Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What You Don't See Can Hurt Others

This post by Daniel Jose Older is an eye-opener. In eight years working in Emergency Medical Services in greater New York, he's only once treated a white person who was a victim of violence by a person of colour--but within the same time period, he's treated so many black men beaten up by police he couldn't remember the one particular man he was asked to testify about in court.

That's certainly not the picture the media gives us, is it? Those aren't the statistics implied by the biased news coverage we receive.

Malicious racism is still working its evil in our world; there's the evidence. But systemic racism arguably does even more harm. Systematic racism is the kind that you, in your position of privilege, don't realize you're taking part in. You think the world's just set up that way--that this is the logical way of doing things.

Systematic racism is the reason why, if you're white, it maybe took you an embarrassingly long time to notice that virtually every protagonist in every genre book you read is white. Or that the percentage of fashion models you see on the catwalk who are black or Asian is reeeeally small. (I think I read somewhere it's about 7%.)

This is what privilege does to you; it makes the racism you're helping perpetuate invisible to you. By not recognizing certain situations as unfair when they are, you are--without any maliciousness, usually--doing great harm to the people who the system is not set up to benefit.

The publishing industry is a good example of how systematic racism can manifest itself. The industry is heavily populated by educated and usually liberal people; I don't think there's much malicious racism hiding there (although I'm not the person to ask, am I?) However, you get occurrences like like this and this and this.

The people who make the decisions to white-wash covers or to not take a chance on buying an "ethnic" book don't think they're doing so out of racism but rather out of fiscal anxiety. Their book needs to make as much money as possible, and they're terrified of not snaring sales from the hypothetically racist and subtly-racist book buyers out there.

They might even claim they have numbers that indicate a cover with a person of colour on it won't sell as well as one that features a white person--but how much of that statistic was a self-fulfilling prophecy? How much of it was due to a whole system of people feeling anxious over the fact that, oh noes, this hasn't been done successfully before and gee, gosh, do we want to the first ones to try? When there's money at stake and our budget is tight? Maybe let's not take the chance, and oops, that does skew the statistics a bit, doesn't it?

It has to be done; this is the thing. It has to be. Do you think other people should suffer so you can be more comfortable? That's really the issue: Are you willing to do harm in order to benefit yourself? If the answer's no, then you need to start combating racism both visible and invisible.

The best way for an essentially kind person, living in privilege, to combat systematic racism is to listen to those who don't live in privilege, and then to commit to the idea of helping create a fair society. And yes, that means the world won't be set up to suit you anymore--you do have to be willing to sacrifice for this ideal.

I love Mr. Older's blog; he writes very raw and hair-raising accounts of front-of-the-line medicine, and, as you see in the post I mentioned, he also has smart and thought-provoking things to say about the world he sees.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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