By Yao Xiao (EDST alumnus and sessional)
Laziness, racism, and systemic change
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.”
Photo by shutterstock.com
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.
Image by someecards
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.
Why I Can’t Hold Space for You Anymore, a self-examination exercise
Vanessa Andreotti, Sharon Stein, Elwood Jimmy and the GTDF collective
Photo by: Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti
Systemic violence is complex and multi-layered. One thing that cuts across layers is the disproportionate amount of labour that Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) bear when they are expected to teach other people about systemic colonial and racial violence in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives.
The exercise “Why I can’t hold space for you anymore” was created by the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Arts/Research Collective, of which we are part. It presents an attempt to pedagogically address unconscious patterns of problematic behavior at work in EDI initiatives that are difficult to name and to interrupt.
The exercise consists of a poem and an invitation for self-examination. The poem lists the reasons why symbolic EDI statements and gestures are often costly for the well-being of BIPOC people.
This exercise was developed as part of an effort to illustrate the emotional and physical costs that manifest when BIPOC people are expected to hold spaces for institutional learning – especially white peoples’ learning – about complicities in historical, systemic and ongoing harm.
Read the poem once and pay attention to the different kinds of responses it evokes in you. After you have read the poem once, read the instructions that follow for the second part of the exercise.
Do You Really Want to Know Why I Can’t Hold Space for You Anymore?
You see my body as an extension of your entitlements
I have held space for you before
and every time, the same thing happens
You take up all the space
and expect me to use my time, energy and emotion
in service of fulfilling your desires:
to perform my trauma
to affirm your innocence
to celebrate your self-image
to center your feelings
to absolve you from guilt
to be always generous and generative
to filter what I say in order not to make you feel uncomfortable
to validate you as someone who is good and innocent
to be the appreciative audience for your self-expression
to provide the content of a transformative learning experience
to make you feel loved, important, special and safe
and you don’t even realize you are doing it
and you don’t even realize you are doing it
AND YOU DON’T EVEN REALIZE YOU ARE DOING IT
Because your support is always conditional
On whether it aligns with your agenda
On whether it is requested in a gentle way
On whether I perform a politics that is convenient for you
On whether it fits your personal brand
On whether it contributes to your legacy
On whether you will get rewarded for doing it
On whether it feels good
Or makes you look good
Or gives you the sense that we are “moving forward”
Because when you ‘give’ me space to speak
It comes with strings attached about
what I can and cannot say
and about how I can say it
You want an easy way out
A quick checklist or one-day workshop
on how to avoid being criticized
while you carry out business as usual
And even when I say what I want to say anyway
You can’t hear it
Or you listen selectively
And when you think you hear it
You consume it
You look for a way to say ‘that’s not me’
‘I’m one of the good ones’
and use what I say to criticize someone else
Or you nod empathetically and emphatically to my face and then
The next thing you do shows that while you can repeat my words
Your perceived entitlements remain exactly the same
And when I put my foot down or show how deeply angry or frustrated I am
You read me as ungrateful, incompetent, unreliable and betraying your confidence
You complain behind my back that I’m creating a hostile environment
You say I’m being unprofessional, emotional, oversensitive
That I need to get over it
That I’m blocking progress
That I shouldn’t be so angry
That my ancestors lost the battle
That not everything is about colonialism or racism or whiteness
That aren’t we all just people, in the end?
That we are all indigenous to some place
That you feel really connected to the earth, too
That you have an BIPOC friend/colleague/girlfriend that really likes you…
You minimize and further invisibilize my pain
and your social mobility
always come at my expense.
That is why I can’t hold space for your anymore.
After you have read the poem once, we invite you to read it again (one or more times) as an exercise of observation of your own neurophysiological responses. In this part of the exercise, we use a psychological narrative strategically to focus your attention on the responses of your amygdala, which is the part of the brain that stores information about emotional events and that manages situations of perceived threat.
In modern societies, our brain is trained to minimize threat and maximize reward. If something is perceived as a threat to one’s self-image, status, autonomy or security, the amygdala is triggered, prompting the responses of fight, flight, freeze and/or fawn (i.e. to please).
As you read the poem again, identify the parts of yourself that are engaged in these patterns of response:
(feeling lost and helpless)
(trying to please)
· dominating discussion
· delegitimizing/ discrediting
· claim of being attacked
· claim of objectivity (only you can see the truth)
· insistence that it does not apply to you since you have (or have had) multi-ethnic friends or family members that can attest that you are a nice person
· getting distracted
· focusing on your intentions
· insistence that you are misunderstood
· arguing over words meanings or other details
· offering counter-examples
· use other forms of oppression (e.g. class, sexism, cis-hetero-normativity) to minimize the importance of race and colonialism
· getting distracted
· changing the subject
· seeking absolution
· over-complimenting BIPOC people
· seeking proximity
· seeking praise
· demanding attention
· demanding validation (e.g. “I am one of the good ones”)
· pretending to go along to get along (or to protect your image/interests)
As you identify these responses, document (in writing or drawing) how they manifest. Next, consider the fears, insecurities, and desires that could be behind these responses, and how these fears, insecurities, and desires could be unconsciously driving your actions and relationship building with BIPOC persons and communities.
Pause to consider:
the costs of these patterns in the long run both for the well-being of BIPOC people and for the depth and sustainability of the relationships you build;
what you would need to unlearn to enable healthier and more generative relationships with people from BIPOC backgrounds;
how you might be expecting BIPOC people to hold space for your unlearning and have patience with your inevitable mistakes;
how this expectation places a demand on BIPOC people’s time and labour, and requires them to re-live painful and traumatic experiences and frustrations;
how the labour that is expected of BIPOC people could be better acknowledged, rewarded, and better yet, (re)distributed in your institutional context.
Finally, consider how the “Fragility Questions” below can help you go deeper, recognizing that this exercise is only a starting point in an ongoing, life-long process of historical and systemic undoing, unlearning, and disinvesting from harmful cognitive, affective, and relational patterns.
What do you expect, what are you afraid of, what prompts defensiveness? Who is this really about?
What underlying attachments may be directing your thinking, actions and relationships?
What cultural ignorances do you continue to embody and what social tensions are you failing to recognize?
What truths are you not ready, willing, or able to speak or to hear? What fantasies/delusions are you attached to?
What fears, perceptions, projections, desires and expectations could be informing (consciously and unconsciously) what you are doing/thinking? How may these things be affecting your relationships in negative ways?
Where are you stuck? What is keeping you there? How can you distinguish between escapist distractions and the work that needs to be done?
How do we learn to surrender perceived entitlements and underlying desires that become a barrier to our ability to have difficult conversations and go into difficult spaces together, without relationships falling apart?
How can being overwhelmed and disillusioned be productive?
What do you need to give up or let go of in order to go deeper? What is preventing you from being present and listening deeply without fear and without projections?