Curbing Your Anti-racist Enthusiasm

Wait, wait, I’m not going to tell anyone not to continue in their work to fight racism, point it out when they see it, or work on their own behavior and bias with regard to race. Nope, nope, that’s not where I’m going. But, I do want to share some insights I’ve been having as I watch discussions about race happening, and how the books I’ve recently been reading cause me to see them differently.

Here’s a very passionate young person I do my best to learn from.

The material I’ve been reading on unconscious bias has made it clear that, thanks to growing up in a particular society at a particular time, each of us presents ourselves to the world through the lens of our own biases, some of which are helpful and some of which may be less so. A good thing I’ve read is that the people born more recently may well be less prone to some of the racial biases that older people may have grown up with. A large percentage of younger adults in the US grew up in diverse neighborhoods, attended diverse schools, and are familiar with a wider range of US cultures (most young people I know are fans of music from urban, African, Caribbean, Latino, Korean, Indian and other artists), and have friends and colleagues from highly diverse backgrounds. So, they have a different set of biases from older Americans.

People my kids’ age tend to make friends based on common interests and experiences. This often leads to racially diverse friends with strong bonds in other areas. (Some don’t; I over-generalize.) Photo by @SBphoto via Twenty20.

I am very happy about this, and very interested in learning from people of my children’s generation. Sometimes it’s hard, though, because in their anti-racist enthusiasm they push their audience away.

Another fact about a large subset of younger adults is that their preferred methods of interacting with others tend to be more confrontational, less “polite,” and less patient when sharing their views with others (not implying only young people act this way, it’s more appropriate in some cultures, too). This is the part that causes communication problems with people who grew up avoiding confrontation, focusing on polite behavior, and a conversation style that includes acknowledging the potential validity of the other person’s point of view. Neither of these ways of interacting is all right or all wrong; there are issues with each one, which I’m going to let you think of for yourselves.

Admirably, many people in the 18-30-ish age group want to create a better society and are working hard toward those goals. They feel passionate about the rights of people of color, LGBTQ+, poor people, and the oppressed around the world. Yay for them! Those are goals shared by many older people, too, though their methods of working toward it are different, and often unpopular with younger folks (which is fine and normal; I’m not complaining, just noticing).

The thing is, I’m wondering what the goals the young and fervent activists are working toward might be.

  • Are they trying to change people’s minds? I wonder if calling people you don’t know racist for actions you don’t even know that they’ve done is terribly helpful (for example, I have been sitting back and watching a woman lecturing an obviously white woman about how race and racism work, blissfully unaware (or not listening hard enough to realize) that the second woman has a black husband and family members). It’s racist to assume someone has beliefs because of their looks, period. And yes, being in an interracial relationship doesn’t mean you have no bias and can shut down conversation (sorry if I’m not clear about this; I’m still learning).
  • Are they trying to prove how ethically advanced and modern they are? In this case, demonstrating that you’re a passionate anti-racist while bullying and insulting others shows ALL your ethics, quite clearly.
  • Are they trying to sow unity? Are they trying to add to divisiveness? These are my big questions. I’ve been observing people pick at others for not being non-racist in the “right” way (say, for adopting a child of another race, without knowing whether a white adoptive parent may have a black or Asian partner or other black or Asian children). It reminds me of one branch of a religion not saying another branch is Christian enough, or Muslim enough, or the right kind of Buddhist, without remembering they all are focused on the same overall goal, which is love.

This is why I wish more of us knew HOW our unconscious biases work, and that none of us is above them or immune to them. I see a lot of bias against older people in the passionate younger folks. That’s too bad, since when I was a young, passionate feminist, I learned a LOT from the women who’d gone before me, which helped me not repeat some mistakes and not burn some bridges. Perhaps some of us older folks might have useful insights, if we could share our perspectives without being silenced or labeled.

I know I harp on this message. It’s because I think the ONLY way we can make a better world is to listen to each other, maybe even respectfully.

And some of us elders want to silence and label younger folks. None of that is helpful, because the one thing I’ve learned is that the best way to limit the effects of unconscious bias is to get to know members of the groups you may have trouble with. Spending quality time in conversation and interaction with the “other” is guaranteed to help all of us realize that “they” are not a monolithic group, but diverse, varied, and interesting. Not all elderly people are the stereotypical MAGA-hat wearing, flag waving, insular white folks. They are not all inflexible members of the liberal elite. Not all young people hate everything that isn’t socialist or everyone who doesn’t fall into their definition of “woke” (insert current term for woke there). But, if we just talk AT each other rather than WITH each other, we’ll never figure that out.

We all have our blind spots, our prejudices, our biases, and our areas of passion. Not everyone will share them, and not everyone will even express the same biases and passions in the same way we do. We will never grow as human beings nor as a society if we don’t listen to other points of view. Even people we think are dead wrong in one area may have something “right” to share with us in another area, which we’d never find out if we just dismiss them out of hand.

I interrupt this diatribe with a photo of a dishcloth (with an error; I’m keeping this one). YOU can have one if you sponsor this blog and its companion podcast!

I know my audience skews toward people of my age, but still, I want to reach out to those younger than me to listen to us, and give us a chance to share what we’ve been through and how we got there. And then share with people my age what YOU are going through and how you got there, rather than pointing fingers at us, labeling us, and dismissing us. Being young doesn’t invalidate anyone’s experiences and insights, but neither does being old. We can all learn from each other, but we might have to stop talking sometimes and listen.

Rather than trying to drag others kicking and screaming into the new and more advanced world, I’d love to see enthusiastic and passionate people reaching out a hand and gently lifting up others, knowing that they used the experiences of those who came before as stepping stones to get where they are today.

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