Dealing with “Unintentional Racism”

Eusebius McKaiser invited me onto his radio show to talk about intentions and their role in assigning praise and blame, or more broadly, in determining the moral status of speech and action. You can listen to the podcast of the conversation, and/or read further if you’re interested in a fuller description of my views on the topic.

When we’re “called out” for racism, or sexism, or some other offence against social norms, it often leads to an apology that appears little more than an instance of moral tokenism – a superficial assuaging of our conscience.

The last thing we want to do is encourage glib and meaningless apologies, which don’t involve much chance of people changing their attitudes or behaviour.

But we also don’t want to disincentivise sincere apologies, even if they are somewhat confused or incomplete.

What I mean is this: if a person has been alerted to a moral blindness that they now intend to work on correcting, that’s a good thing, even if it isn’t the better thing, namely that they never had that moral blindness in the first place.

If an awareness of the moral blindness or deficit is in place, we should be careful not to undermine the effort in its entirely – we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The reason why I’m inclined to a little more sympathy than some readers might be is (obviously) partly because I’m typically not going to attract abuse of this sort – white men play life on an easier difficulty setting, as Scalzi reminded us.

But an additional reason is that we’re not nearly as skilled in moral reasoning, nor as self-aware, as we would like to be. We are pattern seeking animals who stereotype each other, even where our rational selves might be aware of the error in doing so.

Things fall out of our mouths sometimes, and sometimes they are shameful things. We’re not always in perfect control of what we say or do – but can work on becoming better at being in control, and it might sometimes be the case that our responses to insult can make it difficult for that learning to occur, through encouraging defensiveness and denial on the part of the offender.

This doesn’t excuse harmful actions or make them right. Nevertheless, an important index of character is how we deal with our mistakes – how we learn from them and avoid making similar mistakes in future.

However, it’s certainly the case that saying “I didn’t intend to sound racist”, or whatever, can be code for the fact of not having bothered to interrogate your underlying beliefs and attitudes.

And, at some point, this becomes more likely as a possibility. Race discourse is all around us, and for someone to have no or little understanding of how power dynamics, structural disadvantage, social capital and so forth work has little excuse for their ignorance.

A mea culpa is to my mind still reasonable – a response that says “shame on me, I need to do better”. But “I didn’t intend to hurt” can sometime mean “I haven’t thought about this”, which is an admission of a moral failing far more serious than simply having said something harmful.

This is a separate issue to the question of whether these forms of racism hurt equally – I have no reason to doubt that they do, but am instead asking how best we can separate the careless remark, uttered by someone with bad programming, from the remarks of people who are unrepentant racists.

The former sort of person can be “rehabilitated”, and the latter usually not.

Back to the problem of the glib apology, though: given our imperfect self-knowledge, our behavior gives us a rather useful clue as to our underlying attitudes. So if people constantly perceive you as acting in a prejudiced manner, their perceptions are worth taking seriously, even if their reports don’t mesh with your impression of yourself.

The Implicit Association Test (specifically, the one on race) is worth taking as food for thought, as it can help us reveal our unconscious biases to ourselves.

Knowing that you have a bias helps you to more carefully consider your defensive responses in situations where you might manifest those biases, and hopefully to learn from how others read your behaviour.

Having said that, of course it’s also possible for people to overreact, or to imagine slurs where they don’t exist – I don’t believe that it’s always the case that the aggrieved party is justified in feeling so.

But we do need to recognise that sort of misinterpretation becomes increasingly likely on a level playing-field, so to speak – in our context of deep structural inequalities, I’d certainly think it’s reasonable to take the possibility that you’ve caused legitimate offence seriously.

While we shouldn’t let racists off the hook, there’s nevertheless room for the sincere apology – so long as it’s backed up by sincere efforts to change, rather than simply being an attempt to deflect attention from biases you have no interest in addressing.

The moral knowledge we are capable of depends in part on what sorts of moral reasoning we are capable of, and what sorts of conversations we allow ourselves to have with each other on these issues.

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