OK so. I’ve been thinking about a thing, and I wanted to write it down.
If you are white, you are racist - and before you get angry about that statement, please hear me out. Even the most progressive, actively and politically anti-racist, open-minded white people are racist. Because we have been socialised into a racist system, and we have learned a number of attitudes and assumptions that still colour the way we think and act today. That’s the point of socialisation - it teaches you a bunch of shorthands so you don’t have to approach every situation in life as completely new and unfamiliar, you have some rules and guidelines stored in the back of your mind which you can draw on to respond quickly to a new situation.
But the thing is, sometimes those rules and guidelines are racist. And for my generation - millennials - often, our racism isn’t of the kind where we’re actively thinking “oh, these people are worth less than me”, so an accusation that we’re being racist often comes out of left field. “I don’t hate anybody!”
Here’s where socialisation and gut feelings come in. When you encounter a new person, your mind rapidly scans a bunch of sensory input you get about them, which help you make a judgement about who they are, how you should relate to them and whether they pose a threat - their clothes, posture, smell, expression, and a bunch of other things about them add up to that judgement. But you’re not consciously assessing all of these inputs, BBC Sherlock style. You’re just thinking “she’s probably a mom”, “they look nice”, “oh, he looks suspicious”.
The last kind of judgement comes out as a gut feeling - you may not even be able to put your finger on exactly why that guy looks suspicious, but you’re on your guard anyway. Maybe it was his posture, his expression, even pheromones your subconscious mind responded to. Or maybe - it was his skin colour, or the fact he has his hair in dreads.
Part of our racist socialisation is that we’ve been taught to associate negative traits with, and to fear, people of colour. Even if we’ve worked to unlearn the active, conscious parts of racism, these things still linger on in our subconscious. Unlearning them is hard, because it forces us to question that gut feeling that we’re otherwise told to listen to. “Is that guy actually acting suspicious, or am I just reacting to his dark skin?” Sometimes, maybe the answer is yeah, he’s acting really sketchy and I should watch out - gut feelings can sometimes save lives. More often, the answer is probably no - your mind just made a judgement based on racist socialisation and stereotypes which form part of the fabric of your subconscious.
It’s not just fear-based gut feelings. You know how in media, characters of colour often get a disproportionate amount of hate from fandoms compared with their white counterparts? See, for example, Iris West, the black female romantic lead in the Flash. While her defenders point out that white and/or male characters could and have got away with worse things than she’s done hate-free, most of those who dislike Iris, swear adamantly “I’m not racist, I just don’t like her.”
And the thing is, consciously, that’s probably true. Most of these people never sat down and thought “she’s black, so I don’t like her” (some did, but some people are assholes and conscious racism of course still exist). They saw Iris West on the show, and for some reason, they just disliked her - they got a bad feeling about the character. But they never thought to question that feeling - after all, that’s how you watch shows! You decide which characters you like and dislike, sometimes there’s no rational explanation for who falls in which category, it’s just your opinion/feelings.
The scary thing about subconscious judgements about people (and characters) is that to challenge and question them requires an active, conscious process. Our natural impulse when we’ve made a judgement based on gut feeling is not to challenge it, but to seek evidence that our initial judgement was right - to look at the person through the “lens” our subconscious judgement created and interpret all further evidence based on that.
So “he looks suspicious” turns into “look, he’s holding something… what is it? he’s looking around a lot, he must be up to something.” - “I just don’t like her” turns into “that thing she did was so annoying. why did she say that? she’s so stupid.” Similarly, positive judgements cause us to interpret everything in a positive light. It’s like how when you’re in love with someone, everything they do is super cute, and when you’re falling out of love all the same things become really annoying. The person probably didn’t change that much, but your judgement about them did.
This is why even if your initial judgement was based on racist socialisation, you can soon give a laundry list of reasons that back up that judgement - because your mind made the “shape” of a judgement, then started looking for evidence to fill in the blanks.
If you are committed to unlearning racism (and other bigoted attitudes you have been socialised into - this can apply in different ways to misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, and so on), you can’t just rid yourself of the conscious parts and call it quits. You also have to think about the way socialisation affects your subconscious judgements and attitudes, and choose to continuously challenge and question your gut feelings. That’s a process that will last throughout your life.