Racism Denial: (Un)learn the Fear of Knowing

How do fear and racism denial prevent us from acknowledging the way discriminatory and oppressive systems operate? And how can we face racism denial and (un)learn the fear of knowing?

Racism Denial: Fighting The Fear of Unknowing
Photo: Marc Beckmann

Racism has been an issue for many years, but it remains unresolved to date. In order to support and sustain diversity and equity, we must directly confront bias and racism at the individual level, institutionally (through policies and practices) and by accelerating systemic change. Therefore, we plan to embark on a journey as Responsible Leaders to learn and unlearn.

The article below was co-written by Girls Are Awesome’s very own Head of Partnerships, Thandi Allin Dyani, and Paulo Jorge Vieira, an Education Consultant at the Aga Khan Foundation in Portugal, who both contribute as Responsible Leaders for TwentyThirty, an online magazine presented by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, that sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we face. Let’s make a difference for humanity by contributing towards racial equity and become Travelers on the learning and unlearning journey!

Words by Thandi Allin Dyani and Paulo Jorge Vieira

Fear is a primary emotion, a defense mechanism commonly triggered by anticipation or awareness of danger. The (Un)learning Journey is for people of color as much as for white people, and the realization of the causality of racism leads to that very fear of knowing: Have I been the target of racism? Is racism structural? Am I the perpetrator of such deep wounds? Am I, despite my “good intentions,” inflicting pain, confusion, the fear of speaking up?

This often leads people to become defensive and take it personally. This fear of knowing, this denial emerges as a “protection mechanism,” making it challenging to end privilege systems, to build trust and allyship against racism, and to promote change and shared responsibilities on the road to racial equality. 

To write this article, we have used our life-long Afro-European experiences as a starting point. All our lives, we have navigated systems with a set of (un)seen barriers that have often delivered signs that we were and are unwelcome in our home societies.

In our adult lives we have realized that  those “uncomfortable moments” were/are micro-oppressions, that we grew up in a racist system perpetuated by narratives, cultures, and people, which had the purpose of “putting us in our place” – the place of the “other,” someone outside of the norm who did and could not belong.

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By sharing our stories and subjective perceptions of racism, we want to contribute to the emergence of shared narratives regarding racial equity in which less represented voices gain prominence and the “other” becomes the “author.” Not least, we want to communicate ideas and invite reflection. If we are stories of our imagination, we must change our mental posture.

Our experiences not only inform us, they simultaneously condition us in the way we look at the “other.” When we are trapped by compartmentalized thinking, we will more easily be guided (almost) solely by unconscious bias, and our imagination is held hostage. To go further, we must leave this thinking behind. This is a necessary step to stimulate freedom and diversity of thoughts.

Us, the Others, and the “Invisible” Impact of Racism

When we talk about racist behavior, it usually becomes centered around harsh physical and verbal violence. We showcase our bruises and record the offensive language as proof of the brutality of racism. As this very (Un)learning Journey set off with the murder of George Floyd by U.S. police officers, we tend to forget how the subtlety of (non-physical) racism can have an even stronger impact on our lives.

For example, on the life and work path we choose for ourselves, the very options we find ourselves having, and the futures we are trying to build. With a lifetime of self-images that are not good, we have to reinvent the whole basis of our existence. This often leads to more silence and fear of speaking our reality. So we must understand why we act the way we do.

When they like me, they tell me it is despite my color.
When they hate me, they add that it’s not because of my color.
I am, in both cases, a prisoner.
-Frantz Fanon-

Grada Kilomba’s “Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism,” which seeks to dismantle the normality of racism and exposes the violence and trauma of being placed systemically as the “other” within a dehumanized frame, resonates and helps us to explain our experiences.

