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Why Are People Racist? | Bill Mei's Essays

Why Are People Racist?

Common answers I’ve heard are “They’re ignorant and we need to educate them better”, or “They haven’t been exposed to people from different races growing up”, or “We need more diversity in Hollywood, CEOs, and Presidents to give positive examples”.

While these are all great reasons, I think they miss the fundamental reason:

Because racism feels good.

Let me be 100% clear so that I’m not misquoted or misunderstood: Racism is bad. Racism is morally wrong and inhumane. I’m not saying that racism is good, I’m saying that for certain people, racism feels good. Heroin, for example, feels good, but we recognize that it’s socially damaging and biologically dangerous, which is why we try to keep it out of the hands of anyone who is not a licensed doctor. Just because something feels good does not mean it is good.

How could racism feel good? Racism is ultimately about power, and power feels good. If you’re anxious, unemployed, or disenfranchised, you need a coping mechanism to get through the day—some people turn to family, some to drugs, some to meditation, and some to racism.

If your school failed to give you job skills for the 21st century, or if your parents were part-time incarcerated, or if your company replaced your job with a computer (or with labour from another country), then you will feel completely powerless. It’s difficult to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and try to find a way out. It’s much easier to blame all of your problems on one particular racial group to feel just a bit more powerful and in control.

Power is not the only reason people are racist. Another reason is fear of the unknown. If you’ve grown up in a town where everyone has light skin, then the first time you see a black person walking on the sidewalk you may choose to cross to the other side because you are fearful of interacting with someone who doesn’t look like you. Racism is complex and has many causes beyond just power and fear, but I will only address power in this essay because I think the others are sufficiently covered by other voices. I haven’t seen any liberals acknowledge that being racist can make you feel powerful.

For some reason, it makes liberals uncomfortable to add the racist’s opinion into the conversation about racism. We liberals admonish others to try walking a mile in the victim’s shoes, so we must return the favour by trying to understand the perpetrator’s mindset.

If we don’t take time to listen to the racists, then a politician might. Racists are humans too, which means they have a desire to have their voice heard as much as you or I do. And if a politician is willing to listen to them, then they will champion that politician’s beliefs and fight for their causes.

Therefore, I have a modest proposal for all my liberal friends who want to end racism: Listen to the racists. Really listen to them. Empathize with them. Understand them. Screaming and shouting at them, calling them names, and ostracizing them will not change their minds. Human beings need to be listened to and understood before they will be open to changing their minds. We must acknowledge why racists feel the way they do and work with them, not against them, to resolve the underlying structural problems that cause them to use racism as coping mechanism for how powerless they feel—ideally by giving them the skills and tools to get their life back on track, or by teaching them to use other coping mechanisms that don’t harm others.[1]

Most liberals understand that heroin addicts are not inherently bad people. That’s why most liberals advocate for supporting addicts with rehabilitation and therapy instead of calling them names and throwing them in jail. But I don’t see many liberals extending the same olive branch to racists. We don’t give them the benefit of the doubt, and instead choose to scold them, argue with them, and attack them.

I’m not claiming that simply listening to racists will solve racism forever. Racism needs to be tackled from many sides, but shutting people down by saying “You’re racist” or “You’re a horrible person” certainly won’t help.

You might resist this proposal because you think it’s disrespectful to the victims of racism. After all, the victim has it so much worse, so shouldn’t we be spending our time helping the victims instead of playing therapy to the perpetrators? Yes, they do have it worse, and we should spend most of our time helping victims. But a perpetrator’s luxurious problems are problems nonetheless. People are not racist from birth—if we don’t help racists identify the root cause of their racism and remedy those causes, they will naturally groom their kids to be racists too.[2]

You might resist this proposal because you think that listening to racists will legitimize their ideas. “Listening” does not mean giving racists a megaphone. It does not mean abdicating to their arguments or inviting them to TV interviews. It means sitting down with your grandpa over a cup of tea and uncovering the deeper reasons behind why he feels uncomfortable with the new family that just moved in across the street. True non-judgemental listening does not validate or legitimize anything.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

— Aristotle [maybe: 3]

How do you listen to the racists? Again, listening is not about affirming someone else’s opinions—it’s about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you are a level-headed person who does not raise your voice, you can start with close friends or family, as you will reap the most benefits from reconciling your differences.[4] If you can help a family member gain tolerance for people from other ethnic backgrounds then it will lead to deeper relationships and fewer awkward reunions. This helps you keep the long-term in view, as you won’t change a deep-seated worldview in one conversation.

Let’s say your mom off-handedly tells to stay away from black people because she thinks they’re violent. Respond by asking her if she knows a black person who isn’t violent (she probably does). Then try to find out what her basic assumptions are and what lead her to her conclusions, instead of directly refuting her end conclusion. Remember: you’re not proselytizing, you’re listening. You might not be very good at listening at first, and the conversation may feel like pulling teeth, but you’ll get better at it over time as long as you work on improving the skill.[5]

You have an opportunity to make real change, not by writing angry comments on Facebook, or by yelling at people, but by engaging racists with compassion. If we want to live in a free democracy, we must to talk to people who don’t agree with us and work out our differences. That’s the part we forget: it takes work. Lots of work. Racism will not disappear next year, but your grandchildren will be grateful that they live in a world without prejudice. It won’t be easy or glamorous, but that’s what makes it so important.

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  1. One could argue that remedying people’s need for power is more effective than trying to dull the fear through exposure to people of different ethnicities. I’ve lived for years in both Toronto and San Francisco, two of the most diverse cities on earth, yet my experience is that the SF Bay Area is more racist than the Greater Toronto Area. Don’t believe me? Count the number of non-white residents in Palo Alto as compared to nearby East Palo Alto—you’ll struggle to find any two neighbourhoods in the GTA that have such a stark contrast of segregation in such proximate geography.

  2. I believe that human beings are not inherently racist the same way they aren’t inherently heroin addicts. Kurzgesat has a fantastic video explanation of why this is the case.

  3. This quote is generally attributed to Aristotle but I could not find a reliable source which confirms this.

  4. If you are a not such a level-headed person, it’s probably better to start with someone you are not emotionally involved with.

  5. There isn’t enough space in this essay to cover every possible active listening tactic but luckily this is a well-understood subject. Here’s a good book I recommend. (Full Disclosure: That’s a monetized Amazon Affiliate link but I have no relationship to the author nor am I compelled to recommend anything. Here’s a non-monetized link if you prefer.)

Published November 2016

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