I Don’t Understand Racism

I really just don’t get it.

The way we identify faces is by looking at certain landmarks on the face, allowing us to recognise a face we’ve seen before and distinguish between different faces. Dogs have actually learnt to do this with human faces, using the correct landmarks to identify humans faces, and even learning how to read out emotions from our facial expressions. My point being that this is an easy thing that our brains do without any conscious input from us (at least for neurotypical people, neurodivergent children may need coaching or special programs to learn to identify faces better) and social animals that we have domesticated have learnt this skill as well. [1]

This is relevant, because the only underlying (evo-psych) explanation for racism that I’ve heard is that seeing a face that isn’t what we’re used to seeing (i.e. is different to the faces we learnt facial recognition on – someone who doesn’t look like our friends and family) might trigger some kind of “oh noes, danger” alarm in the back of our heads, as back when we lived in family groups or tribes, people who looked different would be from other groups/tribes, and might be trying to attack us.

Now, if this is the case, well… We can make fire, and we cover ourselves in clothes, and we’re not driven solely to reproduce and survive. In other words, we are more than our instincts. We can override our instincts. My dad and I demonstrate this all the time when food is yummy, but it’s fresh-cooked and kinda burning our mouths, but the “ooh this is yummy” of our higher thought processes overrides the “stop it!” that is generated when our nerves send pain signals. If we can ignore pain because of yummy food, I’m pretty sure we can ignore “that person is different, they’re trying to kill us” because we’re aware that other races exist and that’s ok.

That is all, of course, assuming that that evo-psych explanation is at all accurate, for the purposes of entertaining the possibility that something internal and instinctual may be pushing people to be racist (as opposed to upbringing, cultural attitudes, institutional racism, etc.).

Intellectually, I can follow somewhat the reasons for racism that are entirely higher-though-process-based, although I find them pretty silly. Racism that is unconscious or unintentional (such as parroting stereotypes before you learnt enough to know better) I have a little more empathy for, because I’ve been through the process of learning that those things are bad and that you can’t generalise people by race – and I grew up in a fairly mixed-race environment.

It now bothers me when I hear someone repeat a stereotype, especially if I know the harm that exact one causes. For example, a friend-of-a-friend made an offhand comment about how Aboriginal people trash houses that they stay in and cram too many people in, and as I had recently read a blog post by an Aboriginal woman explaining the cycle this creates (difficulty finding housing means people can’t move out, and whole families are stuck in a place too small, which sometimes causes extra-wear-and-tear on the building, and the owner is reluctant to have maintenance done because “they’re going to trash it anyway”, which causes the building to be damaged, meaning bad living conditions and reinforcement of the self-fulfilling stereotype) I got pretty annoyed about it, and doubly so as he was doing his Honours project on Aboriginal art. It gave me an impression of essentially exploiting Aboriginal art and its lack of visibility to get Honours, while not caring at all about the people or culture. That’s a jerk-y thing to do.

If you’re oblivious to the damage stereotypes do, then listen when people tell you why they’re bad, and educate yourself about it. There’s plenty of stuff out there about why stereotypes are harmful. Once you know, there’s then really no excuse to continue spouting harmful stereotypes. Yes, sometimes they are very ingrained, and they creep into your mind, but you can examine where it’s coming from and you can ignore it. I grew up around the “Asian parents are very strict and demand good grades from their kids” stereotype, and sure some kids at my school had parents who fit that, but so did Caucasian parents, and nearly every parent of every child there – because they were paying a lot to send their kids to a private school. It’s no different from stereotypes based on gender or anything else. Like “girls/women like pink”: I don’t like pink, my partner’s mother does, and it’s about the only way she conforms to the stereotype of women, as she’s better at home improvement and renovation than her (laborer) partner.

So that essentially checks off ignorance as an excuse: educate yourself, and you’re no longer ignorant. It takes a little effort sometimes, but it’s worth it.

That then leaves institutional/systematic racism – the structures put in place to keep the oppressed oppressed with little or no continued effort from the oppressors – and intentional racism. I think this post does a good job of talking about an example of institutional racism in the US, and the push-back against rectifying it (i.e. white kids complaining that affirmative action ‘disadvantages’ them). The original post doesn’t include the little cartoon strip that the re-post (where I first saw it) had, which I think gets the message across quite simply:

A Concise History Of Black-White Relations In The USA

Being Australian, the kind of institutional racism that I’ve seen is a bit different. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve barely seen it. Not because it isn’t there, but because it’s been so effective that well-off white folks don’t even know it’s there unless it gets pointed out to us and we actually try to see it. I’m talking specifically about what we’ve done to our indigenous population. What’s happened to asylum seekers, and the kind of racism that interferes with job opportunities, isn’t entrenched institutional racism, it’s ongoing, being built up in some cases, and it’s being driven by people going out of their way to be racist.

