Category Archives: Shaney Says

Square Dancing and Racism

So, here’s the thing. I am about as white as it gets, with my Dutch and Scottish heritage in a Canadian package. Under normal conditions, I would not ever experience racism, so it might be hard for me to really understand what it means, and how it feels, to be judged based on the colour of my skin.

Fortunately for me, though, I have lived in Japan for around 20 years and this has put my lily white skin in the position of being judged. AND IT DRIVES ME CRAZY. Let me assure you that it would drive you nuts too. You would be vocal about it and want to change it. You would not make excuses for it or tell people that they are being over-sensitive.

Let me give you an example. It is an entirely harmless example, but it illustrates the point that even a little bit of judgement can be really annoying.

I have been square dancing since 2007 (so nine years now, for those of you who are reading this in the future). I have learned how to dance to the choreography in three different programmes (basic, mainstream, and plus), and I have danced in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and as of this past week, Canada. I am not a perfect dancer, and I certainly do make mistakes, especially because I sometimes have trouble distinguishing my left from my right quickly enough, but under normal conditions, I don’t usually make “square-breaking mistakes” that completely mess everything up.

Some people do make square-breaking mistakes. Beginners will do it all the time because they are not used to hearing the calls and performing them fast enough to keep up with the music. People who have no rhythm, or who are not musically inclined will sometimes break squares. And older people who might have hearing problems, or who are just not fast enough to keep up can often break a square. This happens, and when it does, you just get into a certain formation (facing lines) and wait for the caller to call something that you can do from the formation. It’s no big deal.

Anyway, the point that I am making is that breaking a square is not that big a deal. It is fixable. However, when I dance in Japan, sometimes I get into a square that has some weak dancers. I hate it when this happens because the other people in the square will often make it clear that they think I was the one who broke the square. You can usually tell when someone thinks that you are a square breaker because they will handle you a bit more forcefully, by leading you with their hands to the correct positioning after every call, or by repeating the call loudly to you. Sometimes I do make mistakes, but as I said, I am not usually the reason that a whole square breaks down. However, if I am in a square that has broken down with dancers who do not know me, I will almost always be seen as the “culprit” and be “kindly” guided for the rest of the song even if I have danced perfectly the entire time.

THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY! Just because the square broke down and I am in it (one white person with seven Japanese people), it is assumed that it is my fault. There isn’t anything I can do to stop this from happening when it does. It is a natural prejudice that some people have and stopping the square to talk about sociological issues is not going to make me a more popular dancer. There isn’t anything I can do about it, other than tell people about it after the fact.

This is a small example, a small annoyance, and it does not affect my personal safety. However, it is a clear example of prejudice, and it illustrates to me exactly how it feels to be judged (and judged incorrectly) based on nothing other than the colour of my skin.

Because of this (and other examples that I am certainly willing to share if anyone is interested), I do have a small understanding of how people who are black/brown in Canada/US feel. If you have not ever felt that way, then you may not understand, and you may think that people who point out this particular kind of unfairness are over-reacting. Trust me, they are not over-reacting. It is annoying and unfair to be judged based on your physical appearance.

Prejudice and bias exist in all of us, and many of us are not aware of the fact that these themes infect our thinking. I do not consider myself to be racist, and I hope that my words and actions reflect that, but I admit to myself that I have prejudices and that I am susceptible to bias. I don’t want those to be my defining features, though, so I work hard to try to fight them. If you think you are a person entirely free of prejudice and bias, I would invite you to take the following test.

https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

I would wager a large amount of money that the test revealed that you are biased.

When one person is biased against you, it can be annoying and frustrating. If that one person is someone who has power over other people, like a police officer, it can be dangerous. And if an entire system is biased against you, it will impact on every part of your life, on a regular basis, in ways that cannot even be imagined by the people who are not affected by the bias.

Have you ever been in this situation? Someone you have never met before starts treating you in a certain way that doesn’t match with how you see yourself. That person takes a look at you and makes decisions about you, and starts treating you according to what they believe about you. They might be treating you like you are stupid, or like you are older or younger, or richer or poorer, than you are. It can even happen when someone asks you for directions when you are in a place that is unfamiliar, or someone thinks you work at a store that you are shopping in. Or when you are in a foreign country and someone speaks to you in a different language, assuming that you can speak it fluently. You can tell when you are not being treated right (according to what you know about yourself) and it is weird and uncomfortable.

