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LETTER: Ameliorating the blight of racism

We need to ‘bend our anger toward future constructive purpose, and to speak to our life and no others’

In the wake of tumultuous events not just in the United States, eliciting sympathetic resonance in worldwide anger against systemic racism, but even locally, Chilliwack is not exempt from the harms of prejudicial thought and action, not only of racism, but also those of a different gender identity, as exemplified in a recent school trustee’s actions, is well worth our closer examination:

1. What is prejudice? The Latin root praejudicium means judgment based on preceding experience but unsupported by rigorous examination of present fact coupled with either unfavourable or favourable feeling tone (a prejudice can have positive valence, e.g. the “halo” effect). Prejudice has an evolutionary mammalian origin in our inevitable survival need to categorize things or events in order to learn best how to avoid personal harm, hence suspicion of the “other” but often hostility without sufficient warrant. What we term the subset “racism” is better thought of as ethnicity. In any case, projecting alleged group stereotypes onto an individual, (famously “all Cretans are liars” paradox) makes economy of cognitive effort, lazy thoughtlessness universally popular in all of us.

2. What does the experience of prejudice feel like? And who is its target? To be rejected and excluded on the basis of who you are rather than what you have done is tantamount to asserting you don’t exist, at least as an object of worth and relevance – you just don’t count. We humans are quintessential social animals, needing people to validate us by knowing us and being known on a deeper level by another. But can others know us better than we know ourselves? A “yes” claimant provokes justifiable unease, because of our assumption that our quiddity, our core essence is represented by the inaccessible privacy of our thought and that the divergent assumption that such private knowledge is irrelevant undermines our sense of personal autonomy and agency, and our belief in options and freedom of choice. In this sense, being subjected to racism in its unilateralism is experienced as assault, worse when it is systemic, organizationally buttressed as by a local school board, a community culture, an entire society, or global ideology.

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3. Who is prejudiced? How does prejudice develop and how is responsible? Answer: Just about anybody, but certain preconditions enhance the likelihood of choosing this path. No one is born racist, it is a function of social and cultural environment that nurtures developing character, to be later expressed in dichotomous thinking, narrow categorization, repressed sexuality, impatience and ease of frustration, fear of novelty and chronic anxiety (ubiquitous in current pandemic era), a sense of competitive paranoia, circumscribed acquaintance, self-referential speech patterns (as foreclosed declarative statements), hasty and unreflective decision, need for premature closure, reliance on preferential opinion-ation, search for scapegoats, mistrust of rigid boundary “outliers,” slavish conformity to group norms, twisting communication, refusal to abide by rules of logic, disrespect for intelligence, general selfishness and social immaturity (Trump’s petulant tantrums).

4. What can we do to ameliorate racism’s blight as individuals, as collectives? There is of course a first resort, firmly-enforced legislation as in executive Charter rights.

As one who has witnessed firsthand the impact of the 1960s Civil Rights Act, the 1970s Equal Rights Amendment, and antecedent judicial Brown v Board of Education (1954), I had harboured high hopes by relying on “with all deliberate speed” but sadly, civil acquiescence has not kept pace with their promise: (“we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”). It seems substantive social change can only be enabled by a gradualist alignment of our universally collective material self-interest (jobs, health, wealth, status, safety, access to education) with the importunities of our conscience (poverty, inequality, universal [adult] enfranchisement), all goods that come with a cost.

That is why we need to do more than just mouthing glib platitudes, we need to mobilize the power of our current emotional intensity, to bend our anger toward future constructive purpose, and to speak to our life and no others.

Owen Delane


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