24 votes

How would you explain systemic racism and issues with black oppression in America to someone who is unfamiliar or doesn't believe in it?

There are many thoughtful posters on Tildes that are much more eloquent than I. In the discussion of recent events I find myself struggling to successfully illustrate these issues.

Any help would be appreciated.

14 comments

  1. VoidOutput
    Link
    This type of endeavor is typically one I've found particularly hard. Know when you'll lose. The person you're addressing has got to be in the right frame of mind. You need to supremely diplomatic...

    This type of endeavor is typically one I've found particularly hard.

    Know when you'll lose. The person you're addressing has got to be in the right frame of mind. You need to supremely diplomatic and avoid being flippant at all. Despite your posture, know that some people are extremely set in their ways and just won't listen to you. Maybe it's not worth exposing yourself to someone that will just aggravate you.

    Most of all, you need to know how this person thinks. I believe there are two types of people when it comes to this: those who will listen to logical arguments (A) and those who will listen to anecdotes (B). The former being the easiest to reason with because you have a body of evidence to support you that you just need to tap into. The latter will be extremely hard to work through, because if they've seen enough, they'll be immovable. I'll include people susceptible to conspiracy theories in this. My opinion is that you can't logic through people like this.

    In both cases however you need to know whatever preconceptions they have that might impede your explanation. It can be that they've been fed misinformation for years or that they just haven't been exposed to convincing material that goes against their world view.

    Make definitions clear. I've found that explaining the difference between acts of hatred and systemic racism makes things way simpler. People have typically only one word to describe both and them understanding that there is a distinction might already make some difference later in the conversation.

    In the case of type A people, statistics typically help tremendously. First explain that absolute numbers don't mean anything, and that any study needs to be adjusted for socio-economic class, age, etc... Then simply show how similar people (same wealth, same job) will still be targeted more if part of a minority. You can then discuss how that discrepancy is typically what is refered to when talking about systemic racism.

    I've never changed the mind of type B people. I'll leave someone else to explain to others and myself what the best course of action is in that case. Even then, I'm not sure that anything I've said helped you, I'm making broad arguments because I don't know your specific case. If you want to divulge more information for our advice to be more specific, don't hesitate 🙂

    16 votes
  2. [3]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    Someone who doesn't believe in racism or is unaware of it is having their beliefs supported by two forces that are very likely invisible to them. The first is the idea they have a claim to an...

    Someone who doesn't believe in racism or is unaware of it is having their beliefs supported by two forces that are very likely invisible to them.

    The first is the idea they have a claim to an understanding of racism that is superior to others'. The second is that they have been socialized to value racial comfort and avoid racial distress.

    Let's look at the first one: leftists for a long time have advocated for "nothing about us without us" reforms, which has been a way to revoke power from dominant but disconnected voices across all axes of identity. Disability issues should not be addressed without input from people with disabilities; women's issues should not be addressed without input from women; racism should not be addressed without input from people of color. Without efforts to make this happen, the people who are closest to the issues and most subject to its effects are locked out. When we talk about racism but we do not include the voices and advocacy of people of color, we are laying a paternalistic and short-sighted claim to it that we don't deserve. We make ourselves social arbiters, appointing ourselves gatekeepers and insist that people have to play by our definitions of racism and our understandings of its experiences.

    Again, this is often invisible. Someone who believes this likely doesn't see it this way and likely just sees their own understanding as "correct" and others as "wrong". What they don't see is the implicit dismissive message that carries with it. What they really need to see is that, in ignoring the voices and advocacy of people of color, their understanding is instead woefully incomplete. Society openly mocks Holocaust deniers because they claim expertise on subjects they either know little about or have very misguided beliefs in, and because they wield their advocacy in dangerous and demeaning ways. Unfortunately, more often than not, we abide deniers of racism who do the exact same thing.

    The second idea, racial comfort, probably explains why. Racism is fundamentally ugly, uncomfortable, and destructive. It takes lives; it causes suffering; it limits agency and opportunity. People who experience racism live with its deleterious effects constantly and have a considerably high stamina for its damages, but people who don't have a correspondingly low stamina. This is why many conversations about racism devolve into patently absurd situations where we focus on the unaffected person's feelings about the situation when that is the least important focal point.

    I'll speak to this as a white guy. I have a deep-seated fear and revulsion of being seen as racist. I don't think it's a reach to say that I share this feeling with many other white people. There have been times in my life when I have said and done things that are racist, and when I was made aware of that, all I could focus on was how it felt to be called racist or accused of racism rather than how I had contributed to racial discrimination and hierarchy. I have a low racial stamina. I avoid talking about it, even on Tildes, because it causes me discomfort. Part of the reason it causes me discomfort is because I have the luxury of getting to choose when I interface with it, and so it's way easier to just avoid the issue altogether and therefore never build up the stamina required to deal with it in the first place. Another part of the reason it causes me discomfort is that there are a lot of social pressures to maintain a surface level racial harmony. Think of the ire people feel when someone disturbs that by "pulling the race card" or "making it about race".

