Racism and privilege 101, with a social experiment

This video is the best illustration I’ve seen for a while of how a majority of racism and privilege actually operate.

Two teenage boys, similarly dressed, are pretty conspicuously trying to break a bike lock at a park. The white kid gets questioned a few times within an hour, but is ultimately ignored even by those who questioned him. The black kid draws an angry crowd within a few minutes, and multiple people express their intention of going to the police.

Here are some things this social experiment shows, that might help people comprehend the way privilege and racism work in our culture.

1) It operates on a social level. None of the passersby were exposed to both the black kid and the white kid “stealing” the bike. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some of the people who ignored the white kid would have also ignored the black kid, and that some of the people who got outraged at the black kid would have also gotten outraged at the white kid. We can’t possibly pinpoint any of the individuals in the scene as “racist” or “not racist” based on their behavior. What we absolutely can do is observe that the culture of people in that park is, on the whole, racially prejudiced. (The only alternative conclusion is that the group of people passing by at a later time all happened to be much more proactive and concerned about bike theft. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge…)

2) Related to that, none of the passersby in the scene were confronted with whatever subtle level of racial judgement underlay their behavior. Whichever among them would have responded differently to the other kid won’t ever know it. If, on another day in another place, they react differently to another kid apparently stealing a bike, it’s all too easy to rationalize the different reaction by putting it down to how the kid was dressed, or the difference in the neighborhood, or even the difference in their own mood/circumstance. (“I didn’t call the cops on the white kid in the park because I was just trying to enjoy a leisurely day off… but I did call them on the black kid down the street because I was at home and trying to defend my neighborhood.”) The only people who acknowledged that race played a factor in how they reacted were the two black women (most of the other passersby were white.) White people, myself included, are really good at convincing ourselves that we are totally not racist at all, at all. It takes sustained effort and self-examination to start spotting the subtle race-based judgements we make day to day. (This is something I’ve begun doing over the last year or two, and it’s both uncomfortable and enlightening.)

3) Whether or not particular individuals are “racist” or not doesn’t matter squat to the people on the receiving end of privilege or oppression. The white kid got away with bike theft (under the pretenses of the scene) and the black kid got photographed and would have been reported to the police. Both kids were playing guilty in this scene, even admitting when asked that the bike wasn’t theirs, but one of them would have ridden away with a shiny new bike and the other one would have been arrested. The white kid has an unfair advantage, and that’s just a reality of the world that this scenario took place in: each individual passerby could do whatever mental calculations they want to prove that they’re not racist, and it would still be a reality of their world that a white teenage boy gets way more benefit of the doubt than a black one.

4) There are exceptions, and they don’t outweigh the overall trend. Someone does finally go away intending to call the cops on the white kid. When the black kid says that yes, it’s his bike and he lost the key, a passerby helps him lift it over the post. The world is not uniformly inclined to suspicion of black teenagers and tolerance of white ones. But it’s overall inclined that way, at least in this area, so pointing out one or two exceptions and saying, “See? Racism isn’t a thing anymore!” isn’t a convincing argument.

2 thoughts on “Racism and privilege 101, with a social experiment

  1. Nice example to show to people who absurdly believe we live in a post-racism society or say they don’t see colour like that made structural racism and ingrained racist prejudices you don’t even know you have disappear.

  2. Yeah, not too keen on the idea that we are living in a post-racism society, or that we ever will be without some serious metamophasis in the way our society functions.

    I am a proponent of the quote (I wish I knew who said this):

    “One can never eliminate racism, they can only try to understand it”.

    That’s the problem, racism is quite often not a choice, but a cognitive bias we don’t even think about. It takes a large amount of effort and self-awareness to fight it. It is worth-while endeavor though.

    Though some $!*holes are certainly choosing to be.

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