That is a brief taste of what it feels like to be a person in a minority. Imagine if that happened ALL THE TIME. Imagine what it would feel life if people ALWAYS assumed that you were aggressive. Or that you were poor. Or that you were up to no good. Or even that you can or cannot dance. It would certainly start to become annoying after the first few times.

What I am trying to say, in my rambling way, is that you should not dismiss racism, prejudice, or bias as not real, or not relevant, or not important. People who face it on a daily basis are not making it up. Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does. You just don’t know what you don’t know.

My Understanding of the Black Lives Matter Movement

One of my Facebook friends asked some questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are my answers.


Is Black Lives Matter (BLM) any different from the KKK or Neo Nazi groups — racist hate groups?

BLM is not a hate group, nor is it racist. It is a group that is trying to get people to understand how systemic prejudice affects the lives of black people. They are not trying to pit black against white. It is possible to understand what they are saying and not feel like they trying to put white people down. They are commenting about the system, not about individuals.

Why are the police being targeted?

Police are part of the system. There are many parts of the system that favour the majority. If you are not part of that majority, your experience of the system is very different.

There is an inherent problem with the system: in our current society, everyone is inherently prejudiced against black people, including black people. Even if you think that you are not prejudiced, or rather, especially if you think you are not prejudiced, you are. This means that police officers tend to perceive more of a threat from black people, which means that the fear that they feel makes them more likely to act more aggressively to a black person, even if that person is not acting in a way that would be perceived as threatening if he/she was white.

The main issue is, therefore, that there is a lower threshold for police to show aggressive behaviour towards black people, but there is a secondary issue of police using too much force in general. The way our societies are set up is that the government makes the laws, the police enforce the laws, and the judicial system decides whether laws have been broken or not and issue the consequences if the laws have been broken. The police are invested with the power to apprehend people who are perceived to be not following laws, but they do not have the right to mete out judgement on those people, nor are they given the right to summarily execute them. There are many examples of police officers killing people these days. With a heavily armed populace, this may be inevitable, but it still seems problematic to have so many deaths at the hands of the police.

I am not saying that I sympathize with the Dallas shooter, nor am I saying that the job of a police officer isn’t one of the hardest jobs to have. (It is possible to have this conversation without being anti-police.) What I am saying is that the system is currently set up in a way that police officers are authorized to use lethal force, and that that lethal force is sometimes applied too liberally in cases where it wasn’t necessarily warranted, especially when the person being apprehended is black.

The final piece of the puzzle is that the police system and the judicial system are predominantly set up to favour the majority, so if a black person (or the family of a black person) wants to question the actions of a police officer, or take a case to the courts, they feel that their chances of receiving a fair judgement are very low.

Taken as a whole, this makes black people feel like the system is set up in a way that ends up with black people killed in cases where white people would not be killed, and that they have no recourse to say that this is unfair. That is what is meant by “black lives matter”. It is not saying that black lives are more important than white lives. It is not saying that the police are bad, or that they are they enemy. It is saying that the system needs to be examined and changes need to be made so that black people do not have to live in fear of being killed by police officers, and so they do not have to live with the understanding that if their loved ones do get killed, there is no process for them to question it.

Yes, there are many cases where both white people and black people are interacting with law enforcement officers in a way that would be expected to get them subdued aggressively. We are not talking about those cases. We are not talking about cases where the person is acting aggressively towards the police, and the police officers have no other choice but to act aggressively back. We are talking about cases where the person is not a threat, or is no longer a threat, and they still end up getting shot. Why is that happening? That is the question at the crux of this matter. All other matters should not be confounded with this one. Yes, there are more black people in prison than should statistically be the case. Yes, there is a lot of black on black violence. Yes, white people also get shot by the police. These are all problematic, but they cannot be used to explain why black people who are objectively — based on undoctored video evidence — not acting in a threatening way are getting shot by police.

