Laziness, racism, and systemic change

Jude Walker

I’m lazy. In saying this it may seem that I’ve embraced yet another identity marker: woman, white, educated…lazy. I say this not as a point of pride nor of shame but as an offering. I think we’re all lazy when we have the opportunity to be. The history of humans has fundamentally been about responding to this fact—less toil, less trouble, greater efficiency. I tend to think I’m particularly lazy as someone with a lifelong struggle with ADD. Looking back at old school report cards tells it all, culminating with the reference for university I received from my high school dean: “Judith is quite capable when she can be bothered” (Yes, I still harbor resentment towards Ms Greenlees). One of the key diagnostic criteria of ADD is “Often avoids, dislikes or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.” This paper is not about ADD—whether it is “real,” biological, caused by trauma, or that it is just a result of 21st century living given all the technological distractions we’re presented with. Nor is divulging this fact about myself a way for me to prove I have a sufficiently high Suffering Quotient (SQ—yes, I made that up). It’s likely a divergence from the crux of my argument (remember, I am lazy). Actually, when I make an effort to think about it, I am readily aware of the privilege I have: white, rich, university professor in Canada. I get that I won the ovarian lottery. I’m also acutely aware that I say inappropriate things at inappropriate times—perhaps like speaking at all right now as a white woman and about racism at that. But, what the heck; I felt it was worth putting in the minimal effort to write this blog post to talk about “laziness, racism, and systemic change.”

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Racism is a story of laziness. The genius idea of 15-16th Century colonizers was to divide everyone into some invented racialized group as they conquered, as it was too cumbersome to put in the sustained mental effort to realise this was total BS. Getting people to do sh*t for you, without being bothered by having to treat them as human beings or pay them, is the epitome of laziness—and, yes, selfishness, and, of course, the ultimate dehumanising I-it relationship. Slavery wasn’t a breakthrough new idea of the second millennia; the elite ancient Greeks, as an example, had figured this out with the minimal effort it required. Nor was racism unique to Europe. However, it seems that anti-black racism and white supremacy got a big boost from the colonizers’ laziness in taking slaves from West Africa rather than elsewhere as it was more convenient, expedient. Inertia then kind of set in—systemic racism pervaded our institutions, mentality, ways of thinking. Racial privilege continued. Inertia, as we know, requires an external force to break; I imagine that even those of my white ancestors who thought this wasn’t the greatest system decided it was too much effort to think about it being different, let alone try to change it.

There have been countless studies now showing that in Canada and elsewhere people with non-English sounding names on their resumes are less likely to be invited to interview for a job. Bayesian statistics—unlike frequentist statistics—argues that we operate from Bayesian priors in determining probability distributions. A “prior”, according to Wikipedia (since I’m too lazy to find a better definition, nor do I really understand Bayesian statistics but I like the metaphor) is “the probability distribution that would express one’s beliefs about this quantity before some evidence is taken into account.” So, if we apply this to assessing resumes and the probability that the person would be a good employee, the “quantity” is the person and our “beliefs” are the prior beliefs we have about people from that group. In other words, a white employer, for example, bases her opinion on the Male, African-American sounding name on the resume on her prior assumptions about African-American men which are largely taken from the media and infused into our stories and socialization across generations; her approach to the Chinese-sounding name may be due to narratives in society and also her one negative experience with a particular Chinese employee which she has then mapped onto her thinking about the potential ‘fit’ of all people with Chinese names. If the white employer was to hire these two fictitious people, it would follow she would engage in a Bayesian updating process “to reflect a more accurate set of assumptions.”  But it’s much less effort to stick with her prior assumptions and continue hiring people with surnames like “Walker.” This, I think, explains implicit bias and why it persists: mental laziness. Good, liberal, privileged white people like me hire people like us because we’re lazy, and to change our institutions is threatening, in part, because of the perceived effort it would take.

