29 July 2007

Thinking about my/your/our racism

This is a reply to last night's Thinking through my fingers post: "Thinking about my racism". It started life as a comment there, but grew to the point where I thought it ought to be a post of my own ... besides which, I felt I ought to make my own confessions and contritions (like Dr C, I have a trace of abandoned roman catholicism in my background) in public.

To pick up from your final para ... you are being over hard on yourself, but I like you better for that than if you were over forgiving. Sadly, there is no middle ground in this issue ... we have faults, like it or not, and we are either for 'em or agin 'em.

I was incredibly lucky in being brought up entirely unaware of race, in completely multiracial surroundings. And yet, from the moment I became aware (in my mid teens) of racism, I have been unable to avoid it in myself. First I was "inversely" racist - deliberately being more polite or more fair to a nonwhite person, for example, to demonstrate that I was not like those I had discovered to be around me. By the time I'd realised that fault and eliminated it (by being deliberately the same with everyone, which is really just another way to manifest the same thing) I had begun to absorb the sort of environmental reactions you mention. If 100% of those I encounter from group "A" are in poverty, and the wealthy I encounter are 100% drawn from group "B", then when I encounter a member of "A" who is wealthy it will inevitably strike me as an anomaly.

Both your country and mine are riddled with racist attitudes. And in your case, you were raised and now live in an area of your country where those attitudes have long been more openly (and in more extreme form) expressed than elsewhere. Given that circumstance, the fact that your racism is at the same level as mine says a great deal - about both of us, and about racism itself.

There is no way out of this bind, for ether of us. We can succumb to the thing we dislike in ourselves; we can bury and deny it; or we can recognise, live, and struggle with it; we cannot make it go away, so long as it exists in the societies within which we swim. If we take what seems, to me, the honest course (to acknowledge and struggle) then we should do our best to extend that honesty to assessment of ourselves: recognise and acknowledge both our failings and our efforts to address them.

In C S Lewis's Screwtape Letters[1], there is a bit where the devil Screwtape advises his nephew that a good way to undermine virtuous person is to make her/him think about their virtue. If that person then becomes aware that s/he is thinking themself virtuous, and reacts against it, then make them proud of that fact. Well, the opposite is also effective: when the person is aware of their faults, induce self flagellation. You are balanced healthily between the two: stay there. Be mindful of your faults, but don't lose your sense of perspective.

Here endeth this morning's lesson.

1. Lewis, C S, The Screwtape Letters. 1942, London, The Centenary Press.

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