What I learned about the danger of your unknown prejudice from a criminologist

Doing anti-racism work is not easy.

At times, especially when it feels like the world is in such trauma, I can feel helpless. But I have a BIG smile on my face today and I wanted to share why in this three part series.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with an incredible criminologist who specialising in hate crime. We were discussing prejudice and the brain and the effect it has on our mental health, behaviour and how we navigate the world and I have never been so inspired or felt so hopeful. 

Before we get into it, let’s outline the definition of prejudice:

Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

And we ALL hold prejudice. If you’e human and breathing, you have it.

Prejudice is a learned behaviour that automatically enables us to put things (including people) into “boxes” and mostly as a result of a fear response: eg: safe, or unsafe, or “us” and “them”, it is a response that was originally developed to protect us.

It is something our brain was designed to do.

Something that used to help us detect fear or danger from anything other than our “own” in pre-evolutionary times. Trouble is, it’s left us in a bit of a pickle.

The criminologist and I spoke enthusiastically about this, for hours.

We were talking a lot about race hate and the reported increase in hate crime since Brexit and Trump.

(I know! What a conversation to be inspired about!)

The Danger

We were also talking about research that reveals  the everyday consistent  “well-meaning” ‘I don’t see colour’ ,  ‘I’m not racist, my friends are black’, Can I touch your hair, and common, ‘where are you from’ rhetorics, can cause more harm to the mental health of people of colour, than overt acts of race hate.  

Yes. Let that sink in. 

They cause more psychological harm than overt acts of hate because they happen consistently, often by well-meaning people.

These micro-aggressions, as they are referred to, are every day slights and insults. In black and white:

A microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority

Microaggressions are so commonplace,  they occur on daily basis sometimes more than once, so much so they are simply accepted. On the surface they “may” even feel like a compliment: “oh you don’t sound black”  But they cause so much harm and they absolutely come from our unknown prejudices and unconscious bias.

There is hope

As a black woman, the fact that microaggressions are so commonplace isn’t new news to me, but the conversation left me buzzing and hugely hopeful. 

Why?

  1. Because in that moment I realised, most people, even gorgeous people like you don’t realise they are even causing harm and will immediately act if they have awareness and knowledge.
  1. That despite increases in apathy, intolerance and race hate after Brexit and Trump and a warning from officials that we’ll see a spike again when we leave the EU in March 2019, if more people, people like you were willing to have the courage to explore, uncover and understand your own prejudice and where it comes from, the effect of change can be powerful and widespread. 

Imagine that!

Instead of being in denial, you could choose to be in a more useful space.

You could stop causing harm. 

Despite what feels so overwhelming and bigger that you, you CAN actually help

And relatively quickly. 

How exciting is that to know we have more power in effecting change than we realise!

The Trouble is

So many people, much like you are conditioned to feel proud, embarrassed or even ashamed that you even hold an ounce of prejudice, even though you’ve been conditioned to hold it and that our brains were designed to form prejudice to protect us AND ultimately,  it’s not your fault. 

You are either frightened to even explore the unknown prejudices that you have.

OR

You definitely don’t want anyone to know that you even hold prejudice. So you stay silent

Both are common fear responses and they will paralyse you from taking action and unknowingly contribute to causing harm to people of colour.

There is a solution

This conversation with this criminologist cemented that for me! You. Yes you. Just have to be willing to be honest and accept your prejudices. You have them! You will unconsciously judge people on the colour of their skin, their gender, their physical ability. I could go on.

If you have the courage to feel crap about having prejudices, you can start to do the work to unlearn them. 

I am grateful for my background in counselling skills, the curiosity it gave me about human beings and behaviour and the ability it has given me to create safe and confidential spaces to help people doing anti-racism work feel safe enough to share, without judgement. Because if we continue in a place of denial and we can’t be honest, we continue to fail and we continue to be talking about race hate, race disparity and race inequality for decades to come and I am pretty sure our ancestors would have hoped we would be doing far better with this by now. 

It’s easier than you think

Ultimately we’re all born with the same “clean slate” how we’re shaped, the values and beliefs we hold are learned from the influential adults in our life and we pass it onto the next generation. 

It’s easier than you think to start to break the cycle, you just have to be courageous and move to a place of vulnerability and curiosity so you can unlearn behaviours that do not serve you and may unknowingly be causing harm to others. 

Put it this way, it will be much less painful  for you to be temporarily uncomfortable than it will for people who experience harm every day.

Are you ready to be courageous? Comment below or send me an email if this resonates with you. 

The Talent

Very proud moment captured by Elly Lucas at the screening of my directorial film about race in Britain: OTHER 

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