One reason we can’t all agree on this issue and try to find answer is that we can’t come to an agreement on whether the black people in the video are acting in a threatening way. When you watch the videos of the two black men who were killed by police recently, do you feel that their deaths were justified? Do you feel like the police had no choice but to kill them? Do you think the police were acting within their rights to kill these men? If you feel that the police were justified in killing these two men, then we need to dial the conversation back to the role of police in society and the rights and responsibilities given to them in our society, without even talking about the race of the people they are interacting with.

Why is there so much hate in the world?

In my opinion, hate comes from misunderstanding and ignorance. And we are all guilty of both. We don’t listen to each other. We stand on our pedestals and shout things to each other, but we don’t engage in healthy debate and really listen to what we are trying to say to each other.

If we can’t wrestle with the hate that we perpetuate ourselves by shutting down and not listening, then we can’t be surprised to see it reflected back to us in our society.

Why Do I Argue with Racist, Sexist, Gun-Loving People?

Almost every time I have a day off with no pressing work to do (so, roughly, two times a year!), I end up getting into arguments with racist, sexist, climate change denying, and/or gun-loving square dancers (*see note below) on Facebook. Normally, I would never encounter people with such vastly different views from my own, so I can go about my daily life in a nice little bubble thinking that everyone thinks basically the same way that I do. However, since I started participating in square dance related groups and becoming FB friends with square dance callers, I am made regularly aware of the existence of a huge contingent of Western society that does not think like me.

On the days when I have time to get involved in such discussions, I almost always receive emails and private messages from people who agree with me, asking me why I bother. I bother because I want to understand why people think the way they do. We all think we are individuals who have come up with our views and opinions all on our own, but we have not. A huge web of societal influences — coming from our parents, our friends, our teachers, our communities, and the media we encounter, amongst other sources — pushes us to accept certain “truths” about our world. Some of these truths are so deeply ingrained that we do not ever remember learning them.

We hold these truths to be self evident.

There are all kinds of problems in the world that stem from people hunkering down with their views and refusing to engage with those who disagree with them. If I shut myself down and refuse to engage with those who hold views that differ from mine, how can I get upset when I feel that people are not listening to me, or not “seeing reason” (as defined by me).

Probably the best example of this is the gun debate. I will readily admit that I JUST DON’T GET IT. If you were given the choice of living in a society where there were virtually no guns, and very little gun-related violence, versus living in a society where everyone had guns, and there was more gun-related violence than in most other parts of the world, wouldn’t you chose the one where no one had guns? Well, yes, if you come from a family that never had guns around, you have never touched a gun, and you have never been involved in a situation where you might have wanted to have a gun in your hand. And, yes, if you currently live in a society where your chances of even seeing a gun, let alone be harmed by one, are virtually nil. Not so, however, if your family has always had guns, you have fond memories of hunting with your dad, and your neighbour’s house was broken into at gunpoint last week.

It’s not that the gun-shunners are daisy-eyed optimists and the gun-lovers are Yosemite Sam wannabes. It’s that our upbringing, and our current environment, have conspired to bring us to certain views, and it is very, very hard to see the world in a different way. ESPECIALLY WHEN FEAR IS INVOLVED. I would say that fear underlies the argument on both sides of the gun debate. Those who want to get rid of the guns are afraid of the guns, and those who want more guns are afraid of not having guns around when they feel the need to protect themselves.

The problem with both of these viewpoints is that they are based on a very ego-centric view of the world. One thing our Western upbringing gives us in common is the idea that what we as individuals think is the most important thing — the only thing — we need to consider. We have an unbelievable tendency to ignore the fact that we live in society. I studied Psychology to a very high level at university and I thought that gave me a great deal of insight into the way the world works. However, I took my first university-level class in sociology a couple of years ago and my brain practically exploded. Without considering issues from both the psychological and the sociological perspective, I was only seeing half (or less) of the picture. I came to the rather painful realization that my entire worldview, until that point, was horribly skewed.

