Racial Denialism Does More Harm Than Good. Why Race Matters

Once again, racial violence has reached crisis proportions in the USA. Recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, highlight that despite the ascension of a popular president who is bi-racial, and culturally “black,” the USA is far from being a post-racial society. I recently shared on Facebook an October 2015 article which asked for an end to the use of #AllLivesMatter (ALM) as a counterpoint to #BlackLivesMatter (BML). The author of the article argues the following:

“It’s not that [All Lives Matter] isn’t true. It’s just that it’s unhelpful. It’s an attempt to erase an actual crisis under the guise of being fair. And by continuing to use “All Lives Matter” to drown out the cry of “Black Lives Matter,” the real problems the movement is trying to address are being ignored. “All Lives Matter” is useless. It is destructive. It is hurtful.”

I find myself in wholehearted agreement with the message in this article. BLM is a movement with the principal intent to raise consciousness among the majority of systemic societal disregard for the lives of people of colour, and especially the lives of black people. The use of ALM is an attempt not only to erase the crises faced by people of colour, it is part of the ongoing attempt to erase black people from the political dialogue.

A friend who identifies as culturally “white” read the article and voiced his disagreement with the ideas expressed. The crux of his opposition seems to revolve around the notion that one cannot defeat racism by using language that is itself racially constructed. He wrote:

“…by constantly bringing up a racist approach do you not foster the exact thing you are trying to stop? Are you saying people who are not coloured who are killed by police are irrelevant? …How do you defeat racism by in fact being racist?”

My friend is saying that in order to overcome racism one has to become racially blind. He is adopting the attitude of those who claim to be not racist because they “don’t see colour”.

To deny racial categories is to be wilfully ignorant. Like all forms of wilful ignorance, racial denialism does more harm than good. Indeed, racial denialism supports and extends the current status-quo which is based on an ideology of white supremacy. Racial denialism implies that the white-supremacist institutions in the USA, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, do not need to be changed because race does not matter. When adopted by white people, racial denialism asserts an imaginary equality that is both self-serving and objectively false.

 racial framing by BLM is unfortunate, but it is not automatically a destructive racist ideology

Some people, but not all, acknowledge problems that break down along racial lines and want genuine positive change. In order for there to be positive change we first must raise the consciousness of all participants, regardless of colour, including the consciousness of racial denialists. There must be consciousness raising regarding the emergence of racial categories; how extremely useful these categories have been historically to white power elites; and, how useful these categories are to white power elites today. Many racial denialists themselves suffer under the oppressive boot of white power elites.

Effective consciousness raising requires two things: 1) increased awareness; and 2) increased attention or framing. Awareness is really about perceptions. Awareness involves the raw data we receive through our senses, before categorization or judgement. Awareness is holistic and neutral. From the raw data stream, we are genetically and socially pre-programmed to pay attention to certain distinctions and contrasts, then form meanings that will guide our behaviours. These, often arbitrary, distinctions are then used as tools to serve practical concerns.

When it comes to racial distinctions it is useful to a strategy of divide-and-conquer to parse superficial external characteristics in such a way that specific groups can be targeted for exploitation or elimination by power elites. Never mind that these distinctions have no basis in reality. All that is required is that they can be enforced to the advantage of the power elites that invented them. The tainted output of racially charged attention shapes and influences future inputs into general awareness. This input-output mechanism forms a positive-feedback loop, that generates and amplifies racial realities. This positive-feedback loop drives a confirmation-bias that steps up the reality-making process of destructive racist ideologies.

To increase consciousness of this feedback loop, BLM needs to frame the ongoing social crises in terms of race. In no way does this racial framing imply that the lives of other racial groups are any less worthy of respect and protection. Such an interpretation must be forcibly projected into the text of the simple three word message that “Black Lives Matter”. It says more about the one doing the projecting than the message. Yes, racial framing by BLM is unfortunate, but it is not automatically a destructive racist ideology. It is instead a call to end the destruction of the lives of people of colour because those people’s lives matter. Indeed, the lives of people of colour are divine, precious, and worthy of celebration at all levels of society. And instead of celebration we are seeing the ongoing murder of people of colour by agents of the social institutions that are supposed to protect those sacred lives.

we are all racist

The founders of the BLM movement have correctly chosen to highlight race by adding the word “Black” to what could have easily been simply #LivesMatter, or #OurLivesMatterToo. We know that race is not a scientific category — it is a frame that we have inherited from our social history. Modern racism has a 500-year  history rooted in the genocide, enslavement, separation, and institutional oppression of peoples of colour the world over by white European imperial and colonial power elites. To proceed in the manner of ALM and ignore this racist framing in an attempt to be race-blind is asking to be blind to this history. Historical blindness is a luxury that whites in the majority might think (incorrectly) they can afford. Given the high stakes for people of colour, historical blindness can not be ignored.

When looking at the statistics it is clear that including the word “black” is important and necessary. In the USA people of colour consistently and disproportionately get less of what is considered socially good and more of what is considered socially bad. People of colour have lower employment, lower rates of graduation from high school and college, lower credit ratings, lower net-worth, lower access to health care. People of colour have higher rates of imprisonment, more drug use, more arrests, a higher likelihood of death  when encountering the police, and are more likely to die while in police custody. It is inappropriate to distract from this data by citing say “black-on-black crime.” This is especially the case since people of colour were not fully participant in constructing the social institutions that they live under.

To ignore these statistics in the name of racial blindness is to choose to be complicit in the toxic institutions that foster such outcomes. It is to imply that the system is fair, and that somehow the problem is that people of colour are genetically inferior because they fail under systems considered by whites to be “fair” when the fact is these systems are historically designed to advance the interests of a white-supremacist society.

Another possible solution is not to deny or ignore our own racism. Because of the history and the current social context we are all to some degree racist. Let me repeat: we are all racist. The inappropriate effort to deny or escape the taint of racism in ourselves ensures the perpetuation of the negative aspects of our racist heritage. Denying our own racism empowers those who are more than willing use racial frames to promote malicious and exploitative ideologies for selfish gain. Most of the time our racism is benign. Other times our racism can be malignant. A distinction between benign and malignant racism can and should be made.

As one who values benign racism as a celebration of diversity, I am not trying to defeat racism. I seek to transcend racism. The way an airplane flies not by defeating gravity, but by harnessing and transcending gravity’s relentless downward pull.

Alexi Helligar is a technologist, philosopher and artist living in Toronto, Ontario.

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