Jeff Coleman

The non-pretenders pact: tackling white lies of omission about prejudice

While I was sitting here watching Get Out, I came to a realization. We need more integrity around prejudice. We need to stop just playing the contest of pretending we have it all together on the topic, or are at least further ahead than some other reference person, and just be honest about what tackling prejudice is really like.

I'm a young to middle aged white guy who has never personally suffered from poverty. I spent my childhood between Canada and Ethiopia, the one country in Africa without entirely post-colonial overtones to European-African relations (not saying anything about wealth, racial or power differentials though). I grew up with variety in human experience being normal in my social circle and family. My parents taught me that treating someone unfairly because of their appearance, culture, language, or anything else was a failure of basic human decency. My dad grew up in Ethiopia, my mom in Northern Canada. I have relatives who are Inuit, First Nations, Asian, French Canadian, black, Australian, African, American, Mexican, Chilean, who knows what else. My sisters' birth parents were Oromo. We're a pretty diverse group. I have personal connections to a lot of immigrant and Aboriginal communities here In Canada. I'm well-read, I have a personal passion for understanding the experiences of others, and I'm committed to opposing prejudice in myself and in the broader society I'm part of. See what I did there, flashing my "prejudice credentials"? I think it's fair to say that I'm reasonably well informed on the topic, if you're comparing me to almost any randomly chosen white Canadian male.

I'm also ignorant. I know this. I know that being an interested white guy who has been fortunate in the diversity of my life experience and who has made an honest effort to get more clued in doesn't mean that I now know everything on the topic of "what prejudice other humans experience"; or more importantly "what prejudice I personally perpetuate". I can be as informed as I want, but I'm just always going to know more about what it's like to be a white guy in Canada and Ethiopia (i.e. the actual life I've lived) compared to the intricate detail of someone who has personally experienced years of something I'm missing (i.e. being black, or female, or Asian, or Inuit, or an immigrant, or poor, or any of the other million types of human experience I don't personally share), instead of just having read or watched or listened to something regarding the topic. But neither the extreme of therefore giving up on trying, or of pretending I've passed a magical threshold where I no longer need to, actually helps to tackle prejudice itself.

I'm not done being informed. I will never be done being informed. This means that I often fail to properly appreciate the experiences and perspectives of other human beings. Some issues, patterns, and forces of prejudice that others experience are ones that I've worked hard to make myself aware of, and sometimes that allows me to be part of opposing that prejudice. Other forms I'm just clueless about. That's what fighting to be aware of prejudice actually feels like: noticing how clueless you are. Awkwardly failing to account for something that it would have been better to be able to, and then feeling disappointed about it, especially on someone else's behalf. It's work. Of course it's work. Prejudice is a real thing that doesn't resolve itself in the absence of intervention. It's a combined effect of human bias, ignorance, history, power, habit, economics, social dynamics, and a bunch of other stuff. People have to actually go in and engage with all that to make progress against prejudice, both within themselves and within our broader world.

There's a specific phenomenon I've noticed. I don't think anyone needs to be doing it intentionally for it to come about. But it happens where lots of people who are not done being informed on a type of prejudice (but are vaguely aware of that) get together and then the topic itself comes into play somehow. Immediately the contest of trying not to be caught out on that issue starts. Nobody wants to make their own ignorance on the topic visible. After all, doesn't everyone want to be less ignorant about it? Don't they value that? So instead people compete to appear not ignorant.

This is harmful. It's harmful because if we don't talk about the things we know we don't know, we don't make it okay for anyone to ever admit that they still have progress to make, and ask for help. It's harmful because when everyone just pretends that they have it all together on the topic, nobody learns anything. And most of all it fails to validate the reality that opposing your own prejudice is work, and people aren't done doing that work.

Wouldn't it be amazing if those times turned instead into an honest sharing of where people were currently at and what they were working on? It would be scary for most, I think. It would also be awkward. And risky: sometimes a bunch of people who share an ignorance end up reinforcing it instead of tackling it. People also judge you for admitting your ignorance on things, or use the "admitting" atmosphere to justify unfair behaviors and attitudes. But I do know that the current default of all trying to pretend we aren't ignorant doesn't work.

So to maybe make a little progress in some of those places I'm suggesting a sort of non-pretenders' pact. If you find yourself part of one of those contests you can try asking people if they've heard of the non-pretenders' pact. If not, you can explain the idea: people being very open and honest about the challenge of tackling their own ignorance around prejudice. It might not work, and you'll still have to be wise about using the tactic. But I'm willing to bet that for some it could be a launching off point into some greatly improved learning. And that it could also forestall some of the "prejudice rage quits" that seem to drive people completely the wrong way on these critical topics. We don't have to use "the pressure of pretending" as some blunt-force instinctual response to noticing the topic of prejudice is in play. Being honest instead is okay sometimes. I promise.