Unlearning Racism Print

Ricky Sherover-Marcuse led unlearning racism workshops in the United States and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Trained in sociology and philosophy, she was the Jewish-American wife of the German philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. Sherover-Marcuse's workshops were an outgrowth of the Reevaluation Co-Counseling movement (RCC).

Sherover-Marcuse presented racism as a parallel phenomenon to other oppressive belief-systems like: sexism, ageism, anti-semitism, homophobia, classicism, etc... Sherover-Marcuse believed that we all participate on the giving-end as well as the receiving-end of "systematic mistreatment," if only as children. A more neutral way to talk about these issues is "target-group" for oppressed and "non-target-group" for oppressor.

Ricky Sherover-Marcuse died in 1989 (?).

A Working Definition of Racism

1) Human beings are members of the same species. The term "racism" is useful as a shorthand way of categorizing the systematic mistreatment experienced by people of color and Third world people both in the United States and in many other parts of the world. But this term should not mislead us into supposing that human beings belong to biologically different species. In this sense, we all belong to one race, the human race.

2) The systematic nature of the mistreatment experienced by people of color is a result of institutionalized inequalities in the social structure. Racism is one consequence of a self-perpetuating imbalance in economic, political and social power. This imbalance consistently favors members of some ethnic and cultural groups at the expense of other groups. The consequences of this imbalance pervades all aspects of the social system and affect all facets of people's lives.

3) At its most extreme, systematic mistreatment takes the form of physical violence but it occurs in many other forms as well. Pervasive invalidation, the denial or non-recognition of the full humanity of persons of color also constitutes the mistreatment categorized as racism. Putting the matter in these terms may clear up the confusion which is generated by thinking of racism as a matter of treating people of color "differently." If we can examine the facts, we will see that what is often called "different treatment" is in reality "inhuman treatment," i.e. treatment which denies the humanity of the individual person.

4) The systematic mistreatment of any group of people generates misinformation about them which in turn becomes the "explanation" of or justification for continued mistreatment. Racism exists as a whole series of attitudes, assumptions, feelings and beliefs about people of color and their cultures which are a mixture of misinformation and ignorance. Just as "the systematic mistreatment of people of color" means "inhuman treatment," so "misinformation about people of color" designates beliefs and assumptions that in a way imply that people of color are less than fully human. I will call these beliefs and attitudes "impacted misinformation" -- by which I mean that these ideas are glued together with painful emotion and held in place by frozen memories of distressing experiences.

5) Because misinformation about people of color functions as the justification for their continued mistreatment it becomes socially empowered or sanctioned misinformation. It is recycled through the society as a form of conditioning that affects everyone. In this way misinformation about people of color becomes a part of everyone's "ordinary" assumptions.

6) For the purposes of clarity it is helpful to use the term "internalized racism" or "internalized oppression" to designate the misinformation that people of color may have about themselves and their cultures. The purpose of this term is to point out that this misinformation is a consequence of the mistreatment experienced by people of color. It is not an inherent feature or product of their culture.

7) The term "reverse racism" is often used to characterize either the negative attitudes or misinformation that peoples of color may have about individuals from white ethnic groups. This term is less than helpful because it tends to obscure the difference between socially empowered misinformation (see point 5) and other sorts of misinformation.

8) Racism operates as a strategy of divide and conquer. It helps to perpetuate a social system in which some people are consistently "haves" and others are consistently "have nots." While the "haves" receive certain material benefits from the situation, the long range effects of racism short change everyone. Racism sets groups of people against each other and makes it difficult for us to perceive our common interests as human beings. Racism makes us forget that we all need and are entitled to good health care, stimulating education, and challenging work. Racism limits our horizons to what presently exists; it makes us suppose that current injustices are "natural" or at bent inevitable. "Someone has to be unemployed; someone has to go hungry." Most importantly, racism distorts our perceptions of the possibilities for change; it makes us abandon our visions of solidarity, it robs us of our dreams of community.

Towards a Perspective of Unlearning Racism: Twelve Working Assumptions

Because racism is both institutional and attitudinal, effective strategies against it must recognize this dual character. The undoing of institutionalized racism must be accompanied by the unlearning of racists attitudes and beliefs. The unlearning of racists patterns of thought and action must guide the practice of political and social change.

The following assumptions offer a perspective for unlearning racism. I call them "working assumptions" for two reasons: 1) these are the assumptions I use in my own work with individuals and groups; and 2) I have found these assumptions to be workable, i.e. effective in the practice of attitude change.

1) The systematic mistreatment of any group of people isolates and divides human beings from each other. This process is a hurt to all people. The division and isolation produced by racism is a hurt to people from all ethnic groups. The awareness that there is this division is itself a painful awareness.

2) Racism is not a genetic disease. No human being is born with racist attitudes and beliefs. Physical and cultural differences between human beings are not the cause of racism; these differences are used as the excuse to justify racism. (Analogy with sexism: anatomical differences between human males and females are not the cause of sexism; these differences are used as the excuse to justify the mistreatment of female human beings.)

3) No young person acquires misinformation by their own free choice. Racist attitudes and beliefs are a mixture of misinformation and ignorance which has to be imposed upon young people through a painful process of social conditioning. "You have to be taught to hate and fear."

4) Misinformation is harmful to all human beings. Misinformation about peoples of color is harmful to all people. Having racist attitudes and beliefs is like having a clamp on one's mind. It distorts one's perceptions of reality. Two examples: the notion that there is something called "flesh color;" the use of the term "minorities" to describe the majority of the world's people.

