When ignorance isn’t bliss

How accountable are we when we witness something of a racist nature and do or say nothing?

My parents gave me many gifts in addition to that of my life. One of these gifts was viewing the differences between people of other cultures as intriguing, even exciting. While I lived a sheltered existence I was fortunate enough to grow up with people from various cultures, and frequently met others visiting from foreign lands. As my parents are religious and sociable, our family hosted ministers and students from numerous countries including Jamaica, Spain, Russia and Japan.

In my childhood home it was not unusual for me to come home from playing with the neighborhood kids to find strangers speaking broken English, sat around the dining table drinking coffee with my parents. When such a thing would happen, I would be thrilled at the possibility of a new dish being introduced to the kitchen repertoire!

My parents are sweet and nonconfrontational. When a guest or family friend said something of a biased nature, they would gracefully reinterpret the barb and introduce a new topic of conversation. Though a child I was not unaware of this subtlety, and internalized this method as a sort of etiquette rule. There was never a doubt in my young mind that my parents harbored such thoughts themselves, as every human interaction begged the contrary.

Now I wonder, is this method of distracting the other person from unsavory conversation an avoidance mechanism formed to protect ourselves from something uncomfortable, or is it a way of accepting that the other is flawed and that we possess no powers to convince them otherwise?

I have learned to speak up, to challenge words that I interpret as racist in nature. At times the speaker is simply unaware, and the confrontation becomes for them a source of shame. In other cases, the other is defiant, or becomes defensive. I lose the connection, but does the lesson I attempt to teach stick, persist? And, is it my place at all to shame the other, or am I arrogant to believe I have the right to expose the racism?

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2 responses

  1. Interesting quandary, isn’t it?

    I think our society’s relentless pursuit of PC-ness (“mustn’t offend”) has not reduced racism; it has merely driven it underground. When times are tough, say in a bad economy, it rears its head.

    In a way, I draw the parallel with why cigarettes are regulated and not banned. If they were banned, the govt would lose revenue, ciggies would still sell but like cocaine, and people will still smoke and fall ill with lung cancer which the NHS will have to treat. Might as well keep it above ground so we can keep an eye on it.

  2. That is a good point. By making something taboo we may avoid examining our thoughts, behaviors. We all have biases I suppose, and if we hide from them we can never become clear on sorting them out.

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