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Pet Sins December 2000

Categorical denial of the effect of prejudice vs imagined perpetual victimhood

Being objective about the prejudices we encounter or exercise is easier said than done. For some of us, our perceptions of new experiences are often colored by our old experiences. We bring our baggage to what we see as a hostile situation, and in doing so, aggravate the situation or see insult where none is intended. We imagine that every personal rejection we encounter must be motivated by racism. In every case, whoever has a problem with us is seen as automatically wrong, and we're in no way responsible for the treatment we receive.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are some of us believe that that racism either no longer exists, or in instances where we can't deny its existence, we claim that it is not relevant to what the recipient of prejudice should do or feel. When we experience prejudice in our daily lives, we block out any stimulus that makes us uncomfortable and tell ourselves that there is really nothing negative going on, that we're not being marginalized or disrespected. Some of us would go as far as to claim that we have not only personally never encountered prejudice, but anyone else who complains about prejudice is over-sensitive or 'negative'. While there is something to be said for the benefits of "positive thinking", and it is probably healthier subscribing to "a glass half full" mentality, looking for the good in every situation is NOT the same as denial. Denying the real effects of racism (or any other prejudice) that in one's own experience or the experience of others is a head-in-the-sand approach that solves no problems and is out of touch with reality. Telling people that if they don't notice prejudice or complain about racism, then their lives would be fine is magical thinking at best, and at worst, laying the extra psychological burden of blame on the people who shouldn't be blamed while not lifting a finger to help them, and in fact fully letting the perpetrators off the hook.

The two following anecdotes illustrate the two social 'coping mechanisms' described above.

Approach 1: Solely blame on racism for the unfortunate predicament that one is in, without looking at the fuller picture and objectively evaluating all contributing factors to the one's situation.

Y, a member of an ethnic minority, sometimes walks into social settings complaining about loneliness and alienation, He has told a few other minority individuals in private that he believed that racism was the reason for his social isolation. While it is more than likely that racism on the part of society is in part to blame for Y and other individuals' inability to fit in, there are certain aspects of Y's behavior, which has nothing to do with race, that alienate others and push potential friends away.

For instance, Y would seek out the company of acquaintances in times of emotional vulnerability, making it quite clear that he is lonely. When those acquaintances start to reach out to him in friendship, calling him, inviting him to social events and to be more of a part of their lives, he backs away. Needless to say, the people held at arm's length are confused, and respectfully decide to give him his space and let him take the initiative, which he no longer seems to be interested in. Now there's nothing wrong with backing away from an offer of friendship when one is not comfortable with that level of involvement. Everyone has different limits and different expectations. Maybe someone is just looking for small talk and not a deep personal friendship. That's ok. But to be fair, we have to agree that it's equally ok for people who have been rebuffed to keep their distance in the future.

And that's only one of numerous instances of unpredictable behavior from Y that alienated others. On another occasion, after running into an acquaintance he hadn't seen in a while, Y said, "So much has happened since the last time we talked. I can hardly wait to tell you." To which the acquaintance replied, "I'm all ears. Please update me on what is new in your life." Y's answer was, "What is the benefit of telling you? I am a very private person." Practically anyone would have been confused by Y's sudden about-face. If that acquaintance never takes up his offers to share personal updates again, that's quite understandable.

Someone who has erratic behavior, ever-changing moods and a flip-flopping mind probably won't have many friends, no matter what race he is from. But Y often sees people's response to him as 'rejection' based on 'racism', which is not provable for many of the individuals who decided to keep their distance from Y. People became wary of associating too closely with Y because of his issues, not because of his appearance. But until Y can stop the behavior of reaching out for support one moment and the next moment slapping the hands extended in friendship away, we'll never know how much of a role, if any, racism has to play in his lack of close friends. Sadly, Y doesn't seem to be conscious of his own contribution to his social alienation.

Now, there might be very sympathetic, understandable reasons for why Y behaves the way he does. His erratic, unstable state might be due to incidents in his personal history that others do not know of. But not everyone is a therapist, or obligated to serve as one, or should even try to be one. In short, people cannot be faulted for choosing not to engage further with Y. If they get involved with something they do not have the training or insight to deal with, their good intentions may not do Y much good, and perhaps even unintentionally upset the volatile person further. For his own good, Y needs to take responsibility for how his conduct has contributed to his own social isolation, instead of only putting the blame on racism.

