white male superhero

Honesty on Racism, Sexism, Classism, & Prejudice: Transcending “PC Shoulds”

This post may make some people uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other “isms” continue to be featured in the media a great deal. We still have much work to do in this area. In the meantime, it’s important to continue looking within ourselves to ensure that our motives remain as pure as possible, even when we have good intentions. I’m far from perfect, but share a few things I’ve learned so far.

This excerpt from Naked Idealism: Expose Your Authentic Self & Create a Sustainable Life & World is more pertinent than ever today. (The text below is Chapter 21, from the section on relating.)

What are “PC shoulds”?

It’s time to grab the carrot by its top and dig into some tough topics. Wikipedia describes PC or politically correct behavior as “language, ideas, policies, or behavior seen as seeking to minimize offense to racial, cultural, or other identity groups…the term ‘political correctness’ is used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense.”

PC often denotes someone acting in a manner that appears egalitarian only because they feel they have to, not because they necessarily want to. Because they still harbor prejudice toward a particular group or groups, but may not realize it or wish to admit it, they sometimes resent that they have to act in this manner.

Ironically, well-intentioned idealists can allow our own attitudes surrounding the “isms”–racism, sexism, classism, speciesism, and so on–to stand in our way. If you’re reading this book, chances are that you generally act in a manner that promotes equality, and you are probably aware of many of your own stereotypes.

However, have we fully and truly adopted values relating to equality, or do some of them still feel like things we “should” do just because it’s socially praised? This is probably one of the most challenging parts of relating in a naked fashion, but one of the most important.

Perhaps we’ve all had experiences that have given us opportunities (if we were paying attention) to get in touch with our “isms.” Since a young age, my experiences have led me to view “isms” as one of the most important part of our psyches to understand. For example, in elementary school I was often teased because I had a particularly high voice for a male and spoke very softly, slowly, and deliberately. In the school lunch line, some of my classmates heckled those of us who didn’t pay cash because we were eligible for the free lunch program.

During adolescence, one of my most horrific learning experiences was becoming caught in the middle of a small-scale racial riot–more on that shortly.

The pain of these experiences surrounding gender, class, and race taught me empathy and the importance of behaving kindly toward others. However, my polite exterior was not always accompanied by a prejudice-free interior, as there was still some frustration pent up inside. It was occasionally a bit of a facade; you might say that much of my behavior was politically correct. (And to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe that I–or most people–can or ever will be entirely free of prejudice.)

Why we need to understand our “PC shoulds”

Being brutally honest with ourselves about where we stand with respect to stereotyping, social justice, and the “isms”–not just in our visible actions, but in our thoughts and non-public actions–is extremely important if we wish to make a positive difference in the world, for several reasons:

  • Recognizing our “PC shoulds” is an important step in accepting ourselves, and addressing any underlying prejudices is vital for accepting and relating to others.
  • When we are divided into segments, it is difficult to pursue common visions of a world where everyone enjoys a healthy, sustainable, and fulfilling life. Rather than serving as resources to one another, we compete, and we sometimes resent one another’s success in the world. We place larger issues on the back burner. For example, a racially diverse group with a common vision of an economically just world can easily divide itself (or can be divided by others) if its members are not fully in touch with their individual attitudes regarding race.
  • If we are supportive of causes advancing equality, but are simply “acting on the surface,” we will not pursue visions with the same energy. We may eventually become resentful and have difficulty sustaining our behavior.
  • Getting honest with ourselves in this area may help us to become more honest with our other values, and the “why” behind the causes we choose to pursue.

Many psychologists argue that stereotyping is a natural function of the human mind, an innate mechanism for simplifying and classifying otherwise overwhelming amounts of information. It may serve a survival function in some settings.

For example, if one of our ancestors died shortly after eating a plant with purple leaves and orange polka dots, their family members may have learned to avoid eating any plant with purple leaves and orange polka dots–even if many of these similar-looking plants were quite healthy and delicious. Due to their stereotyping, their chances of dying in a similar fashion would thus decrease. However, they would also miss out on many dining opportunities.

purple plants

In other words, our natural tendency to overgeneralize can be taken overboard, especially if we fail to recognize that this tendency exists. This is particularly the case when we are surrounded by daily images and messages that emphasize conflict and divisions among races, religions, genders, classes, and nations, triggering our prejudices.

We may energetically set out to do good in the world, but take a very long time to become honest with ourselves about where we stand. This leads to inauthenticity and inability to sustain our good behavior because we don’t yet fully believe in what we’re doing. Instead, we act from superficial values that we haven’t yet chosen to adopt.

