Thoughts About Inclusiveness, and Other Charleston-based Musing
In the wake of yet another mass shooting in America, this time in what very clearly (to me anyway) looks like a terrible confluence of long festering racism in the deep south and an insane obsession with guns, there are a lot of people attempting to make some sense of what this means culturally, as well they probably should.
There’s a Daily Show clip doing the rounds where Jon Stewart is completely bereft of ideas on how to find comedy in it and pointing out the deep undercurrent of the Confederate values still alive in the area, there’s a pile of Fox News pundits saying that it’s not racism and is instead all about a war on Christians, you have Rick Perry saying that this is not about the availability of guns and is instead about the availability of drugs, and infinite other view points woven between them stating various things.
I’m not really going to talk about the efficacy of any of these viewpoints because I don’t think that there’s really any value in that. What I would like to talk about instead is how even well meaning people seem to misunderstand what inclusiveness is and how these kinds of misunderstandings manifest in these kinds of situations.
When any kind of in-your-face demonstration of racism tends to happen, lots of people tend to make statements like “We need to stop seeing colour”, or “We need to stop talking about race because it’s divisive”, or any one of a million other permutations of that kind of phrase. My personal favourite happened during the Ferguson riots when a Fox News talking head said “You know who talks about race? Racists.” which was fairly eloquently destroyed by the Daily Show as attempting to “He who smelt it, dealt it” to racism.
From a biological standpoint, this kind of stuff makes perfect sense. The idea of things like skin colour and differences in facial construction are explained by region and climate, and because of the differences being biologically negligible, it makes no scientific sense to label any person as anything but human. Extrapolating this idea into an ideology, given that we’re all human anyway, it doesn’t make any sense to treat people differently simply based on things like skin colour or the place they were born, right?
Ideology failing to match up to reality is pretty common, as are pieces of writing that point that out. While this might end up being something like that, it’s not my intention. This is partly because I don’t see what the point in that kind of activity is, but mostly because it’s the ideology itself that I think causes problems as opposed to how it measures up to reality. I would actually go so far as to say that the ideology itself is inherently damaging as opposed to helpful.
The first thing to do when unpacking this sort of stuff is to think about what the reasons are for saying these kinds of things, because intent is incredibly important. To me, there are essentially two reasons to advocate for removing race from these conversations. The first, intended to be positive and what I believe to be the most prevalent, is that you believe that categorising people in this way hurts our ability to connect because it not only highlights the ways in which we’re different over the ways in which we’re similar, but also highlights characteristics that are largely spurious and therefore obfuscates things that are really important. The second, which has far more negative intent but is fortunately less prevalent (relatively speaking), is to de-legitimise advocacy for change by labelling advocates as racially obsessed, or even racist, whilst also disingenuously serving to increase your own legitimacy because it makes you appear above the fray.
Though part of me knows that this doesn’t really help my point, I’m going to ignore the negative aspect for a few reasons. The first, strictly self-serving, is that the reading that would be required to go and find examples of this stuff is pretty fucking depressing, and in reality these kind of topics tend to be depressing enough. Secondly, there are people who spend significantly more time than I do looking at this stuff consistently (shows like The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight or The Young Turks, or blogs like Crooks and Liars or Mediaite to name a few) that do a far better and more thorough job than I would. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, while I’m sure that there are examples of this kind of stuff representing all political persuasions, the kind of examples that come to mind come from assholes like Sean Hannity and Andrew Bolt, and while I’m content with stating openly that I’m a progressive voter and that I fervently dislike what these guys do I don’t really want what I’m talking about to be bogged down in the mire of a “right / left issue”.
Like I’ve intimated a few times now, I understand the positive intent of a statement like “I don’t see colour”, but the inherent problem of a thought process like that, irrespective of your intent, is that the phrase’s raison d’etre is to ignore the differences between people. In superficial terms, this is fine, but what most people don’t seem to realise is that being a minority doesn’t just mean you look different. It results in an entire set of experiences that shape people completely differently and ignoring that is absolutely part of the problem.
As I’ve written previously, I’m a coloured person of South African descent living in Australia. Obviously, the colour of my skin being different means that there are people that react differently to me because of it, which each time has an effect on me, but even beyond that my heritage is that of a massively subjugated people, which means that older members of my family like my brother and my parents were affected by it, which in turn has also had an effect on me.
Honestly, I try not to think of this particular facet of my life experience as negative, because in reality I KNOW that my experience in this country is still way more positive and that I am largely unburdened by it, but there is no way that I can’t say that I don’t have a more sensitive trigger for racism because of the life that I’ve had (which this piece of writing, other pieces of writing I’ve done in the past and about 75% of what I write on Facebook demonstrates pretty quickly) and because of where I’ve come from.
Beyond my personal experience, think about what the experience is like for groups that have had significantly worse experiences, like Muslim women with head wear for instance.
Firstly, being Muslim at a time when distrust of Muslim people is absurdly high presents its own set of near constant indignities that you would see everywhere in terms of how people would treat others like you. Couple that with dealing with the reactions of people to you simply going out in a very distinct form of dress that would not only make you stand out, but that some people would find confronting, then go even further than that to consider that within some Muslim cultures, women are still subjugated considerably and have to deal with all of that as well.
You might think at this point that I’m overreacting to a phrase as innocuous as “I don’t see colour” and I’m reading meaning into it where it doesn’t exist. To that I would say that whatever your intent is, I don’t really think you appreciate what the phrase itself actually means.
Being inclusive isn’t about ignoring the differences between people in order to find common ground, it is about understanding what it is that makes people different and then accepting or dealing with those differences appropriately. Treating everybody equally doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, it means to grant people equal opportunities to participate in society as much as possible.
In the end, isn’t that the point of all this?