Nowadays, it seems like anything you do can be, in some way, shape, or form, “racist.” Let’s first define racism: According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, racism is “the process by which systems and policies, actions and attitudes create inequitable opportunities and outcomes for people based on race.” Racism occurs both on the global scale embedded into our political system as well as in the daily microaggressions a person of color (POC) faces in their daily lives. Yet, microaggression perpetrators often don’t consider the weight of their racial remarks. And that’s what’s behind our natural defensiveness, allowing the phrase “I’m not racist” to slip out of our mouths so easily.
Human nature makes us love to paint ourselves in a better light. Otherwise known as self-serving bias, it is our readiness to perceive ourselves as good and generally fault-free. Being perceived as racist goes against that instinct, and so, we stumble along with excuses to change it.
To explain how and why we do it, let’s roll back to the Freudian age. Freud theorized various types of defense mechanisms, including rationalization. Rationalization is when we make an event “less threatening” by providing ourselves with excuses. In other words, we replace reasoning we find less acceptable with one more acceptable. Consider a hypothetical context where you may have said something slightly racist — not many of us will consciously admit it to ourselves. In this case, you could’ve replied with “I’m not racist; I was just joking.” That would be rationalization kicking in. Because racism has been such a big contemporary issue, being labeled as a “racist” will do no good for your reputation, and that circles back to our inherent self-serving bias.
However, we should acknowledge that, when applicable, we are in fact biased towards our own ethnicity or race and might be inclined to subconsciously think thoughts that discriminate against another group of people. That’s not to say that everyone is racist — it’s just that the society we grew up in is not an equal one. As young adults now, we should start to take accountability for our rationalization. One way we can achieve this is to educate people who say racist things on what they did and why they shouldn’t do it in the future.
There is a distinct difference between just calling someone out and calling someone in. Calling someone out refers to putting attention onto a person for their unacceptable behavior without any additional comments and is usually referred to with a negative connotation. All that does is cause them to maybe roll their eyes and move on with their day. Calling someone in, however, refers to highlighting that unacceptable behavior and making sure they know why it isn’t acceptable and what the consequences of that behavior might be. It contains an explanation. We should always aim to educate each other. It’s little steps like these that might, as cliche as it is to say, make the world a better place. But walking this Earth for the past 17 years, I know that might be harder than it seems.
It’s not always easy to point out something to others that we might accidentally do ourselves. In that instance, we might just want to drop the subject and move on. We might subconsciously protect the offender instead of the victim because it’s easier to forgive and forget an offense than to go through a whole cycle of change with the victim. Racism is such an universal issue that many people might not want to go out of their way to take part in it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it!
Collaboration is the process we need in order to change the way we’re moving forward when it comes to these issues many of us deal with. Events and talks, whether formal conferences or casual conversations with your roommate, about how we can turn our defensive mechanism into something we can learn from is the way forward. We can tackle this first with ourselves internally, and from there, something can arise on a bigger scale from all of us.