We will likely feel disappointed in the long run, because we’re not truly striving to achieve a vision for a just world–instead, we’re simply looking to alleviate the negative symptoms of our internal conflict.

How can we maximize our progress if we haven’t yet clearly defined what we’re working toward, and if we haven’t yet honestly addressed our underlying attitudes that may interfere with success?

Real-life lesson: Surviving a race riot

I now share an event that illustrates the extent to which dangerous attitudes may bubble just below our surface. Around age 17, I was visiting Ohio for my first December holiday break from boarding school, and two friends and I had just spent the evening at a popular dance club.

As the large crowd exited at closing time, a fight broke out between two men for an unknown reason. The violence rapidly escalated; and by the end of the evening, I had a new understanding of the rapid manner in which people can shift into irrational, potentially lethal behavior.

It took a few years for me to fully assimilate the experience, and to overcome the anger and confusion it stirred up.

I recently discovered an old song that I composed and recorded a few months after the incident. Some of its ideas are still pertinent today. As you read through it, observe your own reactions.

Lyrics for “Brother to Brother”

Copyright © 1992 Dave Wheitner

Stop just a moment I got somethin’ to say
About a real big problem in the world today.
I was hangin’ out late the other night
With my posse MCB and MC Dwight.
We were chillin’ at the Bull and when we came out
There was a big ugly mob and we heard some shouts!

We glanced around fast: “What’s goin’ down?”
A hat flew up; my heart started to pound.
A White boy took off kickin’ at his fastest pace.
He was screamin’ real loud and there was blood on his face.
“Kill the whites!” “Kill the blacks!” people said.
We knew we had to leave or we would be dead.

MCB and Dwight took off for the car.
I was right behind, not very far.
We wanted no trouble before we departed,
But MCB got bum rushed; the trouble started.

Chorus
We are fighting brother to brother
I want to sleep in bed, not six feet under!
Never saw a family with so much hate.
We’ve got to stop right now, before it’s too late!

Out of nowhere a gangsta big and tall
Socked MCB, made his glasses fall.
MCB shouted, “Go get him, Dwight!”
My homeboy was off like a beam of light.
Right away the whole mob began to run past us
As I searched left and right for MCB’s glasses.
Somebody screamed, “Get out of our way!”
And I swirled around to see a red TA.
The driver was trembling, eyes open wide.
As his bumper hit my leg, I jumped to the side.

Then I looked down the parking lot
And saw my buddy Dwight; he was caught
In the middle of a circle of thirty
Gangstas who were fightin’ real dirty.
There were three cop cruisers there that night,
But they all sat in their cars, watchin’ the fight.

Luckily my friend was quickly saved
By a couple of brothers who were really brave!
They could see the world in a different light;
Gang and racial violence just ain’t right.
Realizin’ what life’s really all about,
They walked right in and pulled my buddy out.

A couple of friends with whom we grew up,
What they just did made the rest shut up.
The types of role models our society needs
Are those who see the wrong in violent deeds.

But we often get so caught up in how we’re feelin’,
We don’t stop and think about how we’re dealin’.
So spend a few moments in silence,
And think, “What’s so great about violence?”
Next time you think you wanna go knuckle knockin’,
Stop and make sure it ain’t nonsense you’re talkin’.

As you read through the above account, did it make you angry or even slightly uncomfortable? Did it temporarily heighten your awareness of any groups with which you self-identify, be it race, gender, class, or otherwise?

We need to be aware of what bubbles just beneath our surface, especially when we’re in a stressful situation. It doesn’t matter if we’re 17 or 60 years old. The onus may be upon us to maintain calmness when others are incensed. Dwight did not foresee what he was getting himself into when he chased after the men who had just hit his friend.

The conflicting categories of groups or “isms” involved in such a scenario can easily be interchanged, ranging from sexism to speciesism. Homophobic people could have surrounded a gay or lesbian person, or sexist and aggressive men could have surrounded a woman. Adolescents could have watched as a mischievous friend tortured a stray cat, or an arena of thousands could have cheered as a matador slaughtered a bull.

rubber ducks different races

If we actively strive for a better world, we must also realize that forces far less obvious than a fight outside a club often trigger divisiveness. Efforts to create social change can trigger stress and insecurity, as many may fear that their group will lose something in the process. The racial divisions in the voting patterns for the 2008 U.S. Democratic primary elections may have been an example of this (Goldstein, 2008; Novak, 2008).

Confessions of imperfection

These “isms” ranging from speciesism to sexism are not easy issues to consider, and it’s important to remember that nobody is perfect. After all, we’re raised in a society with many biased messages. I’ll share a few examples from my own life. Even after participating in at least five courses dealing with different aspects of stereotyping and prejudice, I still need to maintain awareness of my own “history of thinking.”

