The Power of the Unconscious – Interview with Christine Platt

Unmasking unconscious racism is much more difficult than the identification of open racist behavior. American historian and racism researcher Christine Platt explicitly answered questions by email on forms and effects of racism – also with regard to the famous literary source for Verdi’s opera: Shakespeare’s Othello.  

Otello: Jonas Kaufmann (Otello), Anja Harteros (Desdemona)

Unmasking unconscious racism is much more difficult than the identification of open racist behavior. American historian and racism researcher Christine Platt explicitly answered questions by email on forms and effects of racism – also with regard to the famous literary source for Verdi’s opera: Shakespeare’s Othello.   

MAX JOSEPH Racism does not only exist on the right or the extreme right political spectrum. Even democratic and educated people harbor racist beliefs. Our language and stereotypes and how we classify people are a proof of this. Is everyone a latent racist then?

CHRISTINE PLATT Labeling everyone a latent racist might be a bit extreme. However, I do believe that many individuals unknowingly harbor racist beliefs and biases—individuals who would never think of themselves as racist. They’d be offended if you called them such! Yet these attitudes reflect the most unfortunate realities about racism—it is so ingrained within our psyche, so easily explained away as common knowledge and truth. And of course, the extent of ones’ bias is contingent on so many variables such as childhood and parental indoctrination, exposure to different populations, and the extent of their societal indoctrination.

Racism is systemic. It is so well-integrated into our society (whether consciously or subconsciously) that many people, while able to easily identify and condemn the racist behavior of others, often fail to recognize their own inherent biases. Therefore, I believe the first step in reducing racial bias is to start with ones’ self. Examine your beliefs. Identify preconceptions you hold about others, no matter how subtle. Then question why—why do you believe these biases to be true even when there is evidence to the contrary? Only then can one make a concerted effort to change their beliefs and reduce the perpetuation of racial biases. 

MJ Can you discern different forms of racism?

CP When teaching about racism, I start with identifying the two most prevalent forms of racism—individual acts and institutional practices. And I use the criminal justice system to explain their impact on unconscious racism:

  • If police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and jury members harbor racist ideas and assumptions about minorities, their individual racism will influence severer sentencing and terms of incarceration.
  • Criminal statutes, classifications, and discriminatory practices that impact racial minorities more than non-minorities are forms of institutional racism.

It must be said that individual racism on a massive scale over time is institutional racism. I think the criminal justice system is one of the most pervasive examples. Unfortunately, institutional racism is systemic, that is, it involves a pattern or practice of discrimination. 

MJ Could you give us some more examples? And what exactly is the effect of this practice of discrimination?

CP In the context of education, an example might be the resegregation of schools since the groundbreaking decision of Brown v. Board of Education; and in employment, such practices often involve employers who are less likely to interview applicants with ethnic names. Simply because a practice is illegal or violates the principle of equality doesn’t make it go away.

The data that stems from individual and institutional practices influences our unconscious racism. For example, feeling unsafe in the presence of African-American men because of the belief that they are inherently dangerous and prone to commit more crimes—because they are sentenced to prison more than non-minorities. This trend has been studied in numerous settings such as health care and education, and the results are consistent—even trained professionals can harbor unconscious biases and this influences their professional course of action, most often to the detriment of minorities. 

MJ This means my supposed knowledge about a statistically higher proportion of Black people among delinquents is actually the result of institutional racism?

CP The belief and statistical evidence for example that Black men commit more crimes is the result of both individual racism and institutional racism – in America, Black people make up 13 percent of the population, yet they are incarcerated at six times the rate of White people. Prior to the abolition of slavery, Black men were not incarcerated at such disproportionate rates. DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated film “13th” provides a thorough analysis of how racism in the criminal justice system leads to mass incarceration – a modern form of institutional slavery.

What is “positive racism”?

CP I tend to shy away from terminology such as “positive racism” and “benevolent prejudice,” which is a more popular sentiment in the UK than it is in America. While I understand the intent behind these schools of thought, they still assist in perpetuating dangerous ideas and assumptions based on one’s skin color or other identifiable markers.

It has been scientifically proven that race is a social construct—that is race is not biological or scientific. There is not a single absolute genetic difference among humans, no single variant that persons who are fairer-skinned have that persons who are darker-skinned do not.

Therefore, the labeling and practice of “positive racism” can lead to dangerous ideas and assumptions about genetic differences. These ideas and assumptions have social repercussions and continue to fuel racist beliefs and biases. 

In what ways?  

