Sans Cilice

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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

“What are you doing for others?” Response #1

To continue on MLK: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

1. I call out other people’s racist (and sexist and homophobic, etc.) bull-shit, regardless of whether they are my close colleagues, loose acquaintances, good friends or family members. This is a small action that makes a subtle but real difference. Many people believe in speaking out against things that they don’t support, in the abstract, but few bother to speak up about things they find unjust on a smaller more personal scale. Obviously this action does not immediately or directly make anyone’s life better. It’s not a terribly flashy form of activism, but, especially in the work place it makes a real difference by promoting greater awareness of racism (and homophobia, sexism and religious/ethnic intolerance) in it’s more discrete forms. The benefit of greater awareness in the work place is not that it makes the newly aware individual a better or less-culpable person– in fact, in instances like these, I’m really not all that concerned with redeeming that person’s well-being or moral standing.

Awareness is important because it decreases the likelihood that the person in question will  make the work place uncomfortable for people of color (or gays, or women, or Muslims, etc.) by uttering witless or overtly racist remarks. For minorities– or women– in the work place to be accepted and respected and to be given due credit,  it is obviously necessary for those in power to remove their hurtful prejudices and to assign value to human capital without bias. However,  it is equally integral to minorities’ (and women’s) success that they/we feel welcome in environments which were previously inhospitable such that they/we have the confidence needed to succeed. While I am not quick to draw many parallels between the distinctive hardships of women and blacks, I think such parallels are useful when discussing workplace scenarios. I know that, as a woman, I act more confidently, more powerfully, and am more proactive when I am not around people who unwittingly utter sexist remarks. Such remarks are not just distracting and hurtful; they make me question the speaker’s ability to understand me and appreciate my contributions in other scenarios, thereby making me less inclined to interact with them, and less inclined to assert myself. If I found myself in an consistently sexist workplace, I imagine that I would not want to stay there very long, and if I did resign myself to staying, I find it hard to imagine that I would perform as well as I would in an environment free of indications of lingering sexist attitudes.

It’s frequently assumed that employees (or family members, or friends) who call others out for making racist/sexist statements are “too sensitive” or “easily offended.” Perhaps sometimes this is true. In my experience though, the goal of calling out someone’s offensive statement is rarely to get an apology for your offended self. Neither is it to police others’ morality as if you are making them a better person. I am always disgusted at discretely racist remarks, but I am rarely personally offended or upset. I call them out not because I am hurt, but because I hope that no one else will be. The goal is to foster an environment in which all feel sufficiently comfortable and confident to perform to their highest standards.

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Filed under: activism, Personal, Society, , , , , ,

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