Reflexion on social privileges – Where does racism come from? (Yup, it’s serious!)

Montreal, February 27, 2016.

It is Wednesday morning and Michael is drinking coffee with a young woman in a Tim Hortons. He is a young 23 year old entrepreneur and this meeting is actually a job interview to offer her a fellowship with his company. Everything was going well when, in the middle of the session, Michael is interrupted by two police officers. The purpose of the visit: a concerned customer thought he was a pimp and that he was actually recruiting the young woman. She thus called the police to have him arrested.

This story makes no sense to you? Neither does it to me. Now, what if I told you that this young man is not called Michael, but Maktar Mbaye, and that his skin color is black, does that make my story more plausible? Because this is indeed what happened. A client, seeing a black man talking to a young white woman, immediately thought he was trying to recruit her as an escort and decided to alert the police.

When I read the news in the paper this morning, I wondered how such an event could have occurred. What social construct can ensure that one person sees in a man a pimp if he is black, and a friend if he’s white? And this reflexion lead me to that universal question, where does racism come from? After a while I’ve come to a first hypothesis: that racism is caused by the fear of what is different and that people are frightened by change. Can’t we say that it’s the fear of difference that is, for instance, the root of homophobia? Does seeing someone who doesn’t fit into the mold, someone who contradicts the social models we learn about, trigger a reaction of fear and contempt as strong as this one?

Any research will tell you that human beings go through a panoply of emotions when facing change: shock, denial, anger, and many others. However, all of this research will also tell you that resistance to change eventually brings serenity and acceptance. So if racism is caused by the fear of what is different, why does it still occur today, after hundreds of years of living with these differences? After all these years, why aren’t we in peace and harmony?

So I concluded that my first hypothesis cannot explain alone the existence of racism. So what about ignorance? This could explain that a resident living in a remote country and knowing nothing of Islam believes that all Muslims are terrorists, while this belief is far less common in multiethnic cities?  But if ignorance is to blame, would a mandatory awareness campaign, where we would explain what a Muslim is, change our perceptions of these differences? No, of course not.

And that reflexion lead to my final conclusion: that racism, while being encouraged by a fear of what’s different and by ignorance, is perpetuated because of the privileges it grants to the social oppressing groups. This phenomenon still exist after all these years, not because we can’t get rid of it but because we don’t genually want to.

Let me illustrate my point differently.  Ask your friend ‘Do you believe that all men should be equal? ‘ and you will surely hear a yes. Then ask that person if he would be willing to leave aside some of his privileges to achieve this equality, and he won’t be so sure anymore. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see it for what it is: white privileges. And when you start seeing it that way, you can understand why we are still struggeling with it after all these years.

Neither time nor education will curb racism if the society doesn’t acknowledge the problems generated by social privileges, or at least realize that this phenomenon exists.

Hope you enjoy my first post !! This was an essay I needed to do for my predep training about social justice. Fell free to leave a comment or share your ideas!



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