27 March, 2014

I am not racist but…

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Category: Discrimination, European Action Week, Racism
Gubaz Koberidze
8 am


By Sara Serrano

If you hear a sentence that starts with the words “I am not racist but…” it is nearly always followed by some affirmation which is quite bigoted, prejudiced or racist, sometimes using even irony or humour. It happens amongst your colleagues, your family, in the mainstream media, from strangers in any public place or online… It could be even you  saying it. And if it is not this sentence, you will hear similar formations like “I am not homophobic but…”, “I don’t have anything against Muslims but…”, “I am not intolerant but…” but, but, but… Starting a sentence saying “I am not this but…” usually means that you are somehow like this and you contradict yourself very quickly.

It cannot be said that all the people who use this formula are racist but, for one reason or another, this sentence often masks beliefs and myths based on prejudices and stereotypes that we interiorise from early childhood. These prejudices and stereotypes will condition our attitude to a foreign person, who is “different”.  And I make this statement after my experience as a youth worker in schools and high schools. Working with issues like diversity and interculturality in the classroom allows you to analyse the general opinion among students. It is a kind of racism-based on stereotypes, quite common among youth.

One day, I decided to take note of some of these opinions and the result was:

“I am not racist but immigrants are stealing our jobs and benefits”, “I am not racist but all gypsies are  thieves or dirty people”, “I am not racist but I don’t like the smell of niggers”, “I am not racist but I don’t like to sit near a Moroccan person in the bus”, “I am not racist but Muslim values are clearly incompatible with other values”, “I am not racist but those who are not adapted to our culture, must leave the country”… and the most common one: “I am not homophobic but I would never share a room with one of them”…

As far as I could see, in general, we tend to generalise and use oversimplifications when speaking about certain groups of people, mainly when involving race, national origin or other factors like beliefs or gender. The stereotypes linked to these collective groups (migrants, ethnic or religious minorities for example) are frequently largely negative. Concretely speaking, in the  case of Spain, for example,  the stereotypes are often used to speak about Roma people (gitanos) and migrants coming from the Maghreb or with sub-Saharan origin. It is a kind of “unconscious racism”, which is even normalised in our society as we say we are not racist but, in fact, our comments and acts are racist.

To deconstruct stereotypes, to know how they work and identify which behaviours contribute to stereotyping, it is important and fundamental to work in education. Formal and non-formal education is the first step in the defence of human rights and in our work against intolerance. It is essential to work with these concepts from childhood, preventing racism and intolerance in the classroom and developing values such as respect, acceptation and appreciation of. And it is crucial as well to work on developing strategies to engage people in general in debates, helping them to think critically about the widespread supposed stereotypes, showing them another perspective and alternative solutions and allow  them to see the other part of the reality.

Statements like “I am not racist but…” and racist attitudes won’t go away until the racial myths and ethnic stereotypes are deconstructed and disappeared. As Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.” 

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