The “R” Word: Overt vs Covert and the Denial of Racism

Racism. It is an ugly word. It’s a word most of us don’t want associated with who we are, or how we operate in the world. Consequently, most of us claim, often quite ardently, that we are ‘not racist’, but rather, we are inclusive and accepting. However, are we really, truly, “not racist”?  Stereotypical overt forms of racism are easy to spot and avoid, and most of us do so consistently.  The covert, hidden forms of racism are much more difficult to identify and deal with.

Preconceived notions exist about what racism looks and sounds like. Overt examples like the stereotypical name calling type of vitriol is the category of racism that people, generally, do not attune to. There is no denying that overt forms of racism are hurtful, however they are obvious, therefore easily acknowledged and avoided.

CBC radio recently hosted a broadcast about racism. It highlighted that generally Canadians do not like the ‘R’ word because they do not associate themselves with racism. Ibram X. Kendi stated that, “denial fundamentally is the heartbeat of racism.” The denial of the existence of racism perpetuates collective marginalization. Additionally, Kendi, author, historian and anti racist expert posits that, “there is no such thing as ‘not racist’. Often, offense is taken when the term is used to describe biased words and actions as most do not align with the distinction. People recognize themselves as well meaning, accepting individuals and genuinely, believe that if they aren’t hostile in their interactions with Indigenous people, they aren’t being racist towards them.  Often statements like, “I have a friend who’s Native, I AM part Native or that happens to me ALL the time too!” are used to justify biased beliefs and opinions.

While it can be difficult for people to identify covert prejudices, it goes without saying that we all have innate biases with which we were have learned. These biases are present in all layers of society and, in many cases, have become normalized. As an Indigenous ally, I am continuously unveiling and improving my own innate biases, as well as learning how to better support shifts in the understanding of others.

Let me share a story of covert bias that was recently shared with me. Recently, I was able to spend quite a bit of time sharing and discussing current issues in Indigenous education and reconciliation with an Indigenous colleague. One of the discussions was about the ‘R’ word. She shared an experience she had at a professional development session during which guest speakers led discussion about racism. Some individuals within the group claimed that racism did not exist within their collective. “There is no racism here,” was the sentiment. But was that really the case?

Just the day before the presentation, someone from that same collective had asked her if she was okay living in her First Nation, and if she felt safe there. The question was attuned with conversation that the individual had business to attend to in the Nation and was scared, sick to their stomach, about having to go out there. They had never had a bad experience before in the Nation, and there was no indication that their safety would be in jeopardy this time either.  Where did the fear come from?

This is an example of covert or hidden racism. The question implied that the First Nation community is more unsafe or dangerous than any other community. This perpetuation of fear aligns with the post I wrote called, Allyship considering the Stories. What stories are we sharing that perpetuate fear, division and continue marginalizing people?  My friend responded to the inquiry by stating that she of course felt safe in her own home and community.

As an Indigenous participant in the PD session, my colleague indicated that she was happy to have the support of the presenters who helped participants to understand racism actually exists everywhere. 

So where does this leave us? Educating people about covert racism can be tricky. Exposing or challenging someone’s deeply embedded belief can illicit hostile responses. Hearing the ‘R’ word often shuts down educational conversation that could encourage a shift in thinking. Being careful to acknowledge the words or action and not define the person helps to keep conversation and learning flowing.

The ugly beast of covert racism can be difficult to acknowledge, is often dismissed and disregarded. Being willing to question our preconceived notions about racism and innate biases is key. As well as, continuing education about Indigenous worldview, history, and Treaty relationships. Whether unintentional or malicious, racism is a topic that requires continued addressing if we are to move forward in exposing systemic biases that are divisive and counterproductive to reconciliation.

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