According to Kilomba, “in a white conceptual world, it is as if the collective unconscious of Black people is pre-programmed for alienation, for disillusionment and for psychic trauma, because the images of Blackness with which we are confronted are neither realistic nor rewarding.” Apparently innocent questions such as “where are you from?” can generate trauma, especially when we feel like the persons asking is dissatisfied with our answers because it doesn’t confirm their biases.

We need to recognize and accept our differences to understand, deconstruct, and avoid reproducing situations that will potentially dehumanize the “other.” 

The Abusive Relationship

Being exposed to racist behavior is a constant presence in our everyday lives. Unfortunately the majority of people – from colleagues to friends – collectively deny, diminish or question our racist experiences and practice “whatabout-ism,” as in changing the conversation to consider other, non-related things (“well, what about this …?”). This mechanism is referred to as “gaslighting”.

The term “gaslighting” refers to a psychological mechanism when someone manipulates you into questioning and second-guessing your reality, and it is an effective way of ensuring that accusations of racism lose credibility. Sometimes even the manipulated person will disbelieve his/her experience and feelings. According to behavioral scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal, gaslighting is a form of racist abuse because it makes the BPoC community doubt their realities, and they become disenfranchised by continuously feeling like outsiders. 

Experiencing this subtle racism – some would say “microaggressions” – in most social environments, in the very fabric of our social relations and society’s institutions may create the same type of impact as living in an abusive relationship.

Is Racism just in America?

In the rather “homogeneous” societies in Europe, the BPoC community is a minority. Therefore, the privileged majority have blinds spots regarding racist systems and barriers. These many unseen racist obstacles, which we are only beginning to understand the complexity of, affect the access to education, livelihoods, wellbeing, and other opportunities for people in our communities to define their life projects.

We are beginning to see how othering and gaslighting can lead to imposter syndrome, negative self-images, fear, depression, and apathy – and, in the end, social exclusion. Racism, discrimination, and gaslighting are such a big part of our lives. We accept these structures because we have been taught over time that it is us who are wrong.

As much as there is a need for more regulations, laws, and policies to tackle racism and white supremacy, we need to take crucial steps before those will be effective in combating the challenge of racism. There are regulatory measures in place to help us report abusive behavior but, according to a EU survey to help the BPoC community report and use tools to combat racist abuse, these measures are not used enough to matter. In other words, the culture around regulations is not inclusive, and the very institutions and policies that are set in place to protect the rights of citizens fail miserably. In fact, these regulatory measures amplify racism.

However, it is important to emphasize that racism is not an event. When collective prejudices are reinforced by the power of legal authority and institutional control, they become racism, a system that operates beyond the intentions or self-images of individual actors.

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Photo: João Pedro Correia

The systems are wide open to improvement and we need to work towards a new culture to stimulate inclusive societies open to all. Most importantly, we need to overcome the fear of talking about what it means to change culture. As uncomfortable and scary as it may be: We need to open Pandora’s box to co-create systems all sides can believe and exist in.

Don’t be Afraid, We Long After the Same Future

Displeased with the projection of a limiting future and designated places, we need decision-makers conscious of racial inequities as well as agencies tackling the naturalization of violence and creating purpose in the search and implementation of inclusive ways.

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How can we collectively define and shape the world we want? Shall we dare to do so together?

Culture consists of people’s views, traditions, and agreed-upon contracts with each other. So the great news is that you can shape that culture! It is you and me who have the power to change a racist culture, celebrate diversity, and create inclusive spaces. And we can begin to do so today. We just need to accept that racism is real, and overcome the fear of its existence.

We have a shared responsibility when it comes to creating inclusive spaces and alternative narratives about racial equity, making hitherto unseen barriers visible and dismantling these barriers. We are living a crucial moment in which much can be done in the fight against systemic racism, in legislative matters, but also societal terms.

However, it starts at the individual level. It is time for you to firmly stand up against your fear of knowing: be courageous, become more imaginative, free the way we all think about the creation of a better future. Let’s make racial equity OUR business. It’s time to (un)learn the fear of knowing.


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