Resisting Racism

The second paper by Pack et al. (2015b) considered the broad question of how the targets of racism manage and resist racism. Three themes were identified: difficulty in verbal resistance, silent resistance, and vocalised resistance. The difficulty in expressing resistance to racism was attributed to aversion to confrontation, sensitivity to power imbalances (e.g. in the workplace), and unwillingness to invite negative political labels. While Maori construct themselves as the undeserving targets of racism, such positioning did not facilitate successful verbal responses to racism. Avoidance of the stress associated with confrontation and an unwillingness to confront for fear of losing emotional control and becoming angry were also noted. Power imbalances were often evident in hierarchical situations where authority figures might make resistance difficult, and verbally resisting racial slurs could cost the target their job. Further, harassment procedures for dealing with racism in the workplace were regarded as ineffective. Participants also documented the difficulty in managing racism compounded by wanting to avoid labels such as ‘activist’ and ‘protester’ which carry negative ideological loadings and were avoided.

Non-vocalised resistance took two forms. Firstly, a form of psychological fortification was outlined involving building self-strength and confidence in positioning the perpetrator as lessor. Secondly, the use of either body language to indicate disapproval, or actions which defied racist stereotypes. The effects of racism were countered through drawing on personal ethnic pride which contributed to the inner strength necessary to resist racial disparagement. Confidence was similarly constructed as empowering and participants talked about ‘psyching’ themselves up and this was achieved by constructing the perpetrator as lessor in terms of knowledge and ethics. The second form of non- vocalised resistance saw participants silently demonstrating their disapproval of racist stereotypes. Silence can be a powerful force in showing the need for change and resistance (Wagner, 2012), and it offers a safe demonstration of non-confrontational resistance. Ignoring racist comments and treating these as unworthy of attention rendered them ineffective. Participants mentioned the unique problems around subtle racism, often framed so as to be deniable in which case there was no useful verbal response.

The third theme of vocalised resistance was constructed as a skilful verbal challenge and something to be learned gradually with experience and maturity. The strategies were varied, creative, and sometimes humorous. A key here was resistance through transfer of control of racism from the perpetrator to the target. Participants talked about the importance of assertiveness and not backing down. There was also a claim that vocalised resistance was easier if the target did not mention the word racism and was able to inject humour into the situation. Other successful strategies included asking people to explain their racism (‘what do you mean by that?’). This request for clarification invariably silenced perpetrators who were unwilling to unravel the innuendo and inference involved in their racist comments.

In documenting differing levels of resistance to racism, this research has highlighted the difficulties involved in managing these situations. Silence was chosen to suggest resistance without engaging in confrontation. Verbal resistance was constructed as potentially risky but if well managed could result in successful resistance to racist stereotyping. Resistance requires considerable psychological resources in order to exercise control over an understandably bad situation (Mallett & Swim, 2009). The strength of such interpersonal resistance is that it can reduce the escalation of racism and shift social norms in the direction of intolerance of racism (Nelson, Dunn, & Paradies, 2011). The study of resisting racism can, at best, inform researchers and targets about strategies for confronting and silencing interpersonal racism.

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