So You Think You’re Not Racist

Or, Levels of Racism: Why White Fans and Creators Have a Responsibility to Confront Our Biases

[This was originally written in response to some things happening in my fandom life, but I wanted to share these thoughts more broadly as well.]

So here’s a thing I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing new and if anyone knows of resources written by Black people that address this, please send me the info because I definitely want to read them.

Part of the difficulty of discussing racism, particularly with other white people, is that we don’t actually think about the same thing when we talk about racism. The way I see it, there are three levels:

    1. Individual beliefs and actions that are rooted in racial prejudice
    2. Subconscious racial bias that comes from socialization
    3. Systemic racism enshrined in institutions of power

There are probably more in between, and obviously these aren’t strict black and white categories; there’s a lot of overlap and blurred lines involved. I don’t know if any particular level is worse than the others, and I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that. But I think these work well as large bucket categories.

The problem is that often people are talking about different levels without actually realizing it. When I try to explain to people why level 2 might lead them to judge Colin Kaepernick’s method of protest unfairly, they respond as if I’ve accused them of level 1 racism. When I tell my coworker that I don’t like the Bruins because the crowd booed PK Subban every time he had the puck, I can tell he’s desperately trying to come up with a reason other than race because he doesn’t want to accuse an entire stadium of people of being level 1 racists, when really the problem is probably a mix of 1 & 2.

And obviously, they’re all bad. They’re all racism and we should fight against all of them. But I think we have to fight against the different levels in different ways, which is why people get frustrated with these conversations.

From my experience, education and actual, personal relationships with people of different races is the most effective way of combatting level 1 racism. Individual beliefs and actions are fought on an individual level – this makes sense. People in my life became much more supportive of things like the DREAM Act and DACA when I started telling them personal stories about some of my students and the difficulties they face as undocumented children. It became real to them when the issues became faces and stories.

These personal relationships and experiences can also chip away at level 2 racism, although I think it probably needs a little help to be really effective. More on that in a minute.

Level 3 racism – systemic, institutional racism – cannot be fought by people sitting down and having dinner together. It requires protest and direct action and voter registration drives and lobbying and court mandates, etc. I’ve had a number of conversations with my more conservative coworkers where they talk about how changing laws won’t change people’s hearts, and I had to point out to them that of course it won’t, but it can protect people who are in danger while we do other things to change people’s hearts. It’s both/and, not either/or.

The trickiest part, I believe, is fighting level 2 racism. It’s more insidious and less trackable than the others, at least in ways that have clear causation. This is the racism that causes microaggressions. This is the racism that leads to resumes with obviously Black names getting fewer interviews. This is the racism that causes teachers to have low expectations of minority students (there’s institutional overlap here too, of course).

This is the racism that perpetuates the unequal media representation that we see all around us – which is why I think media is a tool uniquely suited for combatting these subconscious racial biases. The media we grew up with helped create those biases, so it can also be used to deconstruct them.

(Quick note – there should definitely be adequate representation in media regardless of its ability to combat racism because people deserve to see themselves in media, period. I’m not saying the purpose of representation is to combate level 2 racism, just that I think it can be an effective way of doing so.)

Media allows us to connect with characters on a level that can often feel quite personal, which is why I think it can also help with level 1 racism, to an extent. But if we pay attention, it also makes it easier for us to notice the patterns of racial bias that can be harder to quantify. When all the black male characters have the same character traits, we can question why we associate those traits with black men. When black female characters exist only to be killed off for a shocking twist, we can question why we see black women as disposable or unworthy of attention. When characters are whitewashed, we can question why we consider white stories to be universally relatable, or why we find it easier to ignore and avoid issues of race than to deal with them honestly.

The difficult part, of course, is that we have to pay attention. We have to choose to notice the patterns in what we consume and what we create, and we have to choose to investigate those patterns, even when it leads us to something we don’t particularly want to see in ourselves.

And if we’re creators as well as consumers? We have an even greater responsibility to identify those patterns and understand the harm they do and root them out of our own work. The art we create doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we have the freedom to create whatever we want, but we are also responsible for the ways in which it either reinforces or deconstructs those subconscious biases.

What’s even more difficult than paying attention is having humility. When someone points out that something you think or say or create reinforces subconscious bias and racial stereotypes, you have a choice — view it as an attack or view it as an opportunity to learn. It’s not fun. My gut reaction to any criticism is to take a defensive posture and argue for my own righteousness or good intentions. But if I say I care about equality and justice, if I say I want the world to be a more fair place, I have to actually do some work to make it happen. Because I am privileged and I am racist — it’s just a reality — and I can spend all my energy denying that or defending myself or explaining why it’s not my fault, or I can accept that reality and work to change it.

It’s not about winning ally points or looking “woke” or whatever. It’s about rejecting the privilege I have to ignore the racism in our society in favor of actively becoming a part of the solution.

Will better media representation, whether in traditional media or fandom, eradicate systemic racism? No, of course not. And will it make the alt-right put down their Confederate flags? Unlikely. But by drawing attention to people’s subconscious biases, maybe we can recruit a few more people into the fight against those things.

And maybe we can subject our Black friends to fewer microaggressions. And maybe we can influence our companies to have fairer hiring practices. And maybe as a teacher, I can believe that the sky’s the limit for my students, and help them believe it to.

And those things are worth the discomfort it takes to deconstruct those subconscious biases. At least they are to me, anyway.

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