Robyn D’Angelo articulated what has become widely seen as a useful concept to capture those behaviours white people engage in that stymie anti-racist efforts: white fragility. As it has been rightly noted, white fragility stems from centuries of white supremacy. D’Angelo explains that at the core of white fragility is defensiveness, appeals to innocence, and white people making it “about them.” These are the paths of least resistance; defensiveness (as an act of desired self-protection) often comes automatically—it’s incredibly hard work to not get defensive, hence the birth and explosion of relationship counselling. It takes a lot of mental effort, practice, and labour to do something different as individuals. Quite rightly, BIPOC people here and in the US are angry at appeals to educate me and other white folk about racism because we’re too lazy to teach ourselves.

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Perhaps it needs to be said that laziness is a privilege—not everyone gets to be lazy. Laziness evokes the image of the idle (white) rich, Marie-Antoinette lavishly eating a piece of cake. The poor cannot afford the luxury of laziness in their very efforts for survival. Racialised minorities have to fight, and put in more effort, to be recognised and to be seen as equal—to get that job despite their surname. We also have the erroneous narratives of the lazy immigrant, the lazy black single mum collecting welfare, the lazy overweight person eating pies, the lazy [insert your favourite ethnic minority here] etc. These (lazy) tropes attempt to justify racism (and sexism, discrimination against those not adhering to Western female beauty norms of slenderness etc.), offered up as a way of explaining away and justifying inequality within a protestant ethic capitalist society. It’s all a ruse, of course. We’re also stuck in a bind in both embracing and rejecting laziness. It all feels so exhausting.

So what is the antidote to laziness? I haven’t put in enough effort to really figure this out and would love to free-ride off your efforts. In seriousness, I do have some ideas about what doesn’t really work (which could be, again, a result of my sloppy thinking and not that well thought out). Systemic change is particularly challenging when conceived at the level of lazy individuals—we tend to need to be nudged into more pro-social behaviours (e.g., give me a separate recycling bin, I’ll use it; ask me to drive to Richmond to drop off my recycling, I’ll feel bad about dumping the plastic in the regular rubbish bin but not enough to make the 30-minute drive). Telling myself to do something, telling other people to change, or thinking constantly about myself hasn’t really helped me to make change. While effort, unfortunately, is required, I think it can be better directed.

Overall, I think we seriously need to question and respond to the hyperindividualism that has so pervaded our societies and institutions—exacerbated by postmodern neoliberalism and competitive capitalism. These trends have *not* led us to put in less overall effort. Ironically, doing and thinking about things by ourselves is often more work (and feels more like work) than thinking and doing together; a social movement is larger than the sum of its parts. Being alone in our laziness, in confronting our laziness, makes us more scared, feel more daunted, and be more likely to spiral into unproductive shame. At least it does for me—I employ the collective ‘we’ in my desperate attempt at belonging and a reflection of my own felt loneliness. I know: it is platitudeness (inherently lazy) to end this paper as a kumbaya call to all be friends, share the load, become our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. Yet, I made no pretense that I wasn’t lazy (you were warned).

Image by Richard Watson

I think I’ll end with the plot of one of my 4-year old daughter’s favourite books: Clumpety Bump. Clumpety is a horse, a very lazy horse. Instead of galloping, he plods. Instead of helping out his owner, Wally Wobblebottom, so he can go and help his friends, Clumpety resists each time he’s called to do something that takes more effort, like jumping over a creek. He thinks, instead, “I can’t be bothered,” and takes the easiest route out, like stopping to eat the grass or whatever it is. In doing this, he causes Wally to get wet, or he squashes the grapes he was taking to a friend recovering from illness etc. As with all good children’s books, there is a morally preachy change: Clumpety becomes a lively horse who finally attempts to help out his buddy. This happens when Wally comes to him in obvious need as his tractor has failed him and he got all covered in mud. Clumpety stops thinking about himself and, knowing he is needed, gallops with Wally on his back to take some flowers to his friend. Unfortunately, while Clumpety does go quickly and doesn’t stop this time, when he arrives, he gives into his temptation and eats the flowers that were being taken as a gift

All of this is to say that laziness can’t be eradicated or entirely overcome, systems must be changed through collective action, and as those who have benefitted from colonization and white (and laziness) privilege, we’re going to screw it up but we should still try as a society in the knowledge that we are lazy.