    Someone who denies racism, or even someone who's unfamiliar with it, is benefitting from a racial comfort they're likely unaware of. Furthermore, when that comfort is broken, they're likely to respond negatively to the discomfort because, well, discomfort feels bad. Unfortunately, we cannot address these issues solely from positions of comfort, and it's important to remember that our comfort relative to racism is not of paramount importance, because the genuine damage racism does is far, far worse.

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      culturedleftfoot
      Link Parent
      Jane Elliott does a fantastic job in her talks of making the reality of this racial comfort explicit with a simple question.

      Jane Elliott does a fantastic job in her talks of making the reality of this racial comfort explicit with a simple question.

      4 votes
      1. kfwyre
        Link Parent
        So simple and yet so powerful. Thank you for sharing this.

        So simple and yet so powerful. Thank you for sharing this.

        2 votes
  3. [2]
    joplin
    Link
    @VoidOutput touches on this, but I want to point out the phenomenon of the unsinkable rubber duck. This is: It doesn't actually have to be supernatural or paranormal, though. There's a lot of...

    @VoidOutput touches on this, but I want to point out the phenomenon of the unsinkable rubber duck. This is:

    A belief in a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon that people continue to hold, in spite of it being debunked.

    It doesn't actually have to be supernatural or paranormal, though. There's a lot of misinformation about race out there and much of it has been debunked, but people keep believing it anyway for a number of reasons. So know that some people will never change their minds no matter the evidence. It is frustrating, but it's also a well-known thing.

    That said, for people who are on the fence, or even open-minded, you may tell them something and they won't necessarily believe it now, but will start to see it later and come around.

    For example, as a cis-het man, I haven't had to deal with much gender discrimination. It's not that I didn't believe it happened, it's just that I didn't see it very often. Or so I thought. When I was younger I read a feminist article that was talking about how society pressures women to be concerned with their looks. One of the things it pointed out was how at the Oscars they always ask men about their roles in the movies they were in, but they ask women about what they're wearing. My first thought was, "Yeah, but women watching are interested in that, so that's why they ask."

    Fast forward a few years, and I'm sitting at breakfast reading the entertainment section of the paper. There was an article about what TV shows were going to be renewed and which new ones were coming out. The article went into some details about the heads of the various studios picking winners and losers. And then they got to describing the shows on the CW network. They pointed out that the executives involved were all younger women. They talked about what these young women wore to the press conference (or whatever it was), and briefly mentioned the shows that were coming in the new season. I was like, "Wait, what? Why do I care what some executive wore to a press conference? Why did they only mentioned the clothes these particular executives were wearing? OH! This is just like that thing I read! THIS IS WHAT THEY MEANT!" So yeah, sometimes it just takes sowing the seeds and later they'll take root and grow into something.

    10 votes
    1. skybrian
      Link Parent
      Yes, I don't think people change their minds in one go. You need multiple sources of information, along with specific examples. One reason I am into sharing links because it's a lot easier, and...

      Yes, I don't think people change their minds in one go. You need multiple sources of information, along with specific examples.

      One reason I am into sharing links because it's a lot easier, and it's also not just taking my word on things I have no direct experience with.

      5 votes
  4. DrStone
    Link
    A lot of great points and approaches here. I would also like to add that, in addition to being patient and playing the long game, it is critical to pick your battles carefully if you care about...

    A lot of great points and approaches here. I would also like to add that, in addition to being patient and playing the long game, it is critical to pick your battles carefully if you care about changing their mind.

    Let's say you're talking someone who's pretty far along the racist scale. Pointing out every micro-aggression you see or tiny privilege they have is going to burn the bridge completely; to them, you will the no-fun boy who cries problematic wolf, and none your claims will be trusted. The same will happen if you bring up racism too frequently or if your responses can be seen as disproportionate (e.g. a self righteous speech after a one-line joke). You have to start with the bigger-impact, more clear-cut cases first, and make it a dialogue instead of a lecture. Be aware of when the conversation starts to hit a wall and either try a different approach or retreat from the topic for the time being.

    8 votes
  5. Akir
    Link
    Frankly, if the person in question is an American adult and doesn't believe it it, they are very likely willfully ignorant and you will never get them to understand. But if they are outsiders or...

    Frankly, if the person in question is an American adult and doesn't believe it it, they are very likely willfully ignorant and you will never get them to understand.

    But if they are outsiders or sheltered youth, then there are some very good pieces of investigative journalism like this or this which may start as a good foot in the door before I bring up writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates or Ibram X Kendi.

    6 votes
  6. culturedleftfoot
    Link
    In a word, gradually. For people who are simply unfamiliar, it shouldn't be that hard. An easy start for them would be reading the Wikipedia article on racism in the United States. Also, do your...

    In a word, gradually.

    For people who are simply unfamiliar, it shouldn't be that hard. An easy start for them would be reading the Wikipedia article on racism in the United States. Also, do your best not to hold their not knowing against them. It can be easy to forget that we didn't always know things that seem so obvious to us now.

