Moments of Permanence - The White Person's Guide To Working Out If They're Racist

About The White Person's Guide To Working Out If They're Racist

Previous Entry The White Person's Guide To Working Out If They're Racist Apr. 10th, 2011 @ 03:39 pm Next Entry
If you're reading this, you're probably a person. Which means that you probably have skin, which will have a melanin component, in most cases. Despite this, some of you will nonetheless qualify as "white", perhaps because "pinky-beigey-tan-sort-of-thing" looks bad on forms.

Many white people struggle with the notion of "being a racist". Because just about everyone agrees that being a racist is bad, but sometimes, it's so hard to tell, right? What if you're a racist and you don't even know it? What if you're sure you're definitely not one but the question keeps coming up again?

Well, have no fear. Auntie Sami is here to help. Here are some tips on working through this dilemma. And we're not, here, going off that ridiculous assertion that "everyone's a little bit racist" - one, because I don't think that's true, actually, and two, because it implies that that means being racist - if just "a little bit" - is somehow, therefore, okay. Which it isn't. So here goes.

"Racist" has a clear definition, and I don't fit it!

I looked at a webpage today. The webpage's author was totally a racist, and she denies it on the basis that "this is the definition of racism":

"a belief in the innate superiority of a particular race; antagonism towards members of a different race based on this belief."

Well, not exactly. Certainly that's a reasonable definition of racial supremacist attitudes, and it's a reasonable definition of one form of racism, but it's more-or-less equivalent to defining Christianity as adherence to Catholicism, and... not so much. Like Christian denominations, there are many forms of racism, and while some are hard-line evangelicals or rigid Roman Catholics, others are mild-mannered sorts who think overt displays of their faith are rather tacky.

Racism encompasses a lot of other things, many of them subtle and unconscious, some of them not involving antagonism at all.

Real-World Extreme Example: It was once, and for many years, standard practice to take the children of indigenous Australian families away and foster them with white families. It was felt that this would provide the children with much better lives. There wasn't antagonism involved - it was a sincere conviction that the black children would be better off living with white strangers than their own families.

This was, however, incredibly racist.

If you find yourself quoting a definition like the one above to prove why something you're doing is totally not racist, it's probably quite racist indeed, and you're probably a racist.

But I have black friends!

No-one cares.

Whether or not you are racist is not determined by how you treat, or even whether you have, black friends. It's determined by how you treat, think about, and react to strangers. Of course you're nice to your friends - everyone is. And being a racist won't stop you having friends of a different race, because that person will, in your mind, be either an exception, or possibly a token trophy of your non-racism.

Because racism isn't about individuals, not really. One racist isn't even a problem - the problem with racism is the systemic toxicity it causes.

Sure, that person called me a racist, but that happens to everyone sometimes!

Have you noticed that that statement sort of assumes "everyone" is white?

But that's a side-issue. The actual thing of this is: no it doesn't. Getting called racist is sort of like the Ian Fleming count. Once is miscommunication, twice is time to do some careful thinking, three times is you're a racist and you need to shut up until you've done some serious reading on Racism 101.

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From:[personal profile] onyxlynx
Date: April 10th, 2011 04:54 pm (UTC)
Um, melanin; melatonin is a hormone that helps you sleep.
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From:[personal profile] sami
Date: April 13th, 2011 04:40 am (UTC)
Good point. I'll fix that.

*embarrassed cough*
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From:[personal profile] sqbr
Date: April 13th, 2011 03:32 am (UTC)

My possibly completely wrong opinion

Hmm! I've been thinking about this post for a few days, and while I don't disagree with most of it per se, I'm not sure this is a useful way to frame things.

I agree that there is line that, once crossed, marks a person as a racist, and that it's reasonable to call such people out (though where that line lies is pretty subjective) But on the whole, I don't see that deciding whether or not people are racists should be the first priority in anti-racism, and I'm not sure I see what purpose this post serves.

Basically, I think white people are pretty much all at least a little bit racist, and I don't think that pointing that out is at all ridiculous. I agree that it is ridiculous to claim that it means that there are not different levels of racism, or that the fact that it's difficult if not impossible for a white person to be entirely free of racism makes it ok to be very racist. But I see it as a continuum. And the problem with dividing the world into racists and (by implication) not-racists is that it simplifies that continuum down to a dichotomy.

