January 11, 2009 archive

Racism and White Silence

Turns out despite our air of self congratulation in the US over selecting our first non-white President folks in North America are still reluctant to confront it when we see it. We might claim we don’t like it or don’t support it but we are silent when faced with it. A recent study York university illustrates this disconnect.

While people would clearly condemn racism in advance, the majority of non-black people would sit mute and indifferent as blatant acts of anti-black racism occurred before them, according to the Toronto research, published today in the journal Science.

“People expect in a very deliberate fashion that they’ll be offended by racism, that they’ll censor or avoid racists,” said York psychologist Kerry Kawakami, the lead author of the study.

“But our (research) showed that that’s not the case when they’re actually placed in that situation.”

Indeed, while paying strident lip service to their anti-racist attitudes, most of the study’s non-black subjects did not try to rebuke or even avoid a mock bigot who had been planted in their midst.

Silence is easier. And it sets people up to condition themselves to be perturbed or irritated when that tactic is abandoned by others. Thus, white people will react with dismissal when a non-caucasian becomes “angry” over obvious and/or subtle racism. The “anger” signals a refusal to get along with others. Then the “problem” becomes transferred not to the perpetrator of racism or frankly sexism but the person engaging in the call out process.

For the study, researchers placed three students in a classroom, one white, one black, and one white or Asian. And while two of the students – the black and one white – were in on the scheme, the third believed they were all there waiting for a study to begin.

“Then the black person stands up and says `I forgot my cellphone,’ and he walks out of the room. And as he walks out, he gently hits the other white person on the knee,” Kawakami said. When the black person left the room, the white person turned to the other person and said something racist – “in some cases extremely racist,” she said.

Despite using terms as offensive as “clumsy n—-r,” the planted bigot faced little or no reprisal from the majority of white subjects.

Indeed, said Kawakami, when asked subsequently to pick a partner for the purported study, some 63 per cent of the white students picked the bigot over the black.

Are we really that comfortable with our perceived “own kind” that we will chose to avoid confronting them when they are clearly wrong?

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