How denial drives us to reject growth and help

Years ago when I was still at university and new to the UK, I attended a house party with my climbing friends.
Sat around with beers in our hands, we started talking about racism. As the only BAME person in the room and with an A in sociology A-levels, I believed myself an authority on the subject.
I argued that white people could not be subject to institutionalised racism (as I had learned in class).

A friend took great offence with this, exclaiming how his polish girlfriend had been discriminated against by landlords, strangers and employers. He became aggressive, screaming at me, and us all being intoxicated surely didn’t help. I ended up crying, getting comforted by his girlfriend in the kitchen, and leaving to go home early.

So what and who went wrong here?

First of all, I was unaware of life in the UK and its prejudice against Polish people. I generalised the information I had on racism and unknowingly tried to erase the experience of others.

I blamed the guy for his passionate arguing for a long time. It came out of nowhere, in a safe space, and it was relentless. And while he did definitely keep going and followed me around when I tried to disengage, I cannot fault him completely.
I remembered instances of friends suddenly explaining that they “do not see colour” or that “racism does not exist in the UK”. Engaging them in a conversation for hours at time, I would not let go until I felt I had made enough of an argument, claiming this was a dealbreaker for me.
Having been on the other side I cannot possibly blame anyone having a go at me in return.

For years, I was in denial of my ignorance and wrongdoing.
A grown man had made me cry in front of others, kept on going.
Surely he was in the wrong and I was absolved of all guilt.

I had made the classic mistake of looking for the hero and villain of the story.
Once again, I had to ask myself: Did I want to be right or free?
The other party not being completely flawless did not mean that I was innocent in this story.

I keep on thinking of his Polish girlfriend comforting me in the kitchen, taking my side over her boyfriend’s who was defending her.
She knew that I didn’t mean any harm and took pity on me. Surely hearing her experience negated amidst friends must have hurt her, but she did not lead this on.

Once I had faced aggression by her boyfriend I felt like I had to dig my heels in for my initial point.
Once I encountered kindness by his girlfriend I felt free to admit that I was wrong and ignorant.

Far be it from me to judge people for reacting emotionally though.
This is a very small example of a racial discussion that stuck with me, but there have been much bigger instances where our own reality is trying to be gaslit. We are human after all, and anger is a useful tool to express ourselves.

I did learn a lot however by examining this one instance and how I can react better in the future.
Understanding how denial is deeply emotional helped me double guess my first reaction.
Racism just like misogyny is rooted in our culture, socialised into all of us with media and education, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you still believe yourself to be completely unracist, I recommend reading up on Project Implicit by Harvard University. It measures unconscious social bias that we pick up and your results might surprise you!

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