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  • Writer's pictureLaShana @ L. M. Lewis Consulting

Why It's So Hard to Understand Racism

LaShana Lewis speaking during an event in September 2018.

It was my last day at my full-time job, and a breathed a sign of relief as I left out the gates for the last time. I had been holding in a sort of tension that could only be described as bigotry toleration. I kept a steady face the entire time, trying to avoid any emotion whatsoever. I was very stoic, hoping that the last time I cracked an artificial smile would be the last, for sure.

I felt violated a few times. I knew the people talking to me didn't know any better. They had been told that as long as they didn't say certain words, then they weren't at all being offensive. But, I knew better. A lot of others did as well. But we weren't in the majority, and that's what matter more.

The behavior I'm talking about isn't something that people would normally think of as rude. They're just words, after all. But regardless of the little ditty that goes "words will never hurt me", they actually do. They can destroy, and even tear down people.

I once heard of a story where people were being told not to do certain things that were considered evil or bad because it would end up getting folks into trouble. The gist is that the story told of a set of actions that someone or some people would do, then labeled those things as unfavorable, and then proceeded to label things that were considered good and righteous. That's where the trickery begins.

Laws, inherently, were created to urge on the former: good deeds, actions, and things to benefit people in the most successful light. But the unfortunate reality is that these same standards and restrictions are also used to keep out a certain type of person, behavior, or motivation that could be beneficial to a certain segment of society. In essence, a thing created for good can be used for evil.

So, that takes us back to the heart of our conversation: how does this lead to racism and why is it so difficult for people to identify it?

Think about the first time you wanted something. You may have thought it was just quite as easy as reaching out and grabbing it. What if someone with more experience than yourself were to try to get it? Or better yet, they didn't want you to get it at all - regardless of whether they wanted it or not.

What did you do?

Initially, you would have felt bad. Wanting something and not getting it never makes anyone feel awesome.

You would have followed this up with some sort of reasoning: Should I tell a trusted person about my woes? Should I try to forcibly take the thing I want? Should I give up and just sulk in sadness about my lack of having something?

Most people would try one or a combination of all three, plus maybe some other methods not mentioned. But whatever it is, you try your best to get the thing that you want. You try to logic out if it's safe, secure, and worthy of your endeavor. And wage whether or not another attempt is warranted.

That bad feeling you get, that's what others feel when they have something unintentionally bigoted happen to them. It's like you took something away from them. Namely, their freedom to exist without undue or unnecessary harm.

Their reaction then is understandable. It usually falls within the three spheres mentioned. Someone, at some point, will do one of those three. Or something reminiscent of it. Or a combination of all, plus the unmentioned.

Say you're a parent, and you're trying to keep your child from doing something you deem dangerous. Regardless of the intention, the same reactions occur from the child.

Even as a jealous person who just wants to take from someone, the same reactions occur from the afflicted.

The problem is that we think because the intentions and notions are different, different reactions should ensue.

They won't.

Human nature is notoriously difficult, but often breaks down into the same mechanisms and reactions over and over again.

What we're normally looking for in defining racism is something clean. Like you would find in a computer program: insert this, export that.

But machines don't have emotions (yet).

So, we can't expect people's reaction of static information to be just non-feeling straightforward propaganda.

When you break a heart, it's real. And it has real consequences in how the person views their reality and their environment. Even with the person who did the heartbreaking. Computers and machines don't feel the same. They only respond to physical breaks, not mental or emotional ones.

How do you heal after doing something racist or unintentionally bigoted?

That in itself is a tricky answer, but I have a few suggestions to help start the process:

Acknowledge and Don't Apologize

It's obvious that you didn't know what you were doing. No one really goes around thinking that random strangers are out to get them in the most healthy of mindsets. But the pain, as explained, is real. Finding healing steps are what will help start the recognition of the issues present.

Keep Calm and Forgo Explanation

I use the example of the brick on the foot all the time: you accidentally drop a brick on a person's foot. The person doesn't think that you're trying to intentionally hurt them, but they still feel the pain, and it still hurts and probably needs immediate medical attention to keep further harm from happening. Your first move should not be to go wild and crazy and run around like a beheaded chicken. It shouldn't be to explain what you were actually trying to do instead and how it isn't your fault. It should be, above all, to acknowledge the person's hurt and assess what needs to happen the fix the situation. Or at least, start the healing process.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Your explanations, apologies, and blame-throwing mean nothing to the hurt person, at this point. It doesn't keep their feelings from being hurt. It doesn't make them go away. And it doesn't keep the person from having less trust in you. Those things are inevitable just like the brick on the foot, above, will most likely end in stitches or some sort of medical addressing. Treat it as a real wound. And like any good doctor, listen to the person describe their feelings, in detail, and try to make sure you understand without being disruptive.

These are steps to start the healing process. Like anything created out of chaos, the orderliness of it will take time. Lots of time. But just like the damaged foot, there will need to be therapy (that they actually do) and a learning regimen to get them back on track and in a better position. On both sides.

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