When you work on human rights issues, you notice a certain pattern in government denial of abuse. First line of defense: it didn’t happen. Or if it happened, they did it to themselves. Or if they didn’t, we certainly had nothing to do with it. Or if we did, we didn’t mean to. It doesn’t matter if the issue is torture, forced evictions, or garden-variety employment discrimination. The response from those in charge is often, if not always, the same.
Though this pattern is annoying, to say the least, I have lately become acutely aware of a much more depressing trend: the denial of abuse among those of us who should know better. Of course, we don’t call it denial. We call it “realism.” But the mechanism is the same.
1. “It didn’t happen.”
For decades, commentators and a large proportion of the US public have posited that racism no longer exists. Despite the fact that skin color and ethnicity matters with regard to just about any social indicator you care to look at — health, education, employment, housing, law enforcement — most white people believe the system we live in is racially just.
The writer Touré has described this situation as a “fog of racism:” a situation so subtle, it is blurred. “With this form of racism,” he says, “there is no smoking gun. There is no one calling you a nigger to your face. There’s no sign saying you can’t enter this building. … But … it’s there.”
This is not much different from the many people who are genuinely puzzled at the need for continued attention to women’s issues in the United States now that “the genders are equal.” I hear this argument almost daily, despite ample evidence to the contrary, including the continued pay gap and the vicious attack on reproductive rights for women and not men.
2. “They did it to themselves.”
Blaming the victim is par for the course in rape cases, a context in which it (rightfully) is denounced by women’s groups as sexist, discriminatory, and just plain wrong. But it is also common for individuals who identify sexual or racial discrimination to be called silly, overly sensitive, or even vindictive.
When I firmly told off a male colleague at a former employer for caressing my waist, a female colleague immediately and loudly concluded that I “must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.”
And I can’t count the times I have been told that “black people are racist too,” as a manner to excuse racial discrimination. In sociology and social psychology, this phenomenon is called internalized oppression, that is the manner in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor. More commonly, it is expressed as a desire to maintain the dignity of the group: we may suffer, but we don’t complain or sulk.
3. “We had nothing to do with it.”
Most people don’t like to think of themselves or the people they know as bigots. This is natural and reasonable. It is hard to remain sane if you believe your actions are consistently insensitive or morally wrong. This, however, is not the same as noticing and addressing injustice — especially injustice that we, ourselves, are benefitting from.
For example, I cannot in good conscience say that I have nothing to do with racism (or sexism, or hetero-centrism, or…) when I know that I benefit daily from a system that overwhelmingly recognizes my humanity and rights because of my Northern passport, fair skin, perceived heterosexuality, motherhood, and Judeo-Christian background (I could go on). Unlike my Peruvian ex-husband, I don’t have to think about what I wear when I travel in order to avoid additional hassles at airport security. And unlike those of my female friends who are non-gender-conforming and childless, I don’t have to defend my worth as a woman.
4. “We didn’t mean to.”
When all other justifications have failed, the usual fall-back for governments who violate human rights is lack of intent: we may indeed have tortured a couple of prisoners, but it was unknowingly done and therefore, it is implied, of limited importance.
This excuse is hardly ever used as a denial strategy for continued and entrenched racial, sexual, and other discrimination in the United States. And not because we recognize our responsibility in the stereotypes we perpetuate. But rather because we don’t. In fact, as shown above, we routinely deny the very existence of discrimination.
I am not advocating a collective guilt complex, or, worse, some sort of warped paternalistic pity-fest in which those of privileged background pound our chests in earnest distress and bemoan the supposedly pathetic lives of those considered beneath us. I am, however, advocating a reckoning that allows us to confront those stereotypes that result in the abuse of human rights. Even, and especially, when this means that some of us must give up our special privileges.
And here’s why: I know I am benefiting from many of the stereotypes that prevail in the country I have chosen to live in. I also know I am complicit in the resulting discrimination to the extent that I don’t challenge it.