It's difficult to think of yourself as someone who could discriminate against somebody else unfairly yet it's important to understand that this is something we're all capable of and have probably done at some point in our lives. Harder still to think that we might be doing it right now or will do it in the future. Yet to my mind it's really important to be aware that we can, to be concious of this possibility. How else are we going to catch ourselves thinking or behaving in ways that need to be challenged or changed?
Let me explain. In this instance I'm going to be using racism as the example. I grew up and live in a big city in the UK. I have friends and acquaintances of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I certainly don't think of myself as a racist. I do however live in a society where racism is sadly endemic, a part of my culture and background that I've absorbed without even being aware of it.
Growing up, some of my close friends were subjected to racism. I've seen them called names for the colour of their skin and I've defended them. Even as a child it upset me when I witnessed such behaviour and I can't remember a time I didn't know it was wrong. But racism isn't only present when it shows itself so openly. It's a subtle pervasive thing.
As a teenager and young adult, walking down the road alone at night I was often quite anxious about being followed or harassed. I had good reason, it was something that had happened to me on more than one occasion. What it took me a while to realise and address was the fact that if I came across men of colour my anxiety jumped up a notch, in a way that it didn't when I was faced with a white man or even a group of white men. Why? Because at some point I had internalised and taken to heart the idea that men of colour were more dangerous than white men.
Where did that idea come from? No one in my family had taught me such a thing, but the general media did. Conversations at school with my friends did. I certainly wasn't alone with that fear. Yet I had no evidence to support it. Sure, it was all too easy to remember the times men of colour had followed me for a while in their car cat calling and making suggestive comments. Why did I find it so hard to bring to mind the time a white guy followed me all the way home doing the same thing?
I was raped in my teens by a boyfriend, who happened to be black. So that might have accounted for some of my anxiety. Only, I experienced sexual violence on a far more regular basis at the hands of my white father. I was sexually assaulted at school by two school mates, one white and one black. I was raped by an ex boyfriend in my late teens who was white. I had a stalker for a few years, he was white. Our house was broken into several times. On all but one occasion there was at least one white person involved. In fact, most of the objectionable or dangerous behaviour I've been subjected to the perpetrator was white. Yet my anxiety still increased when faced with the prospect of walking past or in front of men of colour.
This is racism, pure and simple. It might have been happening on an unconscious level but it was still there, still present. Once I realised what was going on I then had to work to change it. I had to confront myself with the facts every time I was faced with that situation and eventually, after several months it worked. It was only by being concious of what I was doing and what must be behind it that I was able to alter my thinking.
I had to do something similar in regards to my anxiety and paranoia around strange men in general, but that's digressing slightly from the point. The point is that recognising my racism in this instance wasn't comfortable. It didn't make me feel good about myself and the temptation to try and justify it, or ignore it as something I couldn't change was huge. I didn't though because I like to think of myself as a good person, and to my mind good people confront their prejudice and deal with it.
In terms of sexism, I've experienced similarly sexist ways of thinking and have tried to challenge them too. I still remember the times I felt uncomfortable around girls who didn't wear make-up or like clothes shopping because I had no idea what to talk to them about. The days before I realised that other girls were in fact people, just like me and might therefore have a white variety of interests outside of their appearance. I didn't find myself lost for topics of conversations with my male classmates, who I never discussed make-up with so it was silly to be limiting myself when it came to chatting with the female ones. I've been guilty in the past of thinking that if I ever became a wheelchair user I'd be miserable and hate my life. That was something I wasn't even aware of really thinking until I first got to know a wheel chair user and found myself being surprised at how happy they were. That there is disablism.
This is why I think it's so important to be aware of the potential we all hold to discriminate, to hold prejudices we're and let them affect our thinking and behaviour. It's important to fight this when we see it in other people, when we realise it happens on an institutional and societal level. I just think it's equally important to challenge and fight it within ourselves. It is not possible to live in a society which holds such prejudice without absorbing some of it ourselves. If we really want a society free of these things then we ourselves need to be free of them and that's only going to happen if we avoid falling into the trap of thinking it's impossible for us be prejudiced.