That experience was the second time in my life that my understanding of the world was completely changed through a particular experience. The first was when I came to Japan and realized that the world was not filled with other people who thought exactly like I did. In fact, as a suddenly very visible, and very minor minority (white, Canadian female in Japan), I found myself having to constantly defend my views on all subjects. Until that point in my life, I had been surrounded by people who thought like I did on most subjects. At the time (i.e. in the 24 years of living in Canada until that point), I didn’t realize that I was surrounded by people who thought like I did on most subjects. I definitely argued with people in Canada, but I realize that the sphere of all arguments I had had to that point in my life could be contained in the dots on the letter “i” in the word “international”. Being pulled out of the comfortable womb of my native land did a very good job of making me see things like “culture”, “privilege”, and “normal” in an entirely different light.

Okay, I may be veering slightly off-topic here. My point is this.

(1) I argue with people in order to try to understand where they are coming from, because I know that they have had a different experience of the world from me. It was only about three years ago that I finally understood that some people actually LIKE guns. That thought had never occurred to me, and without that knowledge, trying to come up with solutions to the gun problem in the United States is impossible. (And, by the way, some people, due to their own background and upbringing, think there is no gun problem — this is also something I only recently realized.)

(2) I argue with people in order to try to help them learn from my experiences. I also hope to learn from theirs. We can’t possibly experience everything in this world, so we have to make do with second-hand experiences sometimes.

And finally, (3) I argue with people because it is, for whatever reason, something I feel I have to do. I cannot see a post like this…

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… or this…

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…and not say anything. I just can’t.


* Note: Not all square dancers are racist, sexist, gun-loving climate change deniers. I belong to a square dance club in Japan and those words do not characterize any of the people that I dance with. I only realized the connection between square dancing and these ideologies when I joined the above-mentioned Facebook groups for discussing square dancing. I don’t like to classify people as “left-wing” or “right wing” because I have found that doing so shuts down all intelligent discussion, but it does seem that I am rather “left”, while square dancing has been traditionally associated with the “right”, for some reason.

Good and Evil are for Fairy Tales: We Need to Grow Up

J.K. Rowling is awesome and I agree with her rebuke of Rupert Murdoch. However, I don’t agree that the world is divided into “good” and “evil” the way this article suggests (“we fail to recognize the evil behind the attacks for what it is: pure evil”). Good and evil are what we use to describe the world to children in fairy tales. Grownups need to have a more refined/mature/nuanced understanding of the world. If we just ascribe the acts of these people to the fact that they are “evil”, we fail to examine further the reasons for doing what they did. I am not saying that there is any reason that could be given to justify killing people, but if we don’t take the time to understand WHY they did it, we will never be able to prevent it from happening again.

How To Respond to Climate Change Deniers

Climate change denial is a politically-motivated opinion. It is basically the same as “science denial”. I try not to get into fights with people about stuff like this because it is awfully frustrating, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Here is how I responded to a conversation on Facebook that included a lot of people expressing uninformed opinions about climate change.


Here’s the problem. We tend to surround ourselves with people who think the same way we do. This tends to make us accept ideas without questioning because “everyone agrees” or at least “those of us with common sense agree”.

In the case of climate change, the only way you could come up with the idea that (anthropogenic) climate change is not real is by reading opinion articles in politically-motivated media. However, once you have that idea in your head, it is easy to surround yourself with other people who also believe the same thing.

It is very difficult to find any scientific evidence that shows that the climate ISN’T changing. All of science includes uncertainty, but the kinds of uncertainty associated with climate science have to do with degrees (how much) rather than “is climate change a thing”.

I worked as a translator for two years in a research institute for environmental studies. I have read a lot of scientific papers about climate change from a lot of difference sources. I do not mean newspapers or articles online. I mean technical papers written by climate experts for climate experts. These people do not have an agenda. They are not politicians. They use math and scientific methods to show trends in the data that they collect.

Science is not something that you believe or don’t believe. It is something that you read and analyse and contribute to. Agreeing and disagreeing is all part of the scientific process, but before you cultivate your own opinion about a scientific topic like climate change, you have to be willing to put in the work to read the actual scientific literature on that topic. Otherwise, all you are doing is cultivating and spreading ignorance.