During most of my late high school through graduate school years, I prided myself upon being appreciative of diversity, sometimes secretly patting myself on the back for my good behavior. In school I was briefly romantically involved with a few women who were not from the U.S. Upon asking about one of them, my grandmother’s first question was, “She’s still White, though, isn’t she?”

“No, Grandma, she’s not.”

Although hurt by her question, I did not directly communicate my feelings to my grandmother. I knew that she had grown up during a time when messages of prejudice were even stronger. I didn’t want to upset her further. However, I later secretly viewed my interest in women of other races as evidence that I had morally advanced beyond my family in some way.

Over the following years, I quietly gave myself little “pats on the back” several more times, such as when I worked as a personal aide for a student with a physical disability, and when I served on the diversity committee for one of my graduate programs. Although a desire to prove my moral superiority was never the primary motivational factor, it was still present among my thoughts.

Several years later, I finally admitted to myself that my altruistic actions involving minority groups were not yet entirely altruistic. One summer I was contacted by two women bicycling across the continent to raise awareness about legal inequalities facing same-sex couples: the “Rainbow Grannies.” They discovered I had been involved with other cycling events and social causes, and wanted to know if I’d organize an educational event in Pittsburgh. As I found their cause, commitment, and energy admirable, I agreed.

It was a great deal of effort, but the vast majority of individuals who helped with the event were very cooperative and great fun to work with. We ended up with a successful, reasonably well attended turnout.

The local media provided very creative coverage, even running a story entitled “Lesbian Grandmothers from Mars.” (The Grannies are from Mars, Pennsylvania, and this is now also the title of a documentary film about their journey and their mission.)

LESBIAN GRANDMOTHERS FROM MARS — Trailer from walleyemovies on Vimeo.

However, throughout the planning process, I continually sensed that I was perceived as an outsider, perhaps with a degree of suspicion. A few of the organizations from whom I had expected the greatest levels of participation seemed to show relatively little interest. Additionally, while the Rainbow Grannies were extremely appreciative, the expressions of gratitude I received from some of the others seemed below the level I had expected.

Although I later learned that some of the peculiar planning dynamics may have stemmed from existing frictions among organizations (another illustration of conflict among idealist groups), more pertinent to this discussion was my internal reaction immediately following the event.

My first thoughts were less than noble: “Well, if they’re not going to be more appreciative of the help of an ‘outsider,’ then they can fight their own battle!” “Why should I waste my time if people don’t even care about causes that impact their own group?” I hadn’t received the pats on the back for being a good citizen that I had expected. This led to additional prejudiced thoughts.

Sure, I had been afforded some privileges in life, such as attending some of the world’s wealthiest schools, but outside of that I didn’t recognize any of the privileges of being a Caucasian heterosexual male–I had grown up in a low-income environment, and I didn’t believe I had received any special status because of that.

Below the surface, I actually felt somewhat tired of having to honor “gay pride” and display sensitivity to other minority issues, while feeling like I had to squelch my own identity and be “super PC” just to make up for belonging to the so-called power class.

To say the least, I still had some issues to work through. I had much to learn.

While I cared for those I was trying to help, there was still a small part of me that secretly saw them as tokens, as evidence that I really was the good person I professed myself to be. It was painful to look at myself honestly and see how I had used them to feel better about myself. Even if it was without their knowledge, and I may not have hurt them directly in any way, I was not being fully authentic.

I wondered how many other people do good in the world with a true desire to help others, but with similar ulterior motives attached.

In graduate counselor training I encountered the work of Derald Wing Sue and David Sue, who explain that “White Liberal Syndrome” is a common part of Caucasian racial identity development (Sue & Sue, 2003). This includes acting out of guilt to help underprivileged or minority groups, without yet being totally honest about our own prejudices.

We may adopt a “paternalistic protector” role, playing the hero who shields minority groups from the evils of the world, or we may overidentify with a minority group while rejecting our own group. I hated to admit it, but these both sounded a bit like me. Does this sound like anyone you know? (Also see Honest Masculinity: Do You Have Male Liberal Syndrome?)

white male superhero

Moving forward

We may create issues for ourselves by believing that we’re someone special and doing society a favor via our extra efforts to assist other groups. While we may not realize it at first, often implied in this is an expectation that others owe us something–acceptance, at the very least. Eventually, we inevitably realize that we can never fully understand the conditions or experiences of another group, and thus can never fully be one of them. Attempting to do so may send a message of inauthenticity.

