What is "invisible racism"? How do you make it visible with young people so they can work against it?
I would like to ask you my dear reader to take a second and think what invisible racism could be? How do you understand it?
Did you think about some cases of racism that are not being brought to the daily light, or violence that is not present in the news so we will never be able to discover that the act of racism really happened? And did you think about whether invisible racism must be an action, or it can be also be the absence of an action? And something that we are not conscious about, like lack of representation or visibility of different ethnic groups? Maybe you got to the conclusion that it needs to be something very small, and that means it becomes invisible?
Before telling you what my conclusion about invisible racism is, I would like to tell you a bit more about how we got interested to start with this topic, and how we reached our understanding. It was at least a 5 years long journey, which started in the city of Lorca in Spain. One day I was having a tea with a friend of mine and, as always, discussing about politics, youth issues, work related topics and so on. Quite normal in my life. And she shared one of the discoveries she had made about racism in Lorca: apparently in several bars in our city, people coming from the migrant community were being charged double, or significantly more for their drinks. And here we need to specify that we are not talking about all the migrants, just those who are already considered marginalized in the society, and in our case this mainly refers to the Latino and Moroccan communities. After a short investigation on the local level we understood that the bar owners did not want migrants to come to the bars, since in this case they believed that the ¨Spanish¨ people would avoid those places. And unfortunately this indicated an even bigger problem of what is happening in our society.
As youth work practitioners, we felt we had to do something about it, so we started to put together some projects and apply for funding. We had to face several rejections, as it always is with things that are innovative, until finally in 2014 we got our YES! One project was approved on the local level called Lorca Libre de Racismo (Lorca free of Racism). Within the project we planned a seminar of experts to define the terms and organise a bit those millions of thought in our heads, and then activities in all high schools of Lorca. And we have learnt a lot about invisible racism, and all the issues very closely linked to it like power relations, the incorrect balance between good and bad treatment and cultural relativism.
What is invisible racism?
As with some other youth work theories, invisible racism can be explained using an iceberg model. And I believe all of you know how it looks like, we have a huge iceberg, mostly covered by water, and the Titanic which, based on what the captain sees, can easily swim around that iceberg, and we know the end of this story. So in our iceberg we have a part of racism that is visible, and a part of racism which is invisible, and sometimes even unconscious. Unlike the other models, in ours, the surface level is a line of toleranceand acceptance. Meaning one and the same example can be visible or invisible, depending how the society wants to see it. Depending if we want to accept something as harmful and stand against it, or we just walk away.
So let´s take the original case from which all of this started: if a migrant goes to a bar and is charged double, and all the people around do not want to see it, because it is more comfortable for them to ignore it, or because they are happy not seeing ethnic diversity in the bars, then this racism is invisible. But if people will start speaking about it, reporting it to the authorities or boycotting the places that follow the practice, then racism becomes visible, and we can fight against it more easily. Importantly, this move to make it visible needs to happen, and unfortunately it is not that easy, since we are talking about things that are very much the norm, that seem to have been happening always and no one had a problem with that - so “why now?” people might say. It is also hard because quite often it leads to giving away some of the privileges and power that we have, and which people usually don´t want to give up.
It took us quite some time to find a way how to explain easily what the invisible racism is. We came together with the group of experts who are currently working on the project dealing with invisible racism and we came up with this definition:
When we talk about invisible racism we refer to the harmful behaviours which are considered normal and accepted by the society. The line that draws between what we all know by racism and what the invisible racism is, is a line of tolerance. Some examples of what invisible racism could be are people telling racist jokes, or avoiding the contact with a person coming from a different ethnic group, by simply going to the other side of the street, or deciding not to date a person who is not white. Those behaviours, although not considered by many harmful, lead to exclusion, anxiety, and influences the person’s well being.
Power relations and invisible racism?
