Monday, March 04, 2013

Anti-racist Racist

In his Big Think blog, Moments of Genius, Sam McNerney recently wrote about a trap he calls the "Sartre Fallacy." When first exposed to Sartre's existentialism as a young college student, McNearney became convinced of the importance of living an authentic life—remaining true to yourself despite the pressures of the external world. Because he knew about Sartre, he decided he was living more authentically than his derivatively ironic hipster friends. Of course, what he was doing was defining himself in opposition to his friends, which is the height of derivative inauthenticity.

McNerney defines the "Sartre Fallacy" as "doing the opposite of what you've learned." Here's another example from his college carrier.

Upon learning about confirmation bias—the proven tendency for the mind to latch onto ideas that support prior beliefs while excluding concepts that contradict them—McNerney came to believe that human beings are hopelessly stuck in narrow, irrational conceptions of reality (except, of course, those like himself who understood confirmation bias). But when he discovered himself filtering out information that indicated humans can act rationally, McNerney realized he had confirmation bias bias. His beliefs about confirmation bias had led him to a narrow, biased belief about human nature in general.

I grew up in the first state to send volunteers to fight for Lincoln in the US Civil War, a state that since the civil rights era has always voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, a state known chiefly for its "nice". I learned from a young age that racism is a terrible, awful thing that came into an otherwise good-willed America through race-based slavery in the southern states. I also learned that even though black people now had rights, there was still a big problem in the US South with white people thinking they were superior to black people. So I got the idea that white, American southerners are racists. I was an anti-racist racist.

And I think still am. Just the other day, I found myself telling a friend about how racist white people in Saskatchewan are towards First Nations people, as if here in Alberta we don't have the same problem.

And I'm not the only one. How often have I heard white South Africans accused of being racists because that they are white and from South Africa? Often enough to know anti-racism racism is a common Sartre Fallacy.

As an American living in Canada I have more than once heard my people being painted with a very wide brush. If you're Canadian, ask yourself, Do I know more about the black struggle for equality in the U.S. than I do about the First Nations' struggle for treaty rights in my country?

As a child, being an anti-racist racist helped me feel superior to people who lived farther south than I, but didn't help me feel less afraid of violence whenever I found myself in a predominantly black group of high school kids. As a college student, it didn't help me get involved in causes to reduce racism.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." At the heart of the Sartre fallacy in general, and anti-racism racism in particular, is the desire to use knowledge to feel superior to other people. What if I desired to use knowledge to love other people? Would knowledge then be able to transform me, too?

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (March 1, 2013).