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.”
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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.
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.
No One Matters Until Black Lives Matter
June 4, 2020
I don’t know where to begin so I guess I’ll just jump right in. I want to talk about race. Better yet, I want to talk about racism. When I talk about racism, I am talking more specifically about white supremacy in the United States of America.
It is hard to talk about this stuff for many reasons. For one, all the terms are disputable to some degree. Secondly, there are dual risks that people feel. On the one hand, people feel threatened by racism itself. This is the most important risk, I think, because ignoring this risk would undo the whole thing, assuming that we want to oppose racism and white supremacy. On the other hand, people who may not feel threatened by racism directly, feel threatened by being perceived to be a racist. They may not feel like they are directly threatened by racism but they do feel like they don’t want to fall into the category of being a racist. They want to be good or at least not so bad as to be a racist. This group seems less morally at risk to me, but I do think we can see why they feel this way. I think this hooded shame of being seen as a racist is a good thing because grave moral evil ought to produce guilt and fear.
When you put together the sense of urgency by the one directly threatened by racism and the other one’s fear of being perceived as racist and add to that the disputable terms, it is hard to communicate. This is all subjective and can shift around. There are even little subgroups with their own unique threats and fears and risks. The very idea of race is also slippery. Truth be told, we do not have a full grasp of what race, ethnicity, identity and more are. Some people like to jump on this lack of precision to sow doubt into the whole thing. Others double-down and end up in overly rigid positions that exclude real people, including themselves. I could go on and on. There is nothing easy here.
At the exact same time, we must be willing to accept the reality of racism and, in our time and place in the USA, white supremacy. There is no room to ignore or minimize this reality. It may be hard to figure out in the abstract or amongst different personal interests, but it is plain to see in the historical past and present. When you see someone who has collapsed and is unconscious, you do not need to know who they are exactly and you do not need to understand the nature of consciousness to accept the reality in front of you and the moral responsibility it entails. No one who sees someone who appears to be severely hurt should be skeptical or cynical about the appearance. Even if the reality is different, the demand of the appearance is nothing to scoff at.
Today we have seen plenty of reality and some try to throw tiny disputes of appearance at that. You cannot needle-away Chattel Slavery, Jim Crow, and their strange fruit. An entire decade of vandals and looters and rioters would never erase the legal sale of people and their legal degradation across nearly two centuries of a nation not yet three centuries old. Economic depression and loss of capital gains and even personal property will fare poorly in the moral court where people were once actual property, valued as capital, and denied access to anything of their own of proportional value to those they joined as free people.
I do not need to know who I am or what my exact ethnic and racial identity is or what the concept of race means or what the nature of “a people” or “a nation” is to see the all-too-often socially unconscious reality of racism, buoyed by historical racial prejudice and imaged and voiced by the recent anti-Black events we have seen in horror. The complexity of race is not an excuse to delay addressing racism directly. Most of all, the harm and injury to the person who is unconscious on the ground is not morally about you. The only person who might hesitate to help the injured person is the one who injured them in the first place.
The point I am making is that Black Lives Matter. This is about race, racism, and white supremacy. It is also about other things. It is also NOT about some things. What is most important to me, however, is that we realize that these three words are the anthem, they are the refrain. They are not enough but they are something and the truth they point to is hard to deal with. It is painful. It extends well beyond Black people without decentering them and their place in this nation. Imagine the tragedy of needing to say to people, “I, too, am a person.” When you hear this tragic song and join the singing, you do not lose your personhood, you only regain a sister and a brother.
Black Lives Matter is an anthem meant to dismantle white supremacy, it is the same song of freedom that Black is Beautiful and so many other refrains have resounded in the past. Everyone should sing this anthem. For some of us, we will sing it for the ones we love who are not ourselves. For some of us, we will sing it with shame and remorse for our sins and our faults. I know I will sing it that way. Some of us will sing it as an act of penance and a plea for forgiveness. Those who refuse to sing, who say “I have nothing to confess,” they are the ones who need to hear it most. Or, perhaps, those of us who sing Black Lives Matter sing it so that our beautiful Black brothers and sisters can hear it sung in a different voice and know that they do not sing alone this time.
