‘Racists Anonymous’ is an interesting and radical idea. Pastor Ron Buford, who started it, was inspired by ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: “I started thinking in the AA way”, racism is “an addiction. It’s a sickness”.
I was initially really exited by the whole concept: Maybe I could start a Racists Anonymous group in Exeter! I still might, but there are some questions I need to ponder first.
If racism is a sickness, what does that entail about moral responsibility? Can someone admit to being a racist but put it down to having an addiction? Ron is familiar with that criticism: “What I experience from people of color as pushback is that the harm caused by racism is so great, that some people feel the RA approach lets white people off the hook easy. Somebody’s got to suffer. But what if people wanted to change? What if nobody had to suffer? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” (Paste Magazine).
Ron comes across as a pragmatist: If it helps, let’s just do it. I like that approach, but it leaves other questions unanswered, notably around the increasing tendency to frame personal experience as pathology. While many addiction therapists consider addiction to be a disease, it’s implausible to suggest the same of racism. When Ron describes racism as a “sickness” he may be speaking metaphorically. But given the implied comparison with addiction, I’m not so sure.
Meanwhile, psychologists Will Cox and Patricia Devine have developed an alternative that is having good results. Their approach frames racism as a habit we learn. They present it as morally neutral, which, although it makes me uncomfortable, is helpful in getting people to engage.
First, we need to accept that pretty much all of us are prejudice against some group or another. If it’s not people of colour, it might be the old, the young or just anyone who’s not like you. But prejudice is insidious and it’s not uncommon to have internalised prejudice against members of your own group. This leads us to the ‘Detect’ phase: Being able to identify prejudiced thoughts arising in your consciousness. Next, ‘Reflect’: without making any judgements about those thoughts, reflect upon why they came to mind. Then ‘Reject’: Substitute those prejudiced thoughts with alternatives.
Neither of these approaches will overcome racism on their own. Racists aren’t born; they are trained, and that training comes from innumerable social cues as well as parental attitudes. We need to be aware of how the media reinforce prejudice – typically though reproducing stereotypes – and challenge it. But working on our own personal prejudice is also vital. Racism isn’t just out there – it’s in here: challenge racism everywhere.
Listen to the Invisibilia podcast, ‘The Culture Inside’, for more on this.