On self exemption, framing and location: a meditation on race and other elements of personal biography that cannot be changed

What can we not change?

I want to use the word ‘racism’ in its broadest sense – much broader than it is currently used. The reason is that race is only one aspect of our humanity that no one can change.

We can’t change our place of origin. All of us were born in one of about 200 nations on earth. We can however, change our nationality through immigration. We can renounce our place of origin.

We can’t change our ethnicity. Ethnicity is a part of our personal biography that none of us can change. We can change our proclivities, however. Each of us can orient ourselves towards other ethnicities through dress, the food we eat, and social behaviour.

We can’t change our race. Race is also an element of our personal biography. But we can change our proclivities as noted above but we cannot reassign our race.

We can’t change our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation, despite historical attempts to reassign it, is yet another element of our biography. We can hide it however just as many LGBTQ persons have had to do in the past and in the present day.

We also can’t change many aspects of our physical and mental health. Some of us are born or develop various types of disabilities. Although we can ameliorate conditions, disabilities and morbidities, the rate at which we age, the onset of some diseases etc. are all part of our personal biography.

We cannot change our age except by growing older.

And until recently, we could not re-assign our gender. Now we can through complex surgeries and therapies. For the purposes of this meditation, I will leave gender reassignment out of the equation.

Why confusion starts the problem

The main problem is that all the things that we cannot change: place of origin, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and basic mental and physical characteristics routinely get mixed up with things that can change. These include fitness, health, determination and drive, diet, personal sacrifice, loyalty, literacy, faith, morality, honesty, goodness and other personal characteristics that are determined by the things that we can change.

There are other things that we can only solve together as a society. For example, justice, poverty, human rights, basic services, transportation, and infrastructure are only achievable as a collectivity – as a society. Sure, any one of us may obey the law, buy a car, service our own needs,   lift ourselves out of poverty, and treat others with dignity. But to achieve any of these goals on a societal level – where we all achieve them – we must do it together.

Just as the individual things we cannot change get confused with the things we can change, we often equate and confuse individually achievable goals with goals for society as a whole. Many people may lift themselves out of poverty but that does not mean poverty is eradicated. Just because hundreds of thousands of people buy cars and meet the transportation needs of their families, this does not mean that our transportation problems are solved.  Just because most of us treat one another with dignity does not mean that our society respects human rights. And just because thousands of families service their own needs with adequate childcare does not mean that every child receives adequate care.

Some utopians think that if every individual behaved well, then we would have better societies. This is undoubtedly true. If every hundredth family housed a homeless person in Canada, then homelessness would be solved quickly. If jobs were made freely available with adequate training and support – and all pay levels were brought up to a living wage and a basic income implemented for all, then we would largely eliminate poverty.

But the idea of everybody behaving better can only solve some individual problems. It does not solve any problems at the social level and in many cases makes things worse. Meeting your own transportation needs by buying a car may solve an individual problem but if everyone did it, gridlock would be far worse. In other words, the individual solution can often lead to a bad societal outcome as opposed to a better one. Environmentalism struggles with this dilemma.

So the basic problem is that both on an individual and societal level, we have the capacity as humans to confuse things that we cannot change with those we can change while confusing individual achievement with the  achievement of  collective societal goals.

Defining a wider concept of racism

I invite you to see racism in two wider senses.

The first is that individual racism is any negative thought or action towards someone based on the immutable aspects of their biography that will remain unchanged over their lifetime.

The second is that societal racism is any negative thought or action towards an individual or community based on goals that can only be achieved at a societal level.

An example of the first type of racism would be to believe that an individual will not do well in school because of their race or ethnicity. An example of the second type would be to think that we will have enduring poverty in our society because of the perceived characteristics of people who come from a certain place of origin.

What happens when racism persists?

As a society, we tend to act on the basis of things we believe. Good change can come about by acting on the things that we can change for the better. But once we begin to assign problems according to aspects of personal biography that can’t be changed, we start down the road to racism and intolerance.

Similarly, when we believe that societal solutions only come about as the result of many acts of individual change – and societal change does not occur – we start back down the road to racism and intolerance. We see things that don’t change and begin to blame it on the easiest of all targets – the aspects of individual personal biography that cannot change.

 Self-exemption, framing and location

One of the most pervasive aspects of racism is self-exemption. It’s always the other country that’s no good, always the other ethnicity that is suspect and the other race that is inferior. It’s never ourselves.

Part of that comes from our relentless pursuit of self-esteem. We all want to think well of ourselves and it can be easier for some to believe in bloodlines than the content of character.

But another part comes from collective concepts of evidence and problem location. This is where we mistake what comes first: racism or behaviour.

One good example is schools that are created with equal access to education but soon become schools for privileged children of well-to-do white people. What do we think about that?

Another is the country that stays in third world conditions while another becomes an economic powerhouse. What are our thoughts?

Yet another example is found in who gets carded in a city like Toronto. What is the frame and problem location?

What came first: the behaviour that we associate with certain races or the frame that defined behaviour as attributable to people who cannot change an aspect of their biography?

The answer is in the order and location.

The frame always precedes the evidence. The frame defines the evidence and the way it will be seen. The frame also persists in locating the problem.

What I would say to the racist is that the way you have come to see the world – the frame – the lens through which you view it allows the organization of the evidence along racist lines. It then locates the problem with the particular community such that the solutions must come from the community and the people where it is located.

If you think of lack of good drinking water on a Reserve as a First Nations problem, you have already framed the evidence in a way that locates the problem in the place in which the problem persists. The same is true for so called ‘at risk’ youth. We locate the problem with them and prescribe ‘riskectomies’ for the youth as opposed to wider societal solutions.

This is also true for carding because we frame the problem originally as black crime because that’s how we looked at it. Then we locate the solutions with crime alleviation in certain communities that have particular geographies. And then we say it is up to them – that community as a particular collectivity – to solve the problem. This is absurd. If the problem is ‘driving while black’, how is the black community to solve this?


I often wonder how the racist conceives of God. Did one God create all the differences in personal biography that are unchangeable and immutable? Or are different people – other than ‘us’ – children of lesser Gods.

If it’s the same God, then we have a problem because we would have to answer the question of why the Almighty would create a world in which some people were unchangeably better than others.

If others are children of lesser Gods, then we have a much easier way to explain unchangeable aspects of our biography since our own world would mirror the Heavens and the gods who inhabit them.

But in a few words, it’s all about self-exemption, the frame that precedes and defines the evidence and the location of a problem in the place – the geography and the community –in which it takes place.

So let me ask and answer the self-exemption, framing and location problem in a different way in just one example:

Question: Does the Bridle Path and Rosedale have an affordable housing problem?

Answer: Yes – they really do.


John Stapleton
January 5, 2016