Colouring Lessons: Reflections On The Self-Regulation Of Racism

A guest post, following Srdjan’s and Robbie’s contributions on the meaning and structure of contemporary racism, by Elizabeth Dauphinee. Elizabeth is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto. She is the author of The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia and co-editor of The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror: Living, Dying, Surviving. Her work has appeared in Security Dialogue, Dialectical Anthropology, Review of International Studies and Millennium. Her current research interests involve autoethnographic and narrative approaches to international relations, Levinasian ethics and international relations theory, and the philosophy of religion.


The idea promulgated by Bet 115 that racism can and will meet its demise in a few short decades is based on the assumption that humans are self-regulating creatures, capable of recognizing and assessing their beliefs in an objective way and making appropriate corrections as needed. In order to explore this assumption, we need to inquire into the relationship between the self as an individual entity, capable of navigating and responding to the external world in an objective, disinterested way, and the social sphere, which may so entirely constitute us that we are incapable of thinking beyond the ‘texts’ (or scripts) of our socio-cultural milieus. In simpler terms, the question is: do we create the world, or does the world create us? 

In order to rightly consider this question, it is important to understand the implications of the answers one might be tempted to choose. It is also important to realise that each of us has a personal investment in the answer we might make. If we are individuals capable of willfully altering the world, then it makes sense to say that we can overcome racism (yet one is left with a lingering sense of bewilderment over why we have not done so). If we are fundamentally shaped and inextricably bound by the social sphere in which our ideas are formed, then we might lack the agency to escape the racism that seems to form a cornerstone of the institutions of our historico-political condition. Of course, there are few who would accept that our ability to self-regulate is an either/or proposition.  Rather, it is probably better to understand it as a ‘both/and’ state of affairs. In short, we shape and are shaped by the worlds we occupy. How, exactly, this is so is difficult to pick apart and navigate despite all of social science’s failed attempts to sharpen the distinction between the self and the worlds the self occupies. It inevitably flattens the complexity of social relations, and often ignores the tensions and contradictions that animate people’s views and beliefs. By way of example, let us consider the question with which we began: are we, or are we not, self-regulating creatures? The very structure of the question assumes that one will make answer either one way or the other. It leaves little room to suggest that both propositions are true, but in different ways and with different implications.

That racism is learned behavior is hardly up for challenge today, and probably cannot be seriously opposed by any marginally thinking person. What is open to challenge, however, is the question of what it means for something to be ‘learned’ and whether such ‘learning’ can be simply ‘unlearned’ when the believer (or the society) has no longer any need of the belief. The idea that one can ‘unlearn’ beliefs relies on a notion of learnedness as a species of programming and does not consider how cultures of hatred and fear develop, how deep they can run, and in what social contexts they make sense. It seeks to make a science out of human sentiment. At the same time, those who wish to perpetuate racism often attempt to rely on ‘scientific’ evidence to sustain what are essentially artistic hatreds, that is to say, hatreds based not on any objective state of affairs, but on hue, tone, and colour. It is clear today to most social scientists that we cannot step back and observe the world with scientific detachment in an effort to learn something about which we will have no preexisting views or personal investment. This means that all observers are first and foremost constituent creators, in a Foucauldian sense, and responders, in a Levinasian sense. This means simply (as though it were simple!) that we are responsible for the world we have created and continue to create.

In order to recognise this, we need to move away from the detachments of traditional social science (which, in any event, has not succeeded in eradicating racism though its interventions on the matter are voluminous!) and toward a mode of thinking and being in the world that seeks to query the self as a part of the racist society; as part of a racist project. As a white American, have I not benefitted from the intergenerational accumulation of wealth that my family’s whiteness made possible? I am not personally guilty for this, but I have to consider that there is a measure of responsibility for the one who profits from another’s forced labor; from another’s disenfranchisement. Only after this form of consideration is made can the question of whether we are self-regulating be approached. The answer is that we both are, and are not. The events of history remain with us in the shadows of those whose lives were lost to its violence. In a consideration such as this, ‘science’ (which has proposed the idea of subordinate ‘races’ and provided some of the most repellant justifications for racism) is inherently suspect.  

I believe that racism sustains entire cultures in ways that are so integral as to be virtually invisible to those who perpetrate it, and that this rests upon a decision (sometimes made so long ago that does not appear as a decision at all) to deny the victims of racism their full suffering. That is to say, the racist cannot hear the pain in either the cry or the silenced ruin of the victim. This, for me, is what Hannah Arendt meant when she identified the banality – the ordinariness – of evil. Given the complicity of science (and of social science) in colonialism, imperialism, racism, occupation, and genocide, I wish to consider using a different approach. I am interested in narrative as a way of exploring experience. I follow Raimond Gaita here when he says that:

We do not discover the full humanity of a racially denigrated people in books by social scientists, or not at any rate if those books merely contain knowledge of the kind that might be included in encyclopaedias. If we discover it by reading, then it is in plays, novels and poetry, in other words not in science but in art.

It is discovered in ourselves, not in our theories, which normally work to deny the presence of self in favor of objective generalisations. In turn, this denial works to suppress the shame of what we are in our nature as both perpetrators and victims, as agents and targets of history. 

In 1995, I worked in a variety of go-go nightclubs in central coastal New Jersey. There were sometimes black patrons, but rarely black dancers. When in Long Branch one night, a black dancer named Leila appeared in the dressing room, I wanted to make her feel welcome, and I struggled all night to do so. I wanted her to know that I was not a racist, and that I in fact welcomed her. I had no awareness of the privilege I had already accorded myself in these feelings; that I had already assumed myself to occupy a position wherefrom I was the benevolent welcomer and she the recipient of my unsolicited largesse. All I knew was that I wanted her to like me, and to see that I was not like so many of the other dancers who were not even ashamed of their racism. But Leila was difficult to talk to. She was polite, but not friendly, and she kept to herself. I tried to strike up a conversation with her all night and when my efforts were met with disinterest, I started to feel the frustration of those whose magnanimously charitable efforts are unappreciated. 