CP In the US, the term “positive racism” does not exist – not within our vernacular nor in practice. The very concept is born out of ideas and assumptions about a race – a social construct! For example, Black men and athleticism. A person who believes in “positive racism” might say, “Black men can run so fast!” But this perceived compliment is actually rooted in the racist belief that Black people are more akin to animals than humans — a racist assumption that can lead to harmful repercussions rooted in individual and institutional racism.

How is Shakespeare’s Othello received among African-American or African literary communities – if this is generalizable at all?

CP African-American and African readership is not generalizable. Ones’ response to Othello would vary widely based on one’s homeland, age, and personal experiences. Even within the United States the reaction could be different based on whether one was raised in the South or North. There is no way that my interpretation can represent the entire African-American and African literary communities, nor do I want such a substantial responsibility!

That said, my critique of Othello varied throughout my educational discourse. As a teenager, I was simply excited and intrigued to see a Black man play a central role written by one of the most highly-regarded tragedians. As an adult, I had a weightier critique and awareness. First of Desdemona, most notably that she seemed to represent the pinnacle of White femininity. Then of Othello, for his behaviors and characteristics seemed to perpetuate the myth of Black hypermasculinity, propensity for violence, and carnal desire for European women. Still, my reception of Othello is that it is one of the first diverse love stories that explores the many nuances and complexities of such relationships.

Do you think Othello feels discriminated against as a Black man? He does everything in his power to be a prolific member of the White majority society. But Iago – as a member of this society – is able to anger Othello very easily. Is Othello’s motive for the murder of Desdemona consequently rather his fear of being viewed as weak, of embarrassing himself? What do you think?

CP Without a doubt, Othello felt discriminated against as a Moor. Shakespeare makes very distinct references to Othello’s blackness through the tragedy. Early in the text, in an effort to defend Othello against Brabantio’s disappointment and anger that his daughter had fallen in love with a Moor, the Duke of Venice says,

‘And, noble signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
your son-in-law is far more fair than
black.’

This stanza confirms that Othello was respected by the majority of White society. But it also suggests that Othello is an exception to the rule—that he is fair despite his blackness.

However, I believe that Othello murdered Desdemona out of jealously, believing that she betrayed him not out of fear of embarrassing himself. And if he were embarrassed, it was no more than any man who believed his angelic bride in the midst of a sordid affair with one of his standard-bearers. Othello truly loved Desdemona, and Iago took advantage of knowing how much he loved her—that was how he was able to anger him so easily.  

MJ Do you feel compassion towards Othello?

CP From the moment Brabantio learned that his cherished daughter, Desdemona, had fallen in love with Othello, I had compassion for him. Shakespeare so descriptively revealed Othello’s disappointment in Brabantio’s reaction:  

‘Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.’

Othello was devastated at Braantio’s reaction for they’d once had a close relationship. Clearly, Brabantio held Othello in high regard …but not enough to love his daughter. This scene in the tragedy can be equated to Othello needing to “know his place,” an experience that many minorities can relate to or easily identify. Othello, the storyteller and valiant military hero defending Venice? This Othello is a wonderful man. Othello, the Moor in love with pure and innocent Desdemona? Now this Othello is a wicked, evil and vile man!

Why are Othello and Desdemona obviously unable to communicate with each other? Do you think this alludes to cultural differences or stereotypes?

CP On the contrary. I believe Shakespeare did a magnificent job of showing how difficult it is for men and women to communicate (smile). If I were to make any cultural interpretation, and this is a stretch, it would center on Othello’s inability to communicate his feelings to Desdemona because she is a sweet, docile, and pure woman—the pinnacle of White femininity. Othello shows obvious pride that Desdemona chose him over all other suitors and even over her father. And because Desdemona’s pure nature and innocence, Othello never imagined her betrayal. Therefore, he didn’t know how to express his feelings and emotions. While Desdemona, ever naïve and innocent, could not communicate with Othello because she does not know the reason for his change of heart.
 

Otello: Gerald Finley (Jago), Jonas Kaufmann (Otello)

What do you think of the approach to view the relationship between Desdemona and Othello as paradigmatic for relationships between a White woman and a Black man? Desdemona sticks with Othello until the end, no matter how bad he treats her. Does she want to demonstrate to the White society that such a relationship is possible? Is it her political project? And would you say, this is comparable to contemporary ethnically mixed relationships?

