A few months back, I had a conversation with a friend that really made me stop and think. The friend said that perhaps part of our problems with racism and implicit bias in our nation is that the word “racist” itself scares people away from acknowledging the problem.

Let me explain: Regardless of how you view the political climate in the United States, it is probably true that you would not like to be called a racist.

To take that idea a few steps further — calling someone racist has picked up a highly significant connotation in the hyper-charged atmosphere of everyday politics. To call someone racist feels akin to calling them outright evil and self-serving.

This result is something that many who fight for civil rights would be OK with. After all, if someone is going to treat someone else differently on the basis of something that they did not choose, such as skin color, don’t they deserve to feel bad? Don’t they deserve to know how terrible it feels to be hurt unfairly?

To that, I say that I can understand where this comes from. The United States has a stained past in regard to race relations, and unfortunately, we are not free from those stains. However, I’d like you to follow something of a thought experiment for a moment.

For a moment, imagine that someone has called YOU racist. You’d likely feel defensive, maybe even a little angry. It’s likely that a majority of people would not be inclined to examine their actions more closely in that circumstance.

The problem with this current-day habit of attaching labels to people so quickly is that an incredible amount of humility is required for someone to change their actions in these cases. Alternately, the fear of seeming racist has scared many from even trying to investigate other cultures. The internet’s uproar over a white student wearing a prom dress that was in a Japanese style can be proof enough.

People fear to step over the invisible line to “racist,” and in itself, that can perpetuate misunderstandings. So let’s talk about how we can make this conversation more productive.

Everyone has bias —

talk about it

First and foremost, each of us individually has to acknowledge that everyone has a bias. The most hardcore Democrat or Republican will both have some sort of bias, and I guarantee that everyone reading this article has some sort of bias.

Once we are able to accept that none of us are perfectly fair to every individual, we can make progress toward changing that. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as the one exception to this rule, but that is why the problem is so prevalent.

The next logical step in this process would be to be mindful of how that bias plays out — in our own actions, in our reactions and in the environments we find ourselves in. Identifying the problem is a big step toward changing the status quo.

This is where the problem of the word “racist” can introduce some challenges. Now, please don’t stop reading on the spot. I assure you that I will address the nuance of this idea further along if you stick with me. Yet since the word has an incredibly harsh connotation, calling someone racist might do more harm than good in the long run.

The person doesn’t associate the accompanying negative connotation of the word racist with themselves, so they are unwilling to address their bias. Ultimately, it runs the risk of entrenching an implicit bias because people think that bias is the same as being a totally depraved human being without hope for change.

Don’t humiliate

a potential ally

It’s true that the genuine advocates for change want people to be able to understand and transform their own implicit bias. So a good step toward that end is to adjust how we interact with those who show that bias.

Psychology Today explains that shaming and humiliation may reduce negative behavior, but they also run the risk of prompting the perpetrator to hide their actions. This is common with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, in which persons with these conditions go to great lengths to hide their problem and avoid intervention.

In regard to changing our biases, shaming someone who has unwittingly been unfair is more likely to make them more antagonistic to the wronged party and more likely to try and hide that behavior. Ultimately, the full-scale attack system that is so popular now can do a lot to alienate potential allies.

Addressing concerns

Now, before anyone runs away angrily cursing these ideas and yelling that I don’t understand what others who are treated unfairly go through, I want to add some nuance.

It’s true — I have not experienced the discrimination that thousands of Americans have been forced to chafe beneath. It’s extremely likely that I underestimate how entrenched some of these problems are. Particularly in light of how President Donald Trump has made particularly nasty insinuations towards many people of color in our legislative branch, I can understand how someone might misinterpret the call to change how we deal with bias as trying to blind ourselves to the problems that exist.

I do not wish to minimize the problems that millions of Americans face. They are real, and they are serious. There are certainly people out there who explicitly hate those who don’t look like them.

However, it’s also true that there are many people who don’t try to be biased but would be willing to change if they were approached from the perspective of a friend rather than an attacker.

You might be wondering then, if we are advised not to call someone a racist or call their actions directly racist, then what exactly should we do?

We can’t just ignore the problems and risk enabling discriminatory behavior. So my recommendation would be to help these individuals see and understand the humanity within those they have mistreated. Not in a “look-how-heartless-you-are, you’re-killing-babies” kind of way, but by reaching out to these individuals, and helping them understand that they can change.

Speak to people individually, and let them know that you care about them, and that you know they may not have meant to be unfair to others but they have hurt people with their actions, words and so forth.

And be transparent and willing to face the idea that YOU might have hurt people, and work to cultivate the mindfulness required to see your own implicit biases.

The saying that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar is true — you might be glad to take a strong-armed stand against the problems that exist, but you won’t change as many people as the one who sees the potential in even those who are a little lost, or that might misunderstand the implications of their actions.

This approach toward racism may not work for everyone. But frankly, the current approach is also not working for everyone.

In my experience, understanding and caring is how people change. Role models help people change. It is seldom that a yelled insult has changed someone for the better.

So it’s not just the problems at the border that require compassion, but our dealings with one another facing the most unwieldy and daunting problem that has forever haunted mankind — ourselves.

Sierra Clark is a recent graduate of Venture High School. She plays piano and flute and is an avid reader, but most of all she enjoys learning all about new things. Email her at s.siclark@venturelearning.org.

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