Unlearning bigotry

Being raised in the U.S. and, to an extent, the rest of the globalized world of capitalism, establishes a certain set of what I call “competitive values” in the general population. People of varying backgrounds, societies, identities, etc. have differing levels of privilege. Of course, the diversity of values throughout the world—what is called “cultural relativism”—leads to varying levels of competition. However, the general rule of thumb is that the systemic nature of capitalism encourages a culture of dominance. Obviously, this means a given society—I will focus on the U.S.—will be stratified. With that stratification comes the imbalanced privilege, voices and rights of a group of people. More specifically: able-minded and able-bodied, upper-class heterosexual cisgender white men. They are the primary creators of mainstream culture, and as a result, the values, ideas, prejudices and biases learned from them are the dominant values within our society. To combat this systemic culture of bigotry, our role as Lawrentians, students and humans lies in education. Education is the primary means through which these values are challenged and written out of our brains.

I will be the first to admit that I myself have implicit biases and prejudices. The fight for diversity, inclusion, and acceptance is a continuous one. I suppose a good place to start, and perhaps the first challenge, is that of recognition. The classic example of a white, middle to upper class family in suburbia comes to mind. The film “Get Out” (2017) illustrated this perfectly. Having too much enthusiasm for being diverse, such as boasting your support of Obama, reveals a deep insecurity that many people of privilege have: being outed for your bigotry. Nobody wants to believe that they are a bad person; everyone needs to be socially accepted, and that fear is a reaction to that need. However natural a behavior, it still fails to work towards a solution. White people need to quit lying to themselves. Face your bigotry; recognize it and combat it through strength of will. Only then, when you let go of our pride and learn to cope with our flawed natures, can you progress even further.

Ok. Now you have recognized the fact that you subconsciously think lowly of marginalized people. Regardless, you will still behave according to that implicit bias and those prejudiced values. What follows is primarily a self-guided effort to seek out media and perspectives that challenge this worldview. Some helpful resources include works by YouTubers, filmmakers, writers and activists. The longer you expose yourself to bigoted media, the longer your mind will hold onto those values. I find YouTube to be a useful tool in this regard because there is less of a perceived barrier between the YouTuber and the audience. People generally feel closer to the person on their computer screen than Joe Schmoe on Channel Five News. YouTube is also a better platform for contentious perspectives. Personally, I recommend ContraPoints, Pop Culture Detective, Shaun and imixwhatilike. With the perceived closeness of YouTube, you will not only be learning from different viewpoints, but also will learn to empathize and develop some sort of relationship with a person you would otherwise be unfamiliar with. Over time, this sort of education and exposure leads to more critical thought about today’s mainstream culture.

Education can only go so far, however. When it comes to rewiring the bigotry out of your brain, practice and applicability are vital. You can control this through primarily two methods. First and foremost, surround yourself with people who will challenge you. This does not necessarily mean having a diverse friend group, although I would encourage anyone to reach out to people from different backgrounds. Do not awkwardly or weirdly attempt to connect with POCs, people of the LGBTQ+ community, etc. They are people, too, and are more than just their social identities.  It is simply a means of connecting with somebody who is educated about social justice and telling them that it is ok to point out your problematic behavior.

This leads to my second method: thinking deeply about your words and actions. When it occurs—and it will—and someone points it out, do not get defensive or destructive. At first, it is difficult to accept this kind of constructive criticism. Do not lash out; it is ok to feel bad about yourself. Take some time to think about it. Why was it problematic? What led you to speak or act in that manner? Once you have considered it, apologize to the offended person. Generally, people are happy to see some sign of regret, but do not expect some sort of reward. They do not owe anything to you. A huge part of this process is letting go of the ego, in addition to that inherent entitlement. Over time, it becomes easier to address and discuss this behavior in the moment, particularly with that knowledgeable friend I mentioned earlier.

One final step is becoming the person who challenges others. This is a difficult feat to accomplish and practice consistently. I find myself lapsing, from time to time. When you hear friends say problematic things, you must have the courage to interrupt the conversation, slow down and discuss. Why did they say what they did? What did they find amusing about it? That last question is an important one to ask. It is in humor that many implicit biases become apparent. These situations will be very awkward. Sometimes you will not get the best response, and other times the person will apologize and adjust their behavior. Social gatherings, with many people, tend to make this effort harder. Someone will say something problematic, everyone laughs, and you hardly notice it in the thick of it. Somehow, it goes unnoticed. Then, when your brain catches up, the conversation has moved on already. What do you do? If you are not confident enough quite yet, discussing it with a friend after the fact is a good alternative. You would be surprised at how often people agree, but let things slide, in the moment.

It is important to note that this process of unlearning is a cycle. Do not become comfortable in your newfound knowledge. At some point, you may relapse into problematic behavior. The fight against that implicit bias is continuous, and it is up to you to remain vigilant. As social creatures, though, you can and should rely upon one another for help, guidance and support. And with that, I wish you good luck in the cycle of unlearning.