CP A few decades ago, mixed ethnicity relationships were much more problematic and unaccepted in society. In America, it was as late as 1967 when the Supreme Court banned state laws against interracial marriage. However, this question seems to amplify many of the racist assumptions and stereotypes that still persist about such unions. Desdemona ‘sticking it out until the end’ is symbolic of the ever faithful, ever loyal White woman stereotype. Othello ‘treating her badly’ is symbolic of the Black man’s propensity towards violence. Even demeaning and likening Desdemona’s commitment and desire to save her marriage as a ‘political project’ rather than for love is stereotypical. For me to say that these attitudes and consciousness exist in present-day mixed ethnicity unions would continue to perpetuate these racist assumptions and stereotypes. But I am grateful for the question for it shows how negative attitudes towards mixed race couples can be rooted in racism.

Is there an issue or topic in Shakespeare’s play which you find problematic or which even makes you angry? Or the other way around: Which timeless conflicts do you find well expressed there? 

CP From a political standpoint, Shakespeare’s works addresses the worries and concerns of his time. But when we consider the lasting implications of Othello, like most historical texts, it is an example of how easily something as seemingly innocent as a classic tragedy can contribute to many of today’s racist assumptions and ideas. Consider that Othello is required reading for many educational institutions. Consider that, for many students, Othello will be the first time they encounter an ethnic protagonist as well as a diverse marriage within a classical text. Then consider the racial stereotypes that permeate Othello, and how students might internalize these falsehoods thus leading to their own individual racism as well as influence their unconscious racism.

Can you locate any incidents in Othello which a White audience has always received differently than an African-American or African one?

CP I imagine there are—how can there not be? But I imagine the same can be said for how men and women perceive different events and scenes.

Does this reveal latent racism on the part of the White audience?

CP If isolated occurrences of latent racism can be found within White audiences, the same can be said for African-American and African audiences. And within any audience for that matter. Again, most people harbor racist assumptions and beliefs, that consciously and unconsciously impact their experiences.

“You never know if it’s racism or if the other person just doesn’t like you.” What makes racist behavior so difficult to discern?

CP Such behavior is difficult to discern because that is the intent—to be subtle, to make sure the situation appears ambiguous. However, I believe it is important to consider how the discriminatory behavior is perceived by the victim, which is highly dependent on the ethnicity and status of the aggressor. Has the aggressor made his opinions known regarding the victim and/or people with the same identity? Is the aggressor in a position of power where he can impact the victim’s employment?

Whether subtle or blatant, there is one common goal with the racist behavior—it is intended to harm the victim. Therefore, it is important to start with considering how the discriminatory behavior is perceived by the victim and whether harm was indeed the result. Employers should establish a system to address both the victim’s and aggressor’s feelings and follow up with appropriate courses of action if the discriminatory behavior persists.

What are the most effective means to oppose racial discrimination?

CP On March 21, 2017 the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) joined the global community in observing the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As part of this initiative, NNEDV listed eight ways to fight racial injustice. I find this list to be an incredibly useful call to action:

  • Learn to recognize and understand your own privilege.
  • Examine your own biases and consider where they may have originated.
  • Validate the experiences and feelings of people of color.
  • Challenge the “colorblind” ideology.
  • Call out racist “jokes” or statements.
  • Find out how your company or school works to expand opportunities for people of color.
  • Be thoughtful with your finances. (Take a stand with your wallet)
  • Adopt an intersectional approach in all aspects of your life.

Further detail and explanation of these approaches can be found here. 

With respect to the tense political situation today – a split in the American society under Donald Trump, the realignment of previous political alliances, the rise of autocratic leaders in main European democracies: Are you optimistic or rather pessimistic regarding a further decline of racism?

CP I am highly optimistic, perhaps because as a historian I look at the fight for equality through different lenses. I know that change does not happen as immediately as many of us would like. Rather, it is incremental changes over time that make the biggest impact. I look at how society viewed and addressed racism 50 years ago, 100 years ago. The decline of racism has been slow but steady. And I am optimistic that the work will continue until it is done. It’s why the mission of The Antiracist Research and Policy Center is to produce knowledge for change’s sake. We engage in research of racial inequity and discrimination that leads to policy innovation and implementation. We strive to build a world of equal opportunity for all, resting on a foundation of tenacious people who believe an antiracist world is possible. 

This interview was first published on Oct 22, 2018, in the printed edition of Max Joseph Magazine, Bavarian State Opera.

Maria März (managing editor) and Sabine Voss (editorial staff member) have asked the questions. 

Christine A. Platt is a scholar of African and African-American history, and an award-winning author of literature on African diasporic experiences. She currently serves as the Managing Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University.

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