The school I went to was fairly mixed-race as far as I was aware. We had people from all-over, it seemed, although during high school I realised that aside from Indian and Sri Lankan students (who were usually on the lighter end of brown), darker skin was not that common – I recall only one black student. There where three Aboriginal students that I can remember: one who landed a leadership position, her younger sister, and a girl who was in my year and I was on a sport team with once.  Three out of hundreds.

It is so much easier to ignore and know nothing about people that you don’t see or hear.

The institutional racism against Aboriginal people isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s cast as something so far away. It’s “up in the NT”, which seems so remote and distant, and there’s always reasons for things like income management (“if we don’t decide where they’re allowed to spend their money, they’ll just spend it all on booze and tobacco”), and at least in Sydney you’re unlikely to actually meet anyone who is clearly of Aboriginal decent, and most of those you see are likely to be homeless men.

Sure, universities have programs and scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but I still only every saw one person of Aboriginal decent and university. If you can’t get a higher education, your job opportunities can be limited, which limits your income, and therefore your children won’t get much of a head-start, and you can get caught in a cycle for generations. It doesn’t help that white Australians are generally conditioned to be wary of or look down on Aboriginal Australians. And don’t even get me started on the Australia Day versus Invastion Day kerfuffle.

I’d have to do a lot more research to talk in more depth about the institutional barriers put up to disadvantage those of Aboriginal decent, so note that this is just what personal observations, and I’m not exactly in a position where I see much about the life of Aboriginal Australians, although I want to learn more. So I might have a post in the future raging about a homeless Aboriginal man being targeted by police, and a tragic death in police custody, and an Aboriginal woman being tasered in the eye, and other things I haven’t even heard about yet.

This has gotten long, where was I up to again? Oh, right, the completely intentional racism that people spout.

I know it affects job opportunities. A close friend has had to change her surname, so it sounds European instead of Chinese, as she felt it was affecting her job applications – this makes me sad, because it’s the same thing her mother had to do when she first came here 30 years ago, haven’t we progressed at all since then?

If you want more than anecdotes, there was a recent case of a barista not being hired due to the colour of his skin. The good news: customers in the cafe, and at least one of the employees took Brazilian-born barista’s side, with customers walking out and the employee quitting to show they would not tolerate the racism. The bad news: people then decided to respond with racism targeting the cafe owner, as he is an immigrant. This is not something that has been set up already, such as a poverty cycle in indigenous communities, or something you can do by mistake (the words “I don’t think [my white customers would] like to have their coffee made by black people” do not just slip out randomly, neither does “go back to China”), this is intentional racism on an individual level.

Institutional racism has a lot of power behind, and is hard to break down or break through, although it doesn’t always need someone there enforcing it – you set up the poverty cycle, step back, and it will just keep running itself. So it can be easy to miss if you don’t think you’re racist, but at the same time you don’t see these systematic, structural things that may not even directly affect you.

It’s individual, intentional racism that really gets me. Because you make an active choice there. You’re not turning a blind eye, or not lending a hand, or simply being oblivious, you’re going out of your way to hurt, offend, or disadvantage someone. But just people this is an individual person’s actions, does not mean it’s easy to brush off, because when you say something racist you have the weight of institutional racism, the history of racism, and a racist culture all making your words that much worse – and this includes when you’re making racist comments to people who aren’t oppressed due to their race, or are in a different oppressed racist group.

That is why I don’t understand it. It’s something you have control over, and it’s something causing harm. You’re not a bystander while a bullet flies through the air and hits someone, you’re the one pulling the trigger. People choose to say racist things, to attack someone based on race, to discriminate based on the colour of someone’s skin or their surname or whatever else. And I can’t understand why someone would want to do those things.

I don’t understand racism, because I don’t understand treating someone badly because of their race [2]. Difference and variation are beautiful and exciting. Everyone is different: we think differently, have different skills, speak differently, walk and hold ourselves different ways, dress differently, look different, are attracted to different things, and so on. But we can also be the same: like the same things, like the same food, have similar experiences, and sometimes there’s just something deep-down that clicks and you know this person is like you. Similarity and difference and all kinds of variations are what makes life interesting, what makes people interesting, and I just can’t understand seeing them as a bad thing.


  1. I learnt this from episodes of Catalyst a few years ago, which I might bother to look up and reference properly at some point.
  2. I don’t mean that being “colourblind” about race is the answer, or that I am. That’s why I didn’t say “treating someone differently“, because of course you’re doing to treat someone differently if their experiences with race are different – if a white person calls another white person the n-word, it’s not the same as if they called an African American person the n-word.

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