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Saturday 18 August 2018
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Commentary

Unconscious racism?

PROF RAMESH DEOSARAN

Unconscious. Quite an important element in psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s work, this word means “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the conscious mind but which affects behaviour, emotions, etc,” (Concise Oxford). So, for example, we have “unconscious bias,” that is bias emerging from mentally buried, repressed prejudice.

This word gained media popularity after two Afro-Americans were arrested two Thursdays ago in Philadelphia following a Starbucks’ manager complaint that “two gentlemen were sitting, not buying anything and refusing to leave.” Well, once again, all hell broke loose. “Black lives matter” placards were raised once again. Social media questions went viral. Arrested by white officers and spending nine hours in “jail” just for that? Because they were “black?” Suppose it were two white men? Or was it Starbucks’ policy?

These two were reportedly refused using the washroom, but a white man was allowed. They also explained they were sitting, waiting for a third person. The complaining Starbucks’ manager was accused of “unconscious racism.” Starbucks’ chairman Howard Schultz profusely apologised. Now there are three issues here, and from which we, down here, could learn something.

1. From police data and community activists’ records, discrimination against Afro-Americans in that Starbucks’ café area has been a common grievance. “That is an everyday thing,” one victim reportedly complained. I have seen many people just sitting or talking in cafes or fast food restaurants (eg KFC, Mario’s, etc) and being left alone. If the business-place has a policy against this, then a prominent sign or respectful advice could help.

2. On-the-street policing has complex challenges, many of which call for discretion given certain circumstances. This is a key component of effective community policing. On hearing the 911 complaint from Starbucks’ manager, the police called for “back up and a supervisor since there is a disturbance.” What disturbance? the two reportedly asked.

Without budging, the police handcuffed them. Bad policing. At first, the city’s black police commissioner Richard Ross said, “The police were following policy, and did what they were supposed to do.” Two days after, on tv, conscience-stricken, he admitted some lack of discretion, promising to “review procedures.” The Philadelphia police failed.

3. Now this concept of the “unconscious” (also called “subconscious”) was intriguing long before Freud’s time. Like dark matter itself, we know it’s there but difficult to prove. So much still to learn about the Universe and the human mind. Psychiatric searches still scratch at the surface. Freud argued that the unconscious is that place in the mind where people repress their unpleasant, tabooed thoughts, fears and feelings. The Starbucks manager who complained may be guilty of harbouring unconsciously repressed prejudice against Afro-Americans. That is, if you asked her if she was racial or prejudiced, she would honestly say “no.”

So it is too, with a lot of people in this multi-ethnic country. No wonder we continue to have ethnic skirmishes now and again, especially at election time. Coffins open up, the buried arise. But of course, “some of our best friends are Africans,” or “some of our best friends are Indians,” etc. The unconscious operates as a hiding place for the prejudices, ugly desires and anxieties especially in sexual and ethnic relations. These are too stressful for our conscious awareness. But, according to Freud, they do act out through a set of defence mechanisms, saying for example, it is others who are prejudiced and not you, etc (projection). Or when you really hate someone, you show them excessive love (reaction formation). It is in such ways that we become hypocrites, keeping the society superficially civilised.

The US police officers who unjustifiably shot several Afro-Americans last year may tell you, honestly, they are “not racists.” In his brilliant book, Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport related a Rhodesian incident. A white truck driver saw a group of black men sitting. He remarked “those lazy brutes.” Few hours after he saw them toting heavy bags. “Look at those savages,” he said

In race relations, the concept of unconscious bias and racism will attract increased usage and training programmes. Multi-cultural education may help some. Hence the recent public advice from President Paula-Mae Weekes for the teaching of comparative religion in schools will be a helpful place to start. We should not suffer anything like the Philadelphia Starbucks incident – consciously or unconsciously.

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