How to deal with being racist

Posted in Reading list by Nancy on May 31, 2010

Guardian columnist Joseph Harker hit it on the head when he wrote:

The acknowledgement of personal racism is simply a prerequisite before anyone can begin to eradicate its pernicious effects.

This has led me to think that it might be worth reviewing the way we use the “R” word. For ethnic minorities, or non-white people, who have lived experiences of racism, it is a fact that racism exists. It may be ‘new’ racism – insidious, covert, difficult to clearly find words for and expose – but it is there. ‘New’ racism slips by in the jokes made with close friends when no minorities are around, the language used to describe minorities, non-white people or less-privileged ethnic groups, and the unthinking perpetuation of behaviours and rituals that exclude, essentialise and other these people.

But calling out racism can sometimes be counter-productive. Rather than enlightening the person who caused offence, or eliciting an apology from them, the word ‘racist’ tends to put up walls. “I’m not racist! I have black/brown/Asian friends! I love curry!” When someone is offended by racism, and they point it out to the person who has offended them, they are likely to get one of three reactions:

1. The pseudo-apology:  “I didn’t mean to cause offence. It was a joke. Sorry if I caused offence.

2. The “explanation”, or “whitesplaining”: “I said this/did this/behaved this way because I was being ironic/trying to illustrate/racism doesn’t exist anymore/didn’t think anyone would be offended/it CAN’T be offensive because this this and this/I said it to my [insert ethnicity] friend and THEY weren’t offended…”

3. The dismissal: “You’re too sensitive/politically correct/can’t take a joke/get over it.”

The problem with the pseudo-apology is that the apology is not for holding racist views or doing something that demonstrates and perpetuates racism; the apology is made for offending someone. This equates offence caused by racism with the offence caused by farting in an elevator full of people. The person is not apologising, they are naturalising – they are simply explaining that their racism is not malicious/is natural to them. Oops, I didn’t realise my racism was showing.

The explanation similarly whitewashes (excuse the pun) the issue. It avoids the apology, the recognition of hurt caused to the person offended, and instead goes about justifying racism with a shit-ton of excuses. Instead of owning the damage done and recognising the repercussions of racism, it attempts a debate about “what is and is not racism”. This adds insult to injury – who are you, a person with the privilege to perpetuate such behaviour, to tell others how to define their experiences of racism?

The dismissal is just as frustrating as the explanation. Except, instead of pretending to engage in dialogue about racism, it shuts down the conversation completely. The dismissal is a refusal to acknowledge, or even consider, how words or actions may have caused harm or offended. Dismissal, like explanations and pseudo-apologies, reveals defensiveness. It reveals the unwillingness to acknowledge the prejudice, hate or fear that we harbour in ourselves towards other kinds of people.

This is because ‘racist’ is a scary word. To allow yourself to be called a racist acknowledges your privilege, your passivity in the face of inequality and your support of the status quo. If you are in all other respects an empathetic and kind-hearted person, of course this is a blow to the ego. To apply the word ‘racist’ to yourself can require a great deal of honesty and courage. But not all people are malicious racists. To quote Harker again, “it is naive to believe that the long history of racial distortion – which goes back to the days of slavery and colonialism – has not had a lasting effect on the individual subconscious”.

This doesn’t excuse racism or make it any less damaging, but I think it is important to consider the way we think about racism. A racist is not necessarily a bogeyman dressed in a KKK hood. Even as a non-white person, a racist could be the colleague you get along with especially well, a close friend or even your lover. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good people. It just means they harbour ingrained prejudice and privilege. This prejudice and privilege is not natural – it is instilled in us from birth. Where we are born, the colour of our skin, our gender, sex, and our physical or intellectual ability all determine how much power and privilege we get in society.

What is important is that we recognise this power and privilege, and recognise when we abuse it. There is no way to eradicate racism, or to remove personal prejudices, without first acknowledging that they exist.

The next time someone calls you out for racism, try these approaches (some borrowed from this LJ community’s list of rules):

1. Be aware of your privilege. Recognise that racism is dependent on power imbalances.

2. If someone calls you on it, don’t take it as an insult, but as a learning opportunity. Try to understand their point of view before you get defensive. Be honest about the perspective you are coming from.

2. Recognise that the people suffering from an oppression have the right to define it. Don’t mansplain, whitesplain, straightsplain, cissplain, etc. Respect people’s right to self-define.

3. Keep in mind that you are responsible for educating yourself.

4. Be grateful someone has called you out and given you the opportunity to learn.

5. It’s okay to say dumb stuff/do dumb stuff. We all fuck up. But a deliberate unwillingness to learn will reveal your true colours.


9 Responses

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  1. Jacques said, on May 31, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    You don’t have to be privileged to be racist.

    • Nancy said, on June 2, 2010 at 6:28 am

      There are many definitions of ‘racism’. The one I acknowledge and reference on this blog is “a highly-organised system of ‘race’-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/’race’ supremacy”.

      Of course non-dominant groups can also have ‘race’-based biases, but I’d argue that these are reactionary rather than hegemonic.

      • Jacques said, on June 2, 2010 at 8:32 am

        Racism is racism. It doesn’t matter why someone has bigoted views. The important point is that they do have those views.

        Please don’t excuse someone’s intolerance as “reactionary”. Because it is still wrong.

        Here’s an alternative definition of racism: The prejudging of another person based on genealogy.

      • Nancy said, on June 2, 2010 at 10:08 am

        When you use your basic definition of racism, then yes bigoted views are all the same regardless of who holds the power.

  2. Toby said, on June 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I’m sure that pocs never, never, never say anything derogatory about white people or, for that matter, about other pocs. Racism in various forms is alive in most of the world’s ethnic groups and societies.

    • Nancy said, on June 2, 2010 at 6:32 am

      I use the sociological definition of racism as a something based on group privilege. You’re quite right that non-white societies such as in Malaysia and China also operate in a racist way against other non-white people. However, they white people are also given more privilege than non-whites in these countries, particularly in China.
      I get what you mean in terms of derogatory remarks, but if they are made by the oppressed/less-privileged group then I would call those racial prejudices based on learned defensiveness/a reaction to hegemony.

  3. trixie said, on June 2, 2010 at 1:29 am

    this is amazing. i love it. i think i’m gonna share this with some people i know, it’s good food for thought.

    • Nancy said, on June 2, 2010 at 6:34 am

      Thanks that means a lot. Of course these aren’t all my ideas, I cobbled them together over time from lots of reading and personal experience. I do find it quite helpful though, especially when I’m the one being offensive 😛

  4. euclidave said, on June 2, 2010 at 7:56 am

    This is a great post, Nancy, well put.
    It frustrates me to no end when people show a deliberate unwillingness to learn, be that about issues like this or other important issues.

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