discuss race (say, in the middle of the workday when your Black coworker is just trying to get through a day surrounded by white people). We ended the conversation exhausted and emotional, but with a greater understanding of each other.”
Of course, it doesn’t always end in a conciliatory way, something Oluo acknowledges. “These conversations, when done wrong, can do real damage. Friendships can be lost, holidays ruined, jobs placed in jeopardy,” she writes. But there’s no ignoring the topic of race. To do so is what Oluo says leads to, “real detrimental effects on the lives of others—say, in school boards, community programs and local government.”
Go into conversations about race with the awareness that the topic is a delicate one. When in doubt, connect with organizations, community groups and activists who are accustomed to answering questions and have expertise in education. Some suggestions: Toronto for All, Urban Alliance on Race Relations and activists like Desmond Cole or Roopa Cheema.
4) Listen more than you speak, to really learn about racism
Unlearning racism means deprogramming yourself from the kinds of misinformation and implicit biases you’ve been trained your whole life to have. (Thanks, Hollywood, advertising, fairy tales, gender binary codes, our educational system, news media that treats itself as entertainment more than public service…) Recognize what opportunities you’ve had in your own life and listen to stories and experiences from people whose lives have been constrained in ways you might not even be aware of. This is the definition of “checking your privilege.” And if you like social media, use it to listen. Cultivate feeds that open up your bubble. Prioritize voices you may not have in your real life.
As for my friend with the hockey league rock band, I didn’t give her a definitive answer (I did, however, write, like, a one-thousand-word email). I simply asked her, “Would your band feel better if you were a Black woman rapping this Salt and Pepa song? Are there Black women in your band? Are there any Black women in your entire league? Why not? Is your social world white? Is your work world white? Why? Why? Why?”
I don’t think it annoyed her that I answered her question with more questions (and I won’t be anyone’s next Dear Ann Landers, I guess) but that’s the only way to go about these discussions. We need to question ourselves to the point where we are ready to unlearn threads of racism we’ve woven into our worldviews. That’s when we can get to a place where we start learning how to be so much better.
This article by Hannah Sung originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on June 26, 2018. Sung is a journalist and the 2020 Asper Fellow at Western University’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies.