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Towards a Perspective on Unlearning 'Isms': 12 Working Assumptions

Authored by: Rikki Sherover-Marcuse

Because racism is both institutional and attitudinal, effective strategies against it must recognize this dual character. The undoing of institutionalized racism must be accompanied by the unlearning of racist attitudes and beliefs. The unlearning of racist patterns of thought and action must guide the practice of political and social change. These same principles can be applied to any "item," such as sexism or classism, for example. The following assumptions offer a perspective for unlearning racism: 

  1. The systematic mistreatments of any group of people isolates and divides human beings from each other. This process is a hurt to all people. The division and isolation produced by racism are hurts to people of all ethnic groups. The awareness that this division exists is in itself painful. 
  2. Racism is not a genetic disease. No human being is born with racist attitudes and beliefs. Physical cultural differences between human beings are not the cause of racism; these differences are used as the excuse to justify racism. (Analogy with sexism: anatomical differences between human males and females are not the cause of sexism; these differences are used as the excuse to justify the mistreatment of female human beings.) 
  3. No young person acquires misinformation by his or her own free choice. Racist attitudes and beliefs are a mixture of misinformation and ignorance which have to be imposed upon young people through a painful process of social conditioning. Remember, "You have to be taught to hate and fear." 
  4. Misinformation is harmful to everyone, and misinformation about people of color is harmful to all people. Having racist attitudes and beliefs is like having a clamp on one's mind; it distorts one's perceptions of reality. 
  5. No individual holds onto misinformation voluntarily. People hold onto racist beliefs and attitudes because this misinformation represents the best thinking they have been able to do at the present time, and because no one has been able to help them out of this misinformation. 
  6. People will change their minds about deeply held convictions under the following conditions: 1) the new position is presented in a way that makes sense to them; 2) they trust the person who is presenting this new position; and 3) they are not blamed for having had misinformation. 
  7. People hurt others because they themselves have been hurt. In this society we have all experienced systematic mistreatment as young people, often through physical violence, but also through the invalidation of our intelligence, the disregard of our feelings, and/or the discounting of our abilities. As a result of these experiences, we tend both to internalize this mistreatment by accepting it as "the way are," and to externalize it by mistreating others. Part of the process of unlearning racism involves becoming aware of how this cycle of mistreatment is perpetuated in day-to-day encounters and interactions. 
  8. As young people, perhaps we often witnessed despair and cynicism in the adults around us and were made to feel impotent in the face of injustice. Racism continues in part because people feel powerless to do anything about it. 
  9. There are times when we have failed to act, and times when we did not achieve as much as we wanted to in the struggle against racism. Unlearning racism also involves understanding the difficulties we have experienced and learning how to overcome them without blaming ourselves for having experienced them. 
  10. The situation is not hopeless. People can grow and change; we are not condemned to repeat the past. Racist conditioning need not be a permanent state of affairs. It can be examined, analyzed, and unlearned. Because this misinformation is glued together with painful emotions and held in place by frozen memories of distressing experiences, the process of unlearning the misinformation must take place on the emotional level as well as on the factual level. 
  11. We live in a multicultural, multiethnic world, a world in which all people belong to ethnic groups. Misinformation about one's own ethnicity is often the flip side of misinformation about other people's ethnicity. For example, the notion that some ethnic groups are just "regular" or "plain" is the flip side of the notion that other ethnic groups are "different" or "exotic." Therefore, a crucial part of unlearning racism is the recovery of accurate information about one's own ethnicity and cultural heritage. The process of recovering this information will show us that we all come from traditions in which we can take justifiable pride. 
  12. All people come from traditions that have a history of resistance to injustice, and every person has their own individual history of resistance to racist conditioning. This history deserves to be recalled and celebrated. Reclaiming one's own history is of central importance to the process of acquiring an accurate account of one's own heritage. When people act from a sense of informed pride in themselves and their own traditions, they will be more effective in all struggles for justice.