Racism and Self-Interest

Last week I finished the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It gave me a lot to ponder, especially the frame that racism stems from self-interest. There were some chapters sharing how racism links up with sexism, anti-LGBTQ stances, and other social justice issues. How this links up with animal rights was glaringly obvious since people claim entitlement to animals’ bodies for reasons of self-interest too.

The main value I got from the book was increased awareness of two areas: racist ideas and racist policies. It’s easier to notice when politicians are expressing one or both, even when they try to disguise it with known racist patterns like “law and order.” Donald Trump is awash in racist ideas and policies, and after reading this book, it’s hard not to see him as even more racist than I did before. In fact, he seems to be deliberately leaning in an overtly racist direction as the election nears.

One problem that perpetuates racist ideas and policies is that many people still reward racist behavior, especially when they think it aligns with their own self-interest. Clearly that’s the case with Trump. The more overtly racist he is, the more support he gains from certain people. This perpetuates the racist behavior and even encourages more of it. This makes antiracists scour dictionaries for even more deplorable labels to describe him, but he lost their support a long time ago anyway.

If non-racist people do nothing and racist people continue to reward racism, then racism has a greater opportunity to spread, which means we’ll see more racist ideas and racist policies ahead.

This is why it isn’t enough to be a non-racist. To ignore such behavior is all it takes for racism to spread because plenty of people will continue to reward those behaviors. Being a non-racist is socially irresponsible. Your silence puts you in the stands cheering on the racists. Non-racism isn’t a neutral stance; it’s actually a racist position.

One key aspect of being antiracist is to essentially punish racist behaviors. This helps to de-link racist behaviors from people’s self-interest. Racist behaviors will decrease when the calculus changes enough, such that people attract more punishment than rewards for such behaviors.

Think of the solution as creating a high enough racism tax, such that those behaviors become too socially and economically expensive for people to want to practice them anymore.

We can’t rely on government alone to do this, so it’s wise to consider it an individual responsibility if you want to be an antiracist. In your own life then, consider creating your own racism tax, such that people incur some kind of punishment from you for racist behaviors, including proclaiming racist ideas or supporting racist policies.

I think cancel culture has some merit when it comes to social justice issues. I do think it can be taken too far, and I think it should focus more on behaviors rather than people, but it can help to change the behavioral patterns by changing the links between socially destructive behaviors and pure self-interest.

In terms of personal responsibility and actions, it’s important to call out racist behaviors and to create more and bigger negative consequences for those who practice such behaviors. And don’t be afraid to advertise this openly, so people are fully aware of the tax they’ll incur.

This alone isn’t enough though. To create a multiplying effect, it’s also helpful to support and reward antiracist behavior when you see it. This is especially important if you might incur a backlash from racists or from those proclaiming to be non-racists. Socially tax racist and non-racist behavior, and socially reward antiracist behavior.

This is partly how I got invited to the game. Earlier this year I tried to adopt a non-racist “neutral” stance, and some people mildly punished me for that, such as by pointing out why that’s problematic. That did have an effect, and it got me to lean into this with some personal exploration, mainly by educating myself about it. If that feedback had not been present, I might still be ignorantly comfortable with a non-racist stance today.

So your “punishment” needn’t be severe. For many people a gentle nudge to raise their awareness is all that’s needed to stir up some changes. You can always go firmer if the problematic behavior continues.

Moreover, I’ve felt some modest social rewards coming through as I’ve leaned into improving in this area. Now that part is actually a little disappointing since I think it could be stronger given the importance of this issue. I saw way more people reaching out to offer encouragement and resources when I expressed interest in exploring open relationships than when I expressed interest in learning about antiracism. I think that needs to change if antiracism is to grow more prevalent.

This tells me that I should make an effort to be more encouraging and supportive when I see someone expressing interest in learning about antiracism or racial justice. I can’t assume that other people are sharing much support yet. People may actually want to improve in this area, but if they express interest and are met with crickets, how far will they get?

Expressing outrage over the unwanted behaviors isn’t enough. We also need to support and encourage the desired behaviors.

Another factor that could be improved is to invite more people to the party – personally and directly. I’ve received a lot of invitations over the years, and it’s hard to recall many related to racial justice. Maybe some people thought about making such suggestions and held back, and if so, I think they gave up too easily. I am influenced by what people share with me, especially when their messages are personal, purposeful, and honest. If I’d just done some reading on this years ago, I could have corrected some patterns much sooner… maybe made more of a difference over time.

I’ve received way more invitation, encouragement, and support regarding dietary explorations than on anything related to racial justice. More people have emailed me about trying polyphasic sleep than about exploring racial justice. So I’d suggest that if you want to help change this situation, be more personal and direct in getting the message out. The volume of invitations in this area is still ridiculously low.

This could be because inviting more people to be antiracist doesn’t link that strongly with self-interest yet. For me it does link with self-interest because I’d like to have more antiracist friends, I’d like to grow closer to my friends of different races, and I prefer to fill my social sphere with people who are braver than most. I also see a lot more personal growth and worthwhile character sculpting on the path of antiracism than of non-racism. So it’s a bit of a no-brainer given where my self-interest points me.

In writing about veganism for many years, I found what people most appreciate are the personal reports of what it’s really like and what I’ve gained from 23+ years as a vegan, such as the huge article How to Be Vegan. I wasn’t drawn to veganism for animal rights reasons. I was drawn by self-interest, including curiosity and a desire to explore something new to me. That was enough to get started with a 30-day vegan challenge.

This tells me that one good way to invite more people to explore antiracism is by sharing an insider’s perspective as I go deeper into it, especially from the perspective of linking the exploration with self-interest. That’s true of so many personal growth explorations. Even if they may have other benefits, we have to see enough personal value to get into them.

Last month I read three books to begin educating myself on racial history and racial justice: White Fragility, Stamped From the Beginning, and How to Be an Antiracist. It’s a beginning, and I’ve since added more to my reading list, thanks to recommendations from other people.

I don’t want this exploration to fizzle out, so I think it’s important to lean in with some action, not just education. Consequently, I joined a new diversity committee in an organization that I’ve belonged to for many years. I’m not sure how I can help yet, but it calls to my heart to keep exploring this path.

Aligning with my heart is in my own self-interest too. Isn’t that true for you as well?

Where does your heart want to go next?

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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