Normally, I avoid using the word “denial”. It generates push-back and anger in our climate work. But denial is the best word to describe much of what I have heard recently about race. I have heard people say:
“We don’t have systemic racism in Canada!”
“Sure there are some “unfortunate” incidents, but that’s not systemic.”
“You shouldn’t play the race card. Don’t be so stupid! Grow up!”
Fear and Denial Can be Ugly
This last one is especially ugly. It drips with suppressed racism. Let me translate. This comment accuses folks who confront racism of being “uppity”; a word with a long and bloody history. So they gloss it over. But no matter how they change the language, the message is the same.
“Know your place!”
I am sensitive to denial because we live it in our climate work. Often, it comes out of left-field with anger and threatening body language.
An Example of Fear and Denial in Climate Work
Not so long ago, a government official invited us to a meeting on the other side of town. He asked us to prepare a presentation on climate risk. But when we got there, we didn’t even have time to begin our presentation. He tore into us, battering us with an angry, hour-long tirade. He told us we were stupid.
He told us that climate change isn’t real. He called us tree-hugging, fear mongers, and then told us to leave. He dragged us across town for the pleasure of bullying us.
Denial – Fear’s Constant Companion
Denial is a typical fear reaction. A bureaucrat who fears for his job, and with race, folks fearing the loss of their way of life.
Fear is denial’s constant companion. Fear causes denial. Fear drives denial. Fear makes others accept denial.
We’re taught to fear the “other” from birth. Many feel threatened when somebody looks different, prays differently, or even eats different food. They may strike out, sometimes violently. This is what folks think of as racism.
Fear and Denial in Words and Deeds
More often than not, we show the fear in our words and social interactions; you know, whispers behind your back and exclusion. This isn’t violent, but it is still racism. It lets us ignore violence, as long is it’s somewhere else, directed at somebody else.
Often, when confronted about racism, people predictably offer this little gem:
“I am not a bigot.”
In other words:
“Your difference is the problem, not my behaviour.”
We can’t fix problems we don’t admit. This is why denial is bad. We give ourselves permission to do nothing, smooth over an uncomfortable issue, blame a few troublemakers, and settle back into our comfortable rut.
Most people I meet mean well. You know, we all love our families. But folks also harbour hidden fears.
Another Example of Fear and Denial
Many years ago, we socialized with another couple. For about a year we spent a lot of time together, and babysitting each other’s kids.
One day, Joan got a care package from her mom with food and other goodies. So, she offered our friends some Chinese snacks. They brought back happy memories of her childhood in Hong Kong that she wanted to share with our friends.
After that evening, though, the relationship cooled. They avoided us. Ever the problem-solver, Joan asked them why. They told her the foreignness of the food made them feel strange. They blamed Joan for making them uncomfortable by pushing her Chinese-ness in their face. Then they told her they had never thought of her as Chinese, she was just Joan. So, in their mind Joan cause a rift. She made them feel uncomfortable.
This is one of those sad situations caused by fear. These were inherently kind people we met in church, but their fear led them to hurtful behaviour.
Facing Our Fears – We Have Lessons to Learn
I don’t like pointing fingers. Over the years, when I think about that incident I am reminded of situations where I should have behaved better, welcomed somebody who is different, and accepted them for who they are and not a strawman I created out of my fear.
We need to face our fears. When we do, we arm ourselves to take proper action to fix the big problems. This is true for climate change and it is vital for race issues.