It must be about our motives, at least in so far as any evaluation of an individual’s racism goes. Though motives are not all that matter they must be taken significantly into account. Now when it comes to the impact of racism on a victim of it, you’re right, the motives matter less. But my point in the original comment is and was that we’re applying the label “racist” or “racism” to far more people and behaviour than is warranted given the likely ignorance and motives behind the behavior of many of the people we are labelling. Certain words, like racist, should be reserved for people that fall beneath a certain low standard of behavior and convictions, just as words like hero should be reserved for those meeting or exceeding certain high standards of morality and conduct.
Let me use a rather trivial but nonetheless real life example that has nothing to do with racism. If I step on your foot accidentally, even if I break it in the process, the action cannot logically, morally or legally be equated with assault. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t express regret for my mistake and learn whatever I can from it in an effort to be more careful in the future. However, while you can reasonably call me clumsy or careless, you can’t reasonably say I’m a mean person because I broke your foot. That’s because I didn’t intend to do it.
Of course, you can’t say with complete certainty whether or not I stepped on your foot because I hated people of your race, or even just that I didn’t like you personally. In addition, it may be the case that I harboured some implicit bias against you and that’s why I did it, though it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to say for sure. Even in instances in which the outcome is exactly the same and the physical causes nearly identical motivation makes a huge difference in how we evaluate them. Perhaps I broke your right foot accidentally then someone else looked down at your left foot the next day, raised his leg while taking careful aim before coming down on it as hard as he could. You couldn’t reasonably claim I was just as morally responsible as the other guy even though in both cases you ended up with a broken foot. The differences between how you can reasonably describe (in moral terms) my actions and the other person’s all come down to premeditation and/or motive and the evidence overwhelming indicates consciousness on the other guy’s part while similar evidence is lacking in my case.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency, especially in the current political environment, to leap immediately to the worst possible interpretation of the motives behind the words or actions of others when we find them objectionable for some reason. We don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt nearly as much as it feels to me like we used to. It’s one thing to say a person has biases that make them blind to how people from other cultures and backgrounds may interpret their words. However, since we all have such biases (and usually don’t know what they are until someone or some circumstance makes them clear), we should be able to accept this weakness in others far more often than we do. When it comes to implicit biases, talking about them as though they were a moral failing indicates we don’t really understand what implicit biases are in the first place.
I don’t deny that being born white and raised in a predominately white community makes me less sensitive in certain situations to how my actions or comments are being perceived (or may be perceived) by others. The problem is, by chalking any insensitivity I may exhibit up to racism you’re implying that my sincere aspirations to be a better person and learn from my mistakes in these situations don’t really matter. That you might argue I’m less of a racist than a Nazi or KKK member or than a landlord trying to keep black people out of his properties, and so forth, is rather cold comfort. I’m still a racist. We’re all being lumped together under that heading, after all. That they are consciously doing what they’re doing and I’m ignorant or acting unconsciously matters not in the least given the word racist, by itself, doesn’t include any of these distinctions. Besides, it’s not at all obvious why being a little bit racist should be seen as a significant improvement over being an openly and proudly racist prick. It’s kind of like telling someone they’re only a little bit stupid. The word racist isn’t subtle or nuanced. It’s loaded and should be used sparingly; if not in the interest of precision then to at least preserve its significance and power.
The point is, while all racism is an example of ignorance not all ignorance is an example of racism. When it comes to things like off — hand remarks or common questions, before we jump to the racism or “microaggression” conclusion why not ask ourselves whether or not there might be a simpler explanation for a person’s words or actions? Why not skip the charge altogether and let the person know how we perceived their comment and give them a chance to respond? Call someone a racist and they’ll probably just become angry or annoyed with you. Give them the benefit of the doubt while sharing with them what you heard opens the door to learning and the exchange of ideas necessary to keep racism out of our homes, schools and workplaces, or at the very least minimize it.
Truth and reconciliation won’t come in the form of a lecture from one side to the other, least of all one on the inherent racism allegedly embedded in questions like “where are your from?” Real truth and reconciliation is going to involve frank and honest conversations that are going to be extremely uncomfortable and include topics that make microaggressions look like a sunny summer day at the beach. It’s going to include long and numerous talks in both our living rooms and town halls about the legacy of slavery, lynching, genocide (in the case of Native Americans), poverty, unequal distribution of education opportunities, etc. Up here in Canada, where I’m currently living, it involves taking ownership of the impact and ongoing consequences associated with the forced placement and frequent abuse of indigenous children in residential schools and the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women. We can deal with microaggressions after we’ve dealt with the macro ones, which we haven’t honestly dealt with yet. In fact, I suspect if we really finally dealt with the macroaggressions we wouldn’t be using up so much energy worrying about the micro ones. I see any focus on “microaggression” and “implicit bias” as a means of avoiding the big things we’re still in denial about, both personally and culturally. That we can simultaneously delude ourselves about how aware we are in the process only makes these concepts all the more emotionally appealing.
My biggest frustration with the progressive movement isn’t its values. It’s the fact that a small but very vocal portion of it doesn’t know how to pick the battles it fights in the name of those values. Too many progressives see the world as more or less morally flat (or relative), which leads them to place micro interpersonal problems on the same playing field as macro historical issues and their contemporary counterparts. We often talk about microaggressions in the same paragraphs or articles in which we discuss a KKK rally, police shootings or the harm the criminal justice system continues to cause in minority communities, as if they were on the same scale and had similar potential to cause suffering. Worse still, sometimes we never even mention the macro issues and write articles only about microaggressions. Have we lost all sense of proportionality?