5) No individual holds onto misinformation voluntarily. People hold onto racist beliefs and attitudes because this misinformation represents the best thinking they have been able to do at the present time, and because no one has been able to help them out of this misinformation.

6) People will change their minds about deeply held convictions under the following conditions: 1) the new position is presented in a way that makes sense to them; 2) they trust the person who is presenting this new position, 3) they are not being blamed for having had misinformation.

7) People hurt others because they themselves have been hurt. In this society we have all experienced systematic mistreatment as young people -- often through physical violence, but also through the invalidation of our intelligence, the disregard of our feelings, the discounting of our abilities. As a result of these experiences, we tend both to internalize this mistreatment by accepting it as "the way things are," and to externalize it by mistreating others. Part of the process of unlearning racism involves becoming aware of how this cycle of mistreatment is perpetuated in day to day encounters and interactions.

8) As young people we have often witnessed despair and cynicism in the adults around us, and we have often been made to feel powerless in the face of injustice. Racism continues in part because people feel powerless to do anything about it.

9) There are times when we have failed to act, and times when we did not achieve as much as we wanted to in the struggle against racism. Unlearning racism also involves understanding the difficulties we have had and learning how to overcome them, without blaming ourselves for having those difficulties.

10) The situation is not hopeless. People can grow and change; we are not condemned to repeat the past. Racist conditioning need not be a permanent state of affairs. It can be examined, analyzed and unlearned. Because this misinformation is glued together with painful emotions and held in place by frozen memories of distressing experiences, the process of unlearning this misinformation must take place on the emotional level as well as on the factual level.

11) We live in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world, a world in which all people belong to ethnic groups. Misinformation about one's own ethnicity is often the flip side of misinformation about other people's ethnicity. For example, the notion that some ethnic groups are just "regular" or "plain" is flip side of the notion that other ethnic groups are "different" or "exotic." Therefore, a crucial part of unlearning racism is the recovery of accurate information about one's own ethnicity and cultural heritage. The process of recovering this information will show us that we all come from traditions in which we can take justified pride.

12) All people come from traditions which have a history of resistance to racist conditioning. This history deserves to be recalled and celebrated. Reclaiming one's own history of resistance is central to the project of acquiring an accurate account of one's own heritage. When people act from a sense of informed pride in themselves and their own traditions, they will be more effective in all struggles for justice.

Strategies for Winning Allies

1) Assume that your group and that you in particular deserve allies.

2) Assume that your liberation issues are justifiably of concern to all people outside of your group.

3) Assume that people in other groups are your natural allies, assume that all people outside your group want to be allies for you and that it is in their interest for them to do so.

4) Assume that it is only other people's own oppression and internalized oppression that prevents them (temporarily) from being effective allies to you at all times.

5) Assume that your allies are doing the best they can at the present time. given their own oppression and internalized oppression. Assume that they can and will do better.

6) Assume that you are the expert on your own experience and that you have information which other people need to hear.

7) Speak from your own experience without comparing your oppression to theirs.

8) Assume that your experience is also an experience of victories; be sure to share these-- as well as the stories of how things are hard.

9) Expect perfection from your allies; expect them to be able to deal with "difficult issues" in your struggle. Assume that allies make mistakes; be prepared to be disappointed, and continue to expect the best from them.

10) Assume that you have a perfect right to assist your allies to become more effective for you. Assume that you can choose to do this at any time. Take full pride in your ability to do this.

Strategies for Being an Effective Ally

1) Assume that all people in your own group including yourself want to be allies to people in other groups. Assume that you in particular are good enough and smart enough to be an effective ally. (this does not mean that you have nothing more to learn -- see #6 below.)

2) Assume that you have a perfect right to be concerned with other people's liberation issues, and that it is in your own interest to do so and to be an ally.

3) Assume that all people in the target group want members of your group and you in particular as an ally. Assume that they recognize you as such at least potentially.

4) Assume that any appearances to the contrary (any apparent rejection of you as an ally) are the result of target group people's experience of oppression and internalized oppression.

5) Assume that people in the target group are already communicating to you in the best way they can at the present time. Assume that they can and will do better. Think about how to assist them in this without making your support dependent upon their "improving" in any way. (Hint: think about what has been helpful for you when you were in the target group position).

6) Assume that target group people are experts on their own experiences, and that you have much to learn from them. Use your own intelligence and your own experience as a target group member to think about what the target group people might find useful.

7) Recognize that as a non-target person you are an expert on the experience of having been conditioned to take the oppressor role. This means that you know the content of the lies which target group people have internalized. Don't let timidity force you into pretended ignorance.

8) Assume that target group people are survivors and that they have a long history of resistance. Became an expert on this history and assist target group people to take full pride in it.

9) Become an expert on all the issues which are of concern to people in the target group, especially the issues which are most closely tied to their internalized oppression. Assume that making mistakes is part of the learning process of being an ever more effective ally. Be prepared for flare-ups of disappointment and criticism. Acknowledge and apologize for mistakes, learn from them, but don't retreat.

10) Recognize that people in the target group can spot "oppressor-role conditioning;" do not bother with trying to "convince" them that this conditioning did not happen to you. Don't attempt to convince target group people that you "are on their side;" just be there.

11) Do not expect "gratitude" from people in the target group; thoughtfully interrupt if it is offered to you. Remember, being an ally is a matter of your choice. It is not an obligation; it is something you get to do.

12) Be a 100 percent ally; no deals; no strings attached: "I'll oppose your oppression if you oppose mine." Everyone's oppression needs to be opposed unconditionally.