Instead of recognising that she just might not be interested in talking to me, I doubled my efforts to engage her. At one point in my monologue, I mentioned the name of a dancer who was suspected at other nightclubs of stealing – a woman who was more or less known for her drug use and alleged prostitution. As I spoke to Leila, it occurred to me that she might think that the woman I was referring to was black. So, to reassure the black dancer, I informed her in the manner of a confidante that the other woman was ‘white trash’. Leila looked at me with contempt. ‘Well, at least I know what colour she was,’ she said coldly, and she left the room. I felt embarrassed and misunderstood. But I didn’t know why for many, many years.

Only the penitent has seen how he dehumanised the other, and only the other has known the depth of his dehumanisation. I do not need to imagine myself as the victim of racism in order to know that the suffering of the victim is profound, or that I am implicated in this suffering in ways that I did not intend yet which are often inescapable. What is at stake is the degree of awareness of one’s racism, and how one responds to this. In my view, racists are damaged by their racism, and this racism is not so much unlearned as it is recognised and managed. One learns to live with that damage, and by this I mean that one learns to live with an awareness that one is damaged – that one’s thinking is damaged – and one learns to be vigilant with respect to the autonomic nature of sentiments. One learns to always suspect one’s own motives. One learns to question oneself.

I grew up surrounded by racism. In Asbury Park, the last black businesses were burned and the whites were all but gone. As Joel Dinerstein has said of Brooklyn, in Asbury Park, things were going on that we did not understand and that were not discussed. In Ocean Grove, across the narrow finger of Wesley Lake, white firemen hosed down white houses to prevent the sparks from those fires burning white heritage homes while black businesses burned unchecked. From the Ocean Grove side of the lake, we watched as this alien and fearful world burned. In Shark River Hills, around the same time, a black family who had the audacity to buy a home in a white neighborhood awoke in the middle of the night to a cross burning on their front lawn. It was 1989. The fear and anger were palpable. But it was not discussed. My public school district was a majority black. My sister got into fights between groups that were racially delineated. A black boy touched her ass at her locker, and in gym class the next day, his girlfriend attacked her. 

The next year, my mother took out loans to remove us from the public school and send us to the white Roman Catholic school, even though we were not Roman Catholics. If the incident that prompted the move to the Roman Catholics had occurred between all white students, I don’t know whether it would have been internalised or would have ended the same way. I don’t know where my mother’s racism spawned from – she, whose well-hidden Moroccan Jewish heritage I discovered only after her death. I know that she struggled with it all her life. She struggled in the space between her immensely generous charitable love (she was known to pick up hitchhikers quite regularly, black and white and Hispanic) and her thinking, damaged by racism. My father, an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia, marched on Washington in the civil rights movement, and was quietly driven out of his white parish in Trenton, NJ for his black and anti-poverty activism. Both grew up in the height of civil rights. One feared and one embraced. One was damaged. And one was not. Many others were victims of that damage. I do not know what conditions cause some to be damaged more than others.

When Srdjan invited me to respond to his question of whether race and racism can be self-regulated, my encounter with the dancer Leila is what came immediately to mind. At first, I thought to decline this invitation, because I feel a sharp measure of shame when I think back on it. In a subculture of extreme racism and exclusion, how could I have communicated to Leila that I was not part of that world?  Today, I think I could not have communicated any such thing, because the claim that I was not part of that world was simply not true. My thinking was actually very damaged at that time and I had no awareness of my own racist behavior. But I accepted this invitation because that long look at the role of the self in the unwilling perpetuation of racism and other forms of violence is actually a necessary look, even if it yields few immediate answers. It shows us what we are. It shows us that we need to take responsibility (which is different from accepting guilt). 

My responsibility to the victim of racism is based not on my imaginings that I could be her. It is not to imagine myself in his place, for surely I could not do this. Rather, it is to believe, as Wittgenstein says, that ‘the one who cries out in pain does not choose the mouth which says it.’  It is to see that this pain does not have to be our own pain in order to be important – in order to demand response. Emmanuel Levinas, whose work I have spent a good deal of time reading and thinking about, understands responsibility to be both asymmetrical and immediate. I am responsible to the victim of racism – my own and others’ – irrespective of whether or not I am guilty of the crime he has suffered. It does not matter whether I am self-regulating or not. What matters in the context of immediacy is that the victim calls out for justice. 

Roxanne Doty writes that she feels:

plagued with a deep dissatisfaction about the immense distance between my words and the ‘things’ these words try to capture and what these words do or do not do. I have struggled with how to have a presence in my own writing, not necessarily to learn about myself but without such a presence I do not think it is possible to connect with the human beings at the centre of what I write about.

Doty is concerned with connections – the connections between presence and absence, between belonging and unbelonging, between place and placelessness (between a self that regulates society and a society that regulates the self).  Perhaps the attempt to make an authentic connection with those whose lives we do not live is always going to end in failure. I can accept that. But at least when we remove the constraints on our writing – the constraints that make us look like fools under our fluorescent lights, as Doty has rightly described us – we may have some hope of enacting responsibility to those whose lives we build social science careers investigating.

Today, as a relatively well-established academic, I ask myself how I could welcome our black professors in a way that could do justice to my poorly-expressed intentions as a stripper in the nightclubs of New Jersey. But there are no black professors in my department, which boasts the largest complement of left-wing faculty in the English-speaking world.

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