"I was totally disgusted by those racist images. I would never laugh at them!” “I never would have thought of Native Americans being alcoholic. Based on my experience, that’s not what I think of….”
“I’ve never heard that slur for Mexicans. I’d be interested in researching where that comes from.”
These are all approximations of quotes I’ve heard many times in workshops and conferences in the past three months. They are always said by people who are not members of the group being stereotyped. Usually there is strong emotion behind the statement, even a sense of righteousness, as it is proclaimed in front of a large group.
I’ve been wondering about the times I feel compelled to make that type of statement. How does that serve me and how does it serve the interest of social justice? Here are a few ideas I came up with.
What is the purpose of saying something like this?
It makes me feel better about myself. If I honestly haven’t been exposed to stereotypes, that probably makes me a better person. The kind who can love and respect people without noticing our differences.
It lets other people know I’m a good person. Or at least not as bad as some of those other really bad racists.
It lets me off the hook for taking action. If I don’t believe it myself, or don’t think it is that big of a deal, I don’t need to do anything to make change.
What is the possible impact of saying something like this?
It subtly negates the reality of people who experience the stereotype. If so many people don’t believe those stereotypes, then there must be something wrong with the person who says they are treated according to those stereotypes. This could even imply some kind of mental illness or “victim mentality”. That group must be seeing and feeling things that aren’t really there. This actually amplifies the effect of the stereotype, rather than lessening it.
It reinforces the idea of exceptionalism among allies. Strong social justice movements are not built by people who see themselves as superior to the people and systems they are trying to change.
It does nothing to address the pervasiveness of the stereotype, much less the self-reinforcing nature of institutional racism that feeds on these stereotypes. Great, one person or even this group of people, doesn’t believe the stereotype! That message is still out there in the media, in schools, in laws and policies….
After considering the possible impacts, it seems fairly clear these proclamations serve the person saying them rather than the people being stereotyped or the cause of justice. When you find yourself wanting to make an “I’m not the bad one” statement in the future, trying pausing and instead speaking to how stereotypes reinforce systemic racism and what you’re committed to doing to change that.