However, as we strive for naked idealism, we can learn to peacefully coincide with a deeper appreciation of differences. If we’ve committed significant time and energy to promoting equality, we may wonder why we still encounter suspicion on occasion. The truth is that working for a more egalitarian world is simply our duty, and we will all experience different reactions from others as we attempt to do so. We cannot expect anything in return.

It is not just “their issue.” It is everyone’s issue.

Once prejudiced attitudes exist, they can quickly shift from one target to another, e.g., from those of a certain economic class to those of a certain religion. We once had a bumper sticker that read, “When one is oppressed, all are oppressed.”

If we’re not self-observant, we may engage in distorted either/or thinking regarding our own identity. In other words, we may feel as though we need to choose one and only one of the following:

  • Be proud of our own identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).
  • Be politically correct and accepting of others.

For example, Doug, a Caucasian male who strives to act fairly toward individuals of other races, feels ashamed to admit any pride of his own heritage. He believes he must squelch his own identity, because openly expressing it may be seen as politically incorrect. Over time, Doug becomes resentful when others talk of concepts such as “Black Pride” or a “Latino celebration.”

The truth is that nobody is asking Doug to squelch his pride of his own identity–all anyone is asking is for him to be more accepting of others. One can express pride in their own culture without suggesting that it is superior to another. In fact, until we are secure with our own identity, we may have difficulty accepting those of others.

If you still have significant work to do in this area, you might consider acknowledging it and getting it out in the open in a safe setting. This may initiate further dialogue. Talking with people you already know and trust or participating in professionally facilitated meetings are two possibilities.

If individuals who belong to one of your “isms” groups are present, don’t expect any type of pat on the back for being honest. Although it’s possible you might receive some praise, you may also get some strong feedback that initially makes you very uncomfortable. That’s part of the process. Just keep in mind that you’re certainly not alone. In the end, you’ll be more authentic.

Exercise: Identify Your “PC Shoulds”

This is intended to provide a little humor following a few serious chapters–but in a way that detects a little truth. Read through the list below, and check off the items that pertain to you. If you check more than 2 or 3 items, you may not yet be acting with integrity–you may still be more concerned about appearing PC. Good luck, and remember that we’re all human!

1. ___ When friends visit my house, I make efforts to see that my eco-friendly cleansers and other products are prominently displayed. This is not to educate them, but to show how cool I am. For the same reason, I hide several “non-green” items that I use regularly.

2. ___ When I do #1, I make sure that any labels on the green products face outward for all to see.

3. ___ I still shop regularly at department stores that I routinely bash in “socially responsible” conversation.

4. ___ When I do #3, I shop between 11 PM and 6 AM so I’m less likely to be spotted by someone I know, even though I feel guilty for supporting 24-hour supercenters.

5. ___ I order vegetarian or vegan dishes when I’m out with vegetarian or vegan friends, but at home I eat steak for breakfast and have even devised a way to create “salad” without any plant-derived products.

6. ___ The one person in my family with a physical disability is the one I talk about the most, even though I haven’t seen them in 10 years. The story I always tell involves me helping them.

7. ___ I pause for more than two seconds when trying to decide what term to use to refer to someone in a minority group. I then slur my speech or cough while saying it so others can’t tell what I said. “Afri–aaaacho! Ahem.”

8. ___ Someone with multiple minority statuses (e.g., an African-American vegan Jewish lesbian Libertarian with quadriplegia) gets an automatic invitation to my party, regardless of whether we have anything in common.

9. ___ At my parties, I always ask my one friend of a different race to help by answering the door. I want them to be the first one guests see when they arrive.

10. ___ I’m so busy alternating between “he/she” and “she/he” when I’m speaking to someone that I miss the main points of the conversation.

11. ___ I have a “stop global warming” bumper sticker on my large, non-hybrid SUV.

12. ___ I hide my Christmas tree in the basement and put out a Menorah when Jewish friends come over, or vice-versa with other religious symbols.

13. ___ I was very cold when I arrived at my vegetarian friend’s party, and lied about why I really left my coat in the car.

14. ___ While viewing the film Borat with several friends, I struggled to remain straight-faced throughout the film. The very next day I returned to see it a second time alone and laughed my hind end off.

As we convert our “PC shoulds” to a deeper awareness and honesty, we can further increase our integrity across multiple life areas. This helps to ensure that we’re engaging in actions because we really want to, not only because we desire approval.

Post text from Naked Idealism, the guide for people who want to create a meaningful life and a better world.

References

Goldstein, A. (2008). Democrats’ Votes Display a Racial Divide. The Washington Post, February 6, 2008. Retrieved 3/08 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/ wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/06/AR2008020600044.html.

Novak, R. (2008). Democratic Racial Divide. Retrieved 3/08 from http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/democratic_racial_ divide.html.

Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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