Prejudice, Lies and Memory Tapes: How to Stop Trusting Yourself and Learn to Be a Good Ally

August 25, 2013 / no comments

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This is an essay directed at allies–all allies, in all struggles for justice and equity.  My presumption is that you want to be good allies, and that you earnestly believe in the causes for which you struggle. You don’t want to be a racist, and you don’t want to be a sexist, or an able-ist, or a classist, or any other sort of enforcer of systematic oppressions. Instead, you want to liberate others and yourself from the chains of institutionalized oppression.  Today I want to talk about why our own brains make that a difficult thing to do, how we cannot trust our own memories and perceptions. I also want to discuss the importance of basic principles in guiding behavior, the need for us to struggle for coherence, and to fight our tendencies to ignore, rationalize and excuse oppressive behavior.

Last week’s diary by shanikka, With friends like these, can we really ever all hear each other? Feminism vs. Women of Color Voice, described Hugo Schwyzer’s plunge from the Mt. Olympus of mainstream (white) feminism. I’m not going to recapitulate the specifics of the story, because shanikka did that brilliantly, and if you missed it, you should read it.  Instead, I want to talk about the underlying perceptions and belief systems that encourage the more powerful to ignore the less powerful, even when the members of the more powerful group claim they’re dedicated to the liberation of the less powerful group.  I want to talk about why the more powerful often cover up their mistakes by attacking those who expose them, instead of thanking them for the exposure and rectifying their errors.  Power, in this essay, is described as relative, rather than absolute, and I’m talking about situations in which liberation struggles (for example, women’s rights movements) contain power divisions among members (for example, white feminists vs. feminist women of color (WoC); straight feminists vs. queer feminists; middle- and upper-class feminists vs. working class and poor feminists; etc.).

Shanikka powerfully described an instance in which a number of  WoC had seen and analyzed a situation well in advance of their white peers,. Despite offering warning after warning, these WoC were, at best, ignored and, at worst, derided and attacked by white feminists.  When the WoC who gave those warnings were proven incontrovertibly correct, and publicly said, “I told you so,” the  reaction of most vocal white feminists was less than pretty. The Twitter conversation that ensued between WoC provoked defensive anger among white feminists rather than contrition. White feminists tried to change the topic: they didn’t talk about the mistakes they’d made; instead, they attacked WoC for their comportment.  Though an egregious example, the same pattern is in evidence every day: I’m sure you can come up with your own examples, both personal and professional,  (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments). The most notable feature of these situations is the way that the folks who made the mistake often double down on their criticism of those who were indisputably right.

Why do we do that?  Well, it turns out that we’re built that way.  In Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson review dozens of studies that examine the connection between evidence, memory, rationalizations, and lies. What they found was that, “People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can’t undo it.”  In other words, when you’ve committed yourself to a path of action, then you become instantly more sure that your action was correct.  We also give more credit to people we view as “us,” and less credit to people we view as “them,” even when performance statistics are equal. And when people are under stress (for example, when they’ve been proven wrong in an embarrassing fashion), they’re more likely to express their prejudices, and then to justify them.

For example, in one typical experiment, white students were told they would be inflicting electric shock on another student, the “learner,” whom they knew was white or African American, as part of an apparent study on biofeedback. The students initially gave a lower intensity of shock to black learners than to white ones–reflecting a desire, perhaps, to show they were not prejudiced. Then the students overheard the learner making derogatory comments about them, which, naturally, made them angry. Now, given another opportunity to inflict electric shock, the students who were working with a black learner administered higher levels of shock than did students who were working with a white learner. The same result appears in studies of how English-speaking Canadians behave toward French-speaking Canadians, straights toward homosexuals, non-Jewish students toward Jews, and men toward women.

As the authors note, “Prejudice justifies the ill treatment we want to inflict on others, and we want to inflict ill treatment on others because we don’t like them.” (Note: members of minority or oppressed groups don’t seem to share the same disciplinary inclination to punish members of the more privileged group.)  Finally, we revise our memories to suit our current beliefs about reality. We do this on an ongoing basis, so “memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian…. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders.” In fact, we remember our own small lies and fabricated details a lot better than we remember facts that controvert our point of view.

So we can expect that when we’re caught in a mistake and then publicly accused of prejudice, we’ll be more likely to express and justify those prejudices, more likely to attack those who accuse us of prejudice,  more likely to rationalize our accusations, and more likely to remember what suits us (including our own “white lies”) than what actually happened.  In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely explains:

[O]nce something or someone irritates us, it becomes easier for us to justify our immoral behavior. Our dishonesty becomes retribution, a compensatory act against whatever got our goat in the first place. We tell ourselves that we’re not doing anything wrong, we are only getting even. We might even take this rationalization a step further and tell ourselves that we are simply restoring karma and balance to the world. Good for us, we’re crusading for justice!

Which is exactly what a number of white feminists did, when WoC called them out on Hugh Schwyzer, doubling down after their mistake was publicly exposed.

So what can we learn from this, if we want to be genuine allies and not people who reinforce prejudice?  The first thing is to allow yourself to doubt your own instinctive reactions, your own arguments, and your own memories.  Yeah, I know this is hard.  It feels like surrendering control (you are) and it’s always a risk to take another person’s word above your own conviction.  I can’t tell you how you should manage this difficult task, but I can tell you how I do it.

The first thing I do is to go back to first principles.  My own first principles include the following:

1. I believe that all people, regardless of identity group (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability or country of origin, etc) have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, individually, and in community, as long as those rights don’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same.

2. I believe that people have the right to speak for themselves and their own experiences, and that while aggregated experiences do not “prove” the correctness of a communally-held belief,  those beliefs deserve to be heard and considered along with other existing claims and evidence.