Approach 2: Ignore or trivialize incidents of prejudice whether encountered by one's own ethnic group or others. Invalidate all who complain about racism by labeling them as over-reacting or paranoid.

Z, a member of an ethnic minority in the US, claims that she has never experienced racism from whites. While her experience is her own, and should not be dismissed by others who have different experiences with racism, Z goes further by invalidating the experiences of other minority individuals who speak of having encountered any sort of prejudice at the hands of institutions or individuals.

When one of her friends X complained of having encountered ageism in a particular establishment, Z claimed that because she herself had not experienced ageism, therefore X's experience must be false, a delusion conjured up by his paranoid mind. In front of other friends, Z categorically dismisses all of X's complaints about various encounters with prejudice of any sort as simply imagined. Now, to the casual observer, X seems to be a more-or-less normal human being, maybe more inclined than the average person to complain, but certainly not delusional or paranoid to the point of needing professional help. Maybe, for all we know , he may indeed be paranoid, but is that good enough reason to invalidate *all* his claims of prejudice as totally unfounded, instead of objectively assessing his concerns on a case-by-case basis?

And X is not the only one whose experiences Z denies. Dismissing the impact of prejudice on others is a general approach she takes to any discussion on racism and any other 'ism'. For another example, when other friends of Z mentioned incidents of institutionalized racism, Z, unable to deny that racism might indeed be at work, tells her friends that instead of complaining about injustice from whites, they should work twice as hard and twice as long to overcome prejudice. To be fair, there is some merit her "stop complaining and focus on doing what you can" advice. Too many people waste too much time and energy complaining about circumstances they have little control over, time and energy that could have gone into changing things they do have control over and positioning themselves to seek better circumstances. But Z's "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument has a different agenda - her unconscious aim seems to be letting (white) racists totally off the hook while putting the entire burden for effort and change on the recipients of prejudice.

One thing that might shed light on Z's motivations and state of mind is her repeated claims that blackface and yellowface caricatures are not motivated by racism but are in fact examples of whites' admiration for non-white physical features. Arguably there are cases in which someone wearing makeup for a stage performance has good intentions of playing a cross-ethnic role respectfully, but the incidents that Z defends are NOT along those lines. For instance, she seriously believes that grinning, laughing whites making the slanty-eyed gesture are well-intentioned admirers of East Asian features. She is clueless that such actions are clearly motivated by the all-too-common "making fun of others for being different" mentality. If the whites she defends really like East Asian facial features so much, why aren't they undergoing plastic surgery for East Asian eyes? Z doesn't see the irony that many East Asians are undergoing plastic surgery to have more European-looking eyes and noses (a phenomenon she is well aware of, and sees as benign), but practically no Europeans are undergoing surgery to get East Asian features.

It is not farfetched to speculate that Z has subconsciously internalized the idea "white is always right, and the rest of us are automatically wrong", and her double standards that quite consistently excuse whites and blame non-whites are a symptom of that. Quite possibly, Z has in fact seen and experienced racism, but to make her own life happier and more bearable, she chooses to interpret the daily injustices she observes as 'normal and right', and anyone who says anything that challenges her view must be made 'wrong' for her to continue her illusion.

Z has stated that she has no desire to date other ethnic minorities, including those of her own ethnic group. She has dated mostly whites. Not only that, she voiced shock and disapproval when her minority acquaintances expressed attraction to other minority individuals. To dissuade them from their attraction to fellow minorities, she launched into tirades about her (one) failed romantic relationship with someone of her own ethnic group. But somehow she failed to mention that all her relationships with whites had failed so far. She perceived other non-whites' attraction to non-whites as freakish and unhealthy, and felt that they would be better off like her, dating only whites. The friends Z spends her time with are all white, with one or two exceptions. She only has one close friend and a few friendly acquaintances of her own race. But when a time came when she needed to ask for help and favors, Z, for some reason, did not turn to the white friends that she hung out with. Instead she approached her minority acquaintances, people she barely called and did not regularly spend time with. Perhaps deep down in her subconscious, she knows that her place in the white world is not as secure and unproblematic as she claims it is. When push comes to shove, the people she perceived as "safer" to impose requests for time and energy on were from the demographics that she wouldn't consider choosing a dating partner from.

The two individuals described above may seem like opposite ends of a spectrum, but they do have one thing in common - being out of touch with reality because of their need to simplify their world or block out pain. As a result, they are much less able to effect positive change, whether for themselves or for others.