    People who don't believe it is a whole other story, because they've actually decided on an opinion based on what they do believe. Be clear: this is not an overnight process. I will echo @VoidOutput and @joplin in that you should manage your expectations. To that end, the first thing I would do is ask their honest answer to two questions:

    • "Why exactly don't you believe in it?"
    • "If you are uninformed or misinformed about this topic, do you want to know?"

    Their responses should tell you everything you need to know about where to start as well as their willingness to think past their emotions and possibly change. In addition, by getting their explicit permission to give them new info, you can hold them to their commitment if/when things get uncomfortable.

    There are too many reasons to count why they may not believe it, but the majority of the time it's based on unexamined assumptions. Getting them to examine those assumptions opens the door to the rest of the convo. For those who think it's overblown, usually because they don't see it firsthand or can't recognize it in action, I think Jane Elliott's work is good place to start. She famously ran a blue eyes/brown eyes experiment in her third-grade classroom the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated to get her kids to experience discrimination and write about it. Here she is almost 25 years later on Oprah in 1992 doing the same experiment; it's a very eye-opening (heh) experience for many. Here she is again on Oprah to demonstrating how insidiously pervasive racial bias is in US society - parts 1 and 2. The full episode used to be on YouTube but either I can't find it or it got taken down.

    Still, there is more than enough other stuff with her exploring racial bias to lead into examining another common assumption - an understanding of racism strictly limited to active malice rather than including the results of passive ignorance in a prejudiced society, which is a component of what @grahamiam was alluding to. Here I will simply quote this eloquent comment @vivaria made in a previous thread; it refers to an excerpt from this article about many white people's aversion to mentions of race and racism.

    [...] the goal isn't to call out individual people as being 'racists'. That would be an oversimplification of how complex people (and the systems they live in) are. Instead, the point of the granularity is to move past that binary of "racist/not racist" and explore the more nuanced ways that racism influences our lives. It's about shining a light on how discrimination can perpetuate in subtle ways that are different than the ways we're typically taught. (e.g. you can say that a system has racist aspects that disproportionately benefit/harm specific groups without necessarily pillorying everyone in that system as a capital-R racist.) It's also about looking inwards and asking ourselves how these systems have impacted our growth, seeing as we were raised (and now live) in them. _"Are we turning a blind eye to systemic injustice? Are we acting as though racism is over and in the past, when in reality its tendrils are much deeper and harder to uproot?"

    There's a whole lot more you could get into but that should be a decent start.

    6 votes
  7. grahamiam
    Link
    Ijeoma Oluo's book So You Talk About Race is a great resource for this. As others have commented though, this conversation is very, very difficult. One of the biggest obstacles is that there is...

    Ijeoma Oluo's book So You Talk About Race is a great resource for this. As others have commented though, this conversation is very, very difficult. One of the biggest obstacles is that there is widespread agreement in American society that racists are bad people. That means if you suggest that something someone said or did is racist, then you are saying they are a bad person. Since they know they are not a bad person, they cannot have said or done something racist, so whatever they said or did is not racist. This is why the conversation always includes a variation on "he/she doesn't have a racist bone in his body," because the emphasis gets turned to the person instead of the action, and it's impossible to say what's truly in someone's head or mind. This has the added benefit to racism-deniers that when something truly, unarguably racist is done, they can pin it just on that one bad person as an outlier and avoid discussion about institutional, systemic, societal racism.

    So long story short, try to steer the conversation away from people and toward specific actions, and be prepared to fail.

    5 votes
  8. mrbig
    (edited )
    Link
    I don’t have much hope in educating those that persist in ignoring reality, but try street epistemology. They’re too focused on atheistic proselytizing for my taste, but I think it’s an effective...

    I don’t have much hope in educating those that persist in ignoring reality, but try street epistemology. They’re too focused on atheistic proselytizing for my taste, but I think it’s an effective method.

    https://streetepistemology.com/

    3 votes
  9. [3]
    Kuromantis
    (edited )
    Link
    As someone who isn't very knowledgeable on or familiar with police brutality I always thought it was a class issue dressed up as a racial one ("Someone like 80s-90s Eminem wouldn't be treated any...

    As someone who isn't very knowledgeable on or familiar with police brutality I always thought it was a class issue dressed up as a racial one ("Someone like 80s-90s Eminem wouldn't be treated any better, right?") So this killing is pretty enlightening and probably where you should start.

    2 votes
    1. Turtle
      Link Parent
      All Americans suffer under police brutality. Race is definitely a big factor though. Here's a good paper on the use of lethal force by law enforcement:

      All Americans suffer under police brutality. Race is definitely a big factor though. Here's a good paper on the use of lethal force by law enforcement:

      Victims were majority white (52%) but disproportionately black (32%) with a fatality rate 2.8 times higher among blacks than whites. Most victims were reported to be armed (83%); however, black victims were more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) than white (9.4%) or Hispanic (5.8%) victims.

      9 votes
    2. mrbig
      Link Parent
      No it is actually a racial issue for sure. The police won’t ask you for bank statements before kneeling on your neck.

      No it is actually a racial issue for sure. The police won’t ask you for bank statements before kneeling on your neck.

      5 votes