So how is power connected with racism? Power is not only understood as political power, yes there is a structural power mainly connected to holding some positions, and there is a relational power, that is positioning some people above the others. These are norms which have been created by people and seem to be natural in the society. In the cultures I know some examples of people who have power are: in the educational context – teachers and trainers (although often we don´t want to, it happens), people with leadership skills, with the physical power, with prestige. Don´t get me wrong, having a power is not something bad, it is normal and sometimes even necessary – like for example in the educational context of teacher and pupils. Since one has knowledge that others need, this puts the teacher above the pupils in the ladder of power. The clue to understanding is to see how the power is being used. Is it with respect and best intentions towards others, or not? Below you can find some examples given by students participating in our workshops of the teacher´s behaviour using both positive and negative power.
Positive power relations between teacher and students:
Listen to the needs of others and discuss them together
Show respect towards their needs
Make them feel valued
Express gratitude for the existence of this relationship and/or for the possibility to learn from each other
Negative power relations between teacher and students:
Reduce the students’ break for the learning benefit
Give lower score to the most unruly students, instead of verifying their degree of preparation
Sentences like ¨Don´t speak when I speak¨
Make others feel like subordinates
Make others feel incompetent
During the project we understood that negative power relations are an important cause of racism and all other forms of discrimination. There is a kind of chain reaction: the person over whom the power was executed in a negative way tends to get power and use it negatively over those who are even more vulnerable. And somehow it is understandable if we will look at our culture, where power is considered as something desirable, for many people an ultimate goal, and being weak, different, and vulnerable as something that leads to rejection.
During our workshops we had a beautiful example that illustrates how power relations in the classroom works. There was a boy in the class who was among those most active, always making stupid comments, especially towards the group of girls sitting in the first row. Other classmates were a bit afraid of him. After three weeks of workshops (all the classes went through 6 weeks of sessions), after the class he asked one of the facilitators to have a chat. He told the facilitator that he was not always like this. When he was younger, he was always very sensitive (and still is) and he never did any harm to anybody. But after entering high school he understood that the life is tough and he didn´t want anymore to be seen as someone sweet and with sentiments. They talked and from the next session he was already sitting in the first row next to the girls whom he was bullying before, he opened up, and started giving examples as well from his life before the high school.
Approaches to work with the topic of invisible racism
From this and many other examples of impact and evaluation of the project with students, teachers and facilitators of the workshops we have designed three main lines of work with students to combat invisible racism:
Understanding invisible racism and microaggression
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
It is important to pass the message to young people that microaggressionsare a form of violence and can be harmful. Taking as an example the racist joke, which are normalised in many cultures, and considered as something fun, and far from having the objective of hurting someone. But imagine that in the classroom there is a student whose parents come from Pakistan, and she permanently hears jokes about other people from her community indicating that people with this ethnic background are stupid, they lack education etc. Although they are seen as “jokes”, there is a high chance that this student will take this personally, self-esteem will lower, and she will stop wanting to interact with the other students, which is as well a form of exclusion. Microaggressionsare directed not only to people with ethnic background different from the majority, but they are present in all the different forms of discrimination. Let’s take as an example a person making a comment on the street like ¨she is so fat¨: if in the group where this comment was made there is another fat person who felt addressed by this comment, most probably he or she will take it very personally and similar consequences can happen as the ones mentioned above. The microaggressionsare considered as a new modern way of discrimination that based on the studies is considered even more harmful and destructive for the society, and since it relates not only to racism but as well to other forms of intolerances and discriminations, we are usually treating it all together, not only in relation to the ethnic background.
Understanding power relations
We work to deconstruct the concept of power as something desirable. Our goal is to make students understand that having power should not be the main objective of their lives, and if they are in a position of power, how to execute the power in a positive sense, and how to ensure the mutual respect. Here we are treating as well the concepts of inclusion, since those who are in the position of power should be more responsible for including everybody, since people in the vulnerable position often cannot do it by themselves.
Promotion of good treatment
Finally, we propose good treatment as the alternative to bad treatment or mistreatment. We encourage young people to practice good treatment in everyday life, and have it always present in their heads. In our education we focus on the things which we should not do, in the classroom we can often hear ¨don´t speak when I am speaking¨, ¨don´t do this, don´t do that¨, but there is a lack of positive examples what to do, and we are trying to focus on this aspect. To find out possibilities how to be inclusive, how to support others, how to make a good deed. It can sound very simple, but we have learnt about its importance, and how powerful it can be.