3. I believe in hard evidence, in which category I include statistical evidence derived from well-conducted studies. If the preponderance of evidence is that one group is consistently disadvantaged in relation to another, based on principle #1 above, I assume that the disparity is caused by something other than innate, essential differences between the groups, unless or until that belief is contradicted by clear evidence to the contrary (a situation I have not yet encountered).

4. I believe that people who suffer disadvantages have a much greater vested interest in revealing those disadvantages than do people who are privileged and, especially, those who benefit from disadvantaging others either purposely or inadvertently.

Because, in the heat of the moment, I’m as likely as anyone else to engage in the psychological responsibility-dodging  and prejudiced behavior I described above, I try to keep an eye out for situations that could cause that sort of defensiveness, and prepare myself in advance to not act like a dick.  In my opinion, an important part of being an effective ally is to understand our own tendency to act badly, especially under pressure.  What makes me an ally is not that I’m exempt from such behavior, but that I anticipate it, and try to head it off at the pass, before it does damage to the very people I’m claiming to want to liberate. And when I’m criticized by members of oppressed groups, I force myself (even when I don’t want to, or even when I feel humiliated) to listen to the people who are telling me I screwed up, and to take their criticisms seriously.  This doesn’t mean I think every individual member of an oppressed group who tells me I screwed up is always right.  What it does mean is that I take the very good odds that they are right into account before formulating my response.  I understand that in such situations I am highly likely to be in the wrong.

And it’s important to talk about the cost of being wrong.  When you become an ally (a real ally, who aligns with members of the oppressed group, against the structure that protects your own privilege), you’ve pretty much ensured that you’re going to take an enormous amount of crap from your own, since you’re trying to dismantle the system of privilege that protects them/you.  And if you’re a real ally, it’s awfully hard to maintain deep connections and friendships with people who you think are acting like oppressive jerks.  So you turn for support and friendship to your peers and  to the people to whose cause you’ve committed.  In most cases they very generously give it to you.  In this situation, there’s a high cost to fucking up, because if you piss your peers and allies off,  it’s quite likely that you’ll be left with no one — no community, no support — and that’s a terrifying prospect. In my experience, the only way to keep that terror in perspective is to remember that, however deep my fear of losing my community, it’s not the same thing as being oppressed. Someone who is wrong can, and usually is, forgiven if they mend their ways and don’t make the same mistake again.  In the larger scheme of things, saying you’re (I’m) sorry, and learning to be a better ally by addressing your (my) prejudices is not a punishment. It’s a growth opportunity, and growth is often painful.

When we’re criticized we remember what we don’t like about our critics, rather than what we do. This makes it easier for us to dismiss what they have to say, even when we’ve praised them previously for critiquing exactly the behavior in others that they are now criticizing in us. In the case of white feminists, this often takes the form of cherry picking the words of WoC, using the words we like to support our arguments, and dismissing the critiques that make us uncomfortable. And critiques of their own racism make white feminists uncomfortable. As shanikka noted, what WoC had pointed out about Schwyzer was his racism, and they used examples of his racism as well as his sexism, to question his redemption narrative and his bona fides long before his recent mainstream exposure as a fraud.  The majority of white feminists had not, apparently, noticed that they were blanket-dismissing the concerns of women of color, or that they had sidelined critiques about Schwyzer’s racism as emanating from a “special interest group” within feminism, just as white feminists, throughout the history of white feminism, have always had difficulty seeing and hearing women of color when they speak and write. But you can bet that most of the white feminists who dismissed these WoC would claim to be allies of WoC and to be antiracist. How can white feminists contain this contradiction? And, more important, how can we avoid replicating it?

First, as I mentioned above, we have to be ready to be wrong, and to understand that being wrong is not the end of the world, but an opportunity to become a more effective ally, activist, teacher, learner and organizer.

Second, we need to learn to see those who aren’t there.   As a white feminist, I have access to all kinds of documentation of the voices, opinions, ideas, intellectual history, feminist history, etc., of women of color, of women with different abilities, of women from different classes, of transwomen, of queer women, etc. The responsibility is on me to open up feminism, not on the women who are being excluded. Being a feminist means elevating all women to the same level of importance, and that means doing the freaking footwork to make sure that feminism is inclusive rather than exclusive. It means not assuming that women “like me” (white women, professional class women, etc.) are “women” and that women who don’t belong to those categories represent “special interests” who can be invited on board after the important decisions are made.  And it means being willing to admit I am wrong again, and again, and again, each time I’m called for acting on my prejudices, until inclusiveness becomes so integrated into my world view that I can’t look around the room without seeing the faces that aren’t there at the table.

Third, we need to consult the full range of our allies and potential allies, and understand that any table that is not built by all the members of a movement does not represent the movement.  I’ve written before about the difficulties of integrating existing white feminist organizations, and the importance of creating representational organizations from the ground up.  This isn’t just true for feminism.  If you believe that There’s No War But the Class War, and you notice the absence of black and brown faces in your ranks of organizers,  you might want to stop dismissing the concerns of non-white workers as “special interests” and “identity politics”, and start understanding that the movement you’ve created is and will continue to be a White Worker’s Movement, unless you admit your mistakes and make some changes.

Though I speak from the perspective of a feminist and antiracist activist, I think these principles apply across movements. Being an ally and creating inclusive movements isn’t easy or painless: if it was, everyone would do it.  On the other hand, it’s the only way to make lasting changes in the long term, and to avoid the divide-and-conquer tactics that the right successfully uses to inhibit our effectiveness.  The first step in being more inclusive is to face the prejudices that prevent us from seeing those with whom we should be making common cause.  I hope this was helpful, and I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers, so I’d very much like to hear your ideas on the topic.

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