What I am trying to say is that I do not deny how tricky and complicated and difficult this issue is. I relish digging into it. My own life story is fraught and mixed and, often, quite confusing. I do not know who I am. I am a Mexican-American who is both and neither Mexican and American. I am a Tejano and Texican who lives in Canada. But this is not about me, really, and the only way it is about me is in the way that rises above the reefs and weeds of complexity and first-person anecdote and reaches a universal moral depth where Black Lives Matter is the only option for the human race today. No one’s life matters until Black Lives Matter.
This is the kerygma, the good news, for today: Black Lives Matter. This news is good because it exposes and opposes the evil we see on the news, a scandal where a collective Cain bitterly and cynically asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” as their brother bleeds and dies. The good news is this: Black Lives Matter can save the Black person from mortal death and the white person from moral decay. Those of us who are neither Black nor white cannot pretend that these options are not also our own stark burdens and the key to our own mortal and moral survival.
Black Lives Matter. Dismantle racism. Root out the evil of white supremacy not only in your own heart but in the collective heart we form as a society. With good hearts, we can attend to everything else there is to attend to without fear. If you are lucky enough to not need to fear racists then don’t let racism scare you. Be brave like the one who justly fears the racist must be and is being right now. Black Lives Matter.
Few minutes before I started writing this short blogpost, the results from two independent autopsies on the death of George Floyd were announced. He did not die from so-called underlying conditions, but directly from asphyxiation due to physical pressures applied on his neck during close to nine minutes, complemented by extra force applied to his back, which constricted his airflows and by extension, the functioning of his lungs.
Beyond these ‘just-in’ facts, it is worth restating this oft-repeated question: just for the past few weeks, how many times have we seen this anti-black racism that devalues, then destroys the lives of African North Americans? The North American point is intentional here as the situation also applies to this northerly earth block called Canada. It is with this in mind and to rationalize the term ‘archeology’ in the title, sort of euphemistically, that one need not de-shelf or de-dust, a few thick volumes to decipher and analyze the intersecting and interconnecting historical, cultural and quotidian designs and applications of white racism on the psychosomatic existentialities of African Americans and African Canadians. Beyond the deliberate asphyxiation of George Floyd, we witnessed, just in the past weeks, the killings – at close range – of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, by white police officers and self-styled white vigilantes. We also not need forget the narrow escape from the same fate of Christian Cooper, a Harvard graduate, an avid bird watcher and member of the New York Audubon Society. By politely asking a white woman, Amy Cooper (no known relationship) to leash her dog as was required for the area in NYC Central Park, a barrage of racist accusations were suddenly unleashed on him. Fortunately this time, Mr. Cooper survived, and Ms. Cooper got some (not all) of what she deserved.
In the Canadian case, I can list a number of African Canadians killed by the police in the past little while, but I shall stay for now more with the current American situation. Just to mention that there is the ongoing investigation into the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet from Toronto who fell to her death from her balcony recently while police officers were in her apartment. For the racist killers of George, Ahmaud and Breonna, and their racist supporters, it should be clear by now: BLACK LIVES DO NOT MATTER. Well, in pure scientific terms and with the massive genetic evidence available, there is only one human race. Possible conclusion here: if black lives do not matter, then this tragic principle applies to all lives. Of course, black lives matter and by extension, all human race lives matter which is, by the way, a legislated fact in both the Canadian and American constitutions. So how is it that we cannot so far solve these tragedies through the law? A brilliant answer from Martin Luther King Jr.: human morals and decency cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot repair the hearts of the heartless.
In terms of my current professional context (EDST), and speaking for myself ONLY, I can achieve better ethical and morally constructive platforms by accepting others as an extension of my own humanity. That is, by living the basic tenets of the African life philosophy of Ubuntu: you are only a person through the full personhood of others. To go back to the archeology point, euphemistically again (with extractable allegorical escape routes if needed), this inter-connected humanization of our lives can be expanded via the excavation and urgent re-examination of our primordial (even primeval) cognitive constructions, across-time-and-space ontological formations, and epistemological socializations and valuations, all analyzed into our currently globally linked contemporaneous realities and attached pragmatisms.
Indeed, if I am hurriedly deploying, in my teaching and research, as I actually do, the central role of education in the social, cultural and political liberation of societies with the main objective of achieving people’s wellbeing and ecological sustainability, then I must minimally accord all persons their primordial right (at birth) for human dignity and viably safe life conditions. By doing so, through interpersonal, dialogic and wider professional connections, I could advance the urgently needed antiracist projects, even achieve, to borrow half a line from Martha Nussbaum, wider and thicker threads of my common humanity with others.
To be continued.