As a Canadian, I’ve watched the situation in Ferguson from a fairly isolated perch. We Canadians like to proudly say that we don’t have the problems that our southern neighbours have. We don’t have the rampant racism that staggeringly still seems present in many parts of the US. We don’t have the disparity between the rich and the poor. We don’t have the violence.
That’s not entirely true, of course. Some parts of Canada have serious issues with poverty and standard of living – mainly the Aboriginal reserves, but some major cities also come to mind.
But it has long chaffed at me to chalk up these problems to racism.
I don’t think it’s that simple.
Racism is, pretty obviously, a terrible thing. Blatant, naked racism is ugly and repulsive. There is no mistaking it. It’s not the sneak-attack type; it doesn’t slowly but surely undermine your success – blatant racism walks right up and punches you in the face. But while it still exists, and should be refuted at every turn, I don’t think open racism is the biggest problem.
So if not blatant racism, than what about the more subtle, nebulous, slow-infection kind of racism that is explored so thoroughly now on social media? The “good ol’ boy” white privilege kind of racism? Isn’t THAT what the problem is nowadays?
I don’t really think so either.
Yes, that kind of racism exists too (usually alongside its kissing cousin, the macho “old boys club” kind of sexism). But having watched and read some of the Ferguson coverage this past week, I don’t think that’s the main problem either.
The problem is ego.
Some readers right now will be getting that pit-of-the-stomach twist that tells them the author they’re reading is about to say something they really whole-heartedly disagree with; did she really say that racism isn’t the problem???
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a small factor in this whole debacle. But like so many other problems, when you sort right down to the heart of the matter, the real barrier to progress doesn’t come from entrenched attitudes of hatred – it comes from an entrenched desire to save face.
Allow me a moment of diversion, to get to my point. In the criminal justice system, when people commit crimes involving violence like assault or spousal abuse, they are often sent to anger management programs (for spousal abuse, usually they are sent to more specialized programs dealing with domestic violence, but let’s just keep it simple and refer to it all as anger management).
The phrase “anger management” is a bit of a misnomer. It should more aptly be called “emotions management”, because we humans are complex creatures and we actually have a vast array of different emotional responses to any situation other than just anger. And one of the first things they teach you in “anger management” is that anger is a special type of emotion – it’s what they call a “masking emotion”.
Broken down, it goes something like this. You’re driving in your car, on your way to work. You’re late. It’s raining. You’re worried about not getting there in time to submit an important report. Someone pulls into the lane in front of you, going about ten kilometers below the speed limit. You’re forced to slow down and there’s no way to get around him. Your first response is anger, right?
Actually, no! Your first response in that situation is probably a combination of frustration over losing control of how quickly you will make it to work, and anxiety about the consequences to your career for being late. But how do you react? At the minimum, you probably exhale loudly, say a few curse words under your breath and maybe hit the horn and speed up to tailgate the guy, juuuuust a bit. Anger, right?
In this situation, anger is performing a self-preservation function. Whether by nature or because we’re just really bad with self-awareness in this society, humans are exceptionally ill-equipped to deal with negative emotions. When that anxiety rises, it’s really hard to get rid of it. But anger? That’s an easy one – vent it out by swearing, yelling, pounding your fist, stomping your feet, or even a healthier response like going for a run or deep breathing.
So the anger is actually masking (and protecting us from) the more complex and painful emotions that are harder for us to deal with. Add to that the social constructs which make it unacceptable for people (men in particular) to express the “weaker” emotions like embarrassment, and anger is a very potent and useful tool and consequently it is vastly over-used.
But back to Ferguson. What’s really going on? My guess would be that issues like income disparity and lack of opportunities (or worse, unequal distribution of opportunities) have led to very understandable feelings in the black community of frustration, fear, anxiety, questioning of self-worth and probably many others which I don’t know because I’m not walking in their shoes.
And the white community, when they hear the demands to right these wrongs, probably feel some combination or variety of frustration, embarrassment, shame, and persecution; because nobody thinks of themselves as a racist and certainly nobody likes to hear themselves called one.
But these emotions aren’t discussed enough, or dealt with properly. They don’t make good news broadcasts. They don’t sound good in speeches or look clever on placards. So even though an acknowledgement of these feelings by both sides would probably go a great distance towards starting a dialogue for solution, it doesn’t happen. Anger is so much easier.
I’m writing all this, not because it is revolutionary or will even help the problem at all. It’s more just kind of a plea, to all of us, to take a breath when we feel that first jolt of anger. What’s really going on? Is venting that anger going to help us fix the problem, or just make us feel good for a little while only to make things worse in the long run? What if we take a chance at exploring and expressing some of the other feelings we’re having around an issue – and considering what the other person might be going through too?
It’s really hard to throw bricks at the white police officers when you acknowledge that they feel unjustly criticized and persecuted and truly don’t believe they have done anything wrong. It’s really hard to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at a black crowd when you accept that they have at times been treated unfairly and are frustrated and scared and feel helpless to do anything else to change their situation.
Not that these things still won’t happen. It’s just harder.