Sunday March 05, 2017

'Everyone makes judgements based on race,' and we need to accept that

A sign at a vigil in Edmonton, in January, after the Quebec mosque shooting.

A sign at a vigil in Edmonton, in January, after the Quebec mosque shooting. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

Listen 8:32

Everybody hates. 

That's where Tieja Thomas and her colleagues start their work at the Someone Project

It's a research group, trying to figure out how to teach kids to deal with online hate. 

Thomas says Canadians in particular like to think they don't have a drop of hatred or racism in them, and that makes it hard to address. 

The following is a condensed transcript of Tieja Thomas's conversation with The 180's Jim Brown. 

Why start with the premise that everyone hates, instead of just teaching children to not hate? 

Well, hate is an emotion, it's a passion, it's along the same lines as love, and happiness, and anger, which are all very natural instincts that I think we all have. And so, one of the things that we do with the Someone Project is, start from the assumption that everybody hates, and that doesn't necessarily mean everybody hates other humans, or individuals, you could hate broccoli, you could hate carrots, it's just a very natural place. And so, starting with that opens up a different kind of conversation. 

Tieja Thomas

Tieja Thomas is co-principal investigator with the Someone Project. (provided)

I'm sure there are listeners, sitting in their kitchens right now, saying "She's wrong! I am not a hater!" What do you say to those people? 

I say "Ok, tell me more about that, tell me more." I'm always interested when someone disagrees with me. I think disagreement is so important in our society. 

So, I would just begin with "Ok, I want to understand your perspective." 

And then, where do you take it from there? 

I would hope that they would then ask me why I express the view points that I do, and then we can engage in a conversation. And the point of that conversation for me, is not to convince the other person to come on my side, and be more like me necessarily, nor is it for me to necessarily have a change in opinion. But I hope that at the end of that interaction, we both come a way with a little bit more increased understanding of the other person's perspective. 

It's one thing to hate broccoli, but how far are you willing to take this approach. Should we just be accepting things like racism, and sexism, instead of trying to fight against those things? 

No, no. We are just starting, perhaps, from a different baseline. So if this is our baseline, that everyone hates in one form or another, what can we do about it? So if we start from this perspective, we seek to understand what the roots of those hateful thoughts or expressions are. And then, how can we intervene to diminish them, in some capacity, create more understanding for everyone involved in the exchanges. 

"If we start from this perspective, we seek to understand what the roots of those hateful thoughts or expressions are. And then, how can we intervene to diminish them, in some capacity, create more understanding for everyone involved in the exchanges."
- Tieja Thomas, Someone Project

Now you've also said that everyone is a racist. How do we deal with that? 

Well, maybe I can preface that by saying that I think, uh, everyone makes judgements based on race. So saying that everyone is a racist, I'm trying to make light of the negative impacts of hateful forms of racism, but I think we all make judgements. We're all innately judgemental beings. 

I think that, when racism becomes a real problem, I think what we're seeing in society, particularly in Canadian society, is a lack of reflexivity on the biases that we hold. So if we think that "Oh no, I'm not a racist, I love everybody," I'm like hmmm, I think that if you hard-pressed to really reflect, I think people would have a hard time saying that there isn't one particular group that they might dislike because of a specific attribute, whether that's race, or gender, or ethnicity, what have you. And I think, it's a safe space that we work in, particularly in Canada, to think "Well, we're Canadians. We love everybody, we're nice."

"I think what we're seeing in society, particularly in Canadian society, is a lack of reflexivity on the biases that we hold." - Tieja Thomas

That's how we're, that's kind of the story that we're told, and the story we buy into. And I understand that, but I think there needs to be a little bit of criticality [sic] around that as well. 

So if we accept that there's a scale, or a continuum, when we're talking about things like hate, and things like racism, it sounds like what you're saying is "let's explore that continuum, rather than just shut the door and not talk at all." 

Absolutely, absolutely. 

One of the main principals underlying the Someone Project is that we do not advocate censorship. We don't think that's a productive way to deal with hate, and particularly to deal with difference. Because what some people feel is hate, and should be censored, is just, in some cases, a difference of opinion. There's lots of content out there, particularly on social media, that I don't agree with, and that I find very uncomfortable, and perhaps even troubling. But does that mean that it should be censored? No.

I mean, there's the definition of hate speech when it comes to the law, and there are clear guidelines around how to treat that, but just because someone is out and is a proponent of white supremacy, I don't like it, but unless they're committing something illegal, can I say that that viewpoint doesn't deserve to stand? 

We don't feel comfortable saying that, as a research group. 

So if, there's at least one thing Canadians can agree on, that no matter what our differences we definitely don't want to end up being as divided as the United States is right now, what should we do about that? 

"We need to be more open and honest with ourselves, we need to be more open and honest with others, we need to engage with difference...Be brave and confront it." - Tieja Thomas

We need to be more open, we need to be more open and honest with ourselves, we need to be more open and honest with others, we need to engage with difference. We need to feel those moments of tension, where you bump up against something that doesn't sit quite right with you, or perhaps it's a very obvious confrontation to who you are and how you understand yourself in the world. Be brave and confront it. Confront it head on, engage with it - and when I say confront, it's not an adversarial way, where you seek to fight it and conquer it. But really show up, and engage with that, whatever that is that's making you feel uncomfortable, or making yourself feel hurt, and try to understand it. 

I think that will be the beginning of us moving towards a different place. It's the beginning of change in society.