This has several possible effects on a hypothetical white person:
1)Someone who sees themselves as on the good side of the dichotomy says "Yay! I am not a racist!" and goes on their merry way without confronting their probably still not insignificant levels of racism. If accused of racist actions they will say "Ah! But I am not a racist!"
2)Someone who sees themselves as on the "bad" side says "SO YOU THINK I'M A NAZI? Fine, screw you, maybe I am a racist, whatever."
3) Someone who sees themselves as on the "bad" side says "OH GOD I AM A RACIST I SUCK", but it's such a vague and all encompassing label they may not know what to do about it. And when do you know you've stopped being "a racist"? Once you do, is it ok to start being complacent a la the people in group 1?

You've probably seen it before, but I quite like the video How To Tell People They Sound Racist (search the page for "transcript" for a transcript, alas I can't link to comments)
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From:[personal profile] sami
Date: April 13th, 2011 04:40 am (UTC)

Re: My possibly completely wrong opinion

It's not necessarily a post intended to "serve a purpose", in any grand sense. It's more that I'm sick of - and at the time I wrote it, was intensely aggravated by, while off my meds - people using arguments like "this is a dictionary definition of racism that I don't fit" to excuse whatever it is they're doing that's actually totally racist.

As a post, it boils down to: no, none of that stuff applies.

Group 1, the "But I am not a racist!" people, is more or less the group this post is intended to tell to shut up. I'm not trying to divide the world into racists and not-racists, I'm trying to say that if people say you're a racist, that's probably because you're being racist, and none of those excuses listed mean anything.

Because the thing is the people who insist that they're tooootally not a racist, because :reasons in post:. Whereas my point is that those excuses are worth nothing, and if you're getting called a racist repeatedly, there's pretty much guaranteed to be a reason.

As far as definitions go... I do think it's possible to be white and not a racist, not least because I believe that it's not about what people think, it matters what they do - the reason why people should nonetheless evolve their thinking is because your thoughts influence your behaviour.

So if you have reached the point where you have no outwardly detectable signs of racist conditioning, even when it comes to things like Implicit Association testing... I'd argue that a person has at that point overcome racism, even if they occasionally have a momentary prejudicial thought.

Of course, the kyriarchy is trying to reinstall it constantly, so it's arguably a kind of "at that moment, and for that moment" thing, but still. One must always be on the watch, and analyse one's thoughts with care.

I had an odd moment like that yesterday. I had gone to the pharmacy (about 90 seconds' walk from our house), and was coming back, and as I was unlocking the door became aware of the dark-skinned man across the street who was standing on the side of the road, facing our house, talking into a mobile phone.

I thought he was acting suspiciously. Then I thought that was kind of a racist assumption. And then I parsed what he was saying, which was: "I'm telling you, she just got home. She's going in now. Just call the whole thing off." There was something more about a van, or something, but then he saw me looking at him and dropped to a crouch and lowered his voice.

So I concluded that it was likely to be more of that thing where, when unmedicated for ADHD, which I was, I tend to be subconsciously very aware of my surroundings, and I'd tracked that what he was doing was actually really kind of suspicious, and then I hurriedly went into my house and locked the door.

On reflection: was there a racist impulse behind that? Hard to say, since if I'd noticed a white dude behaving the exact same way I'd have reacted the exact same way. But would I have noticed a white dude as much? Also hard to say. What with our proximity to Subiaco Oval, public transport, King's Park, the block of Homeswest flats down the road, etc, I can say that I don't really make particular assumptions about economic or social class with any random person I see walking down the street, and I'm specifically wary of young white men as being likely to be football yobbos, because they're the demographic most likely to be tools around this street.

So probably yes, but only if he was under thirty-five.
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From:[personal profile] sqbr
Date: April 14th, 2011 09:28 am (UTC)

Re: My possibly completely wrong opinion

Ahhhh, ok. I was (a)Interrogating the text from the wrong perspective and (b)Using a different definition of "racist".

Never mind then :)
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From:[personal profile] sami
Date: April 28th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)

Re: My possibly completely wrong opinion

If you want to see someone *really* interrogating the text from a wrong perspective, look below, omg. Where someone has created an account for the sole purpose of replying anonymously and also includes "sexist" and "homophobic".


You've known me more than ten years HOW OFTEN DO YOU THINK THAT'S HAPPENED IN THAT TIME
From:[personal profile] anonymousposting
Date: April 27th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
I'm sure you get called racist, sexist, homophobic now and then. Everyone does. Maybe not three times recently.

Just calling you on your comment:
Sure, that person called me a racist, but that happens to everyone sometimes! Have you noticed that that statement sort of assumes "everyone" is white?

Side issue? Anyway you are assuming that white people are the only people likely to disingenuously be called that.
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From:[personal profile] sami
Date: April 28th, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
Actually, no. Really not. I don't get called racist.

I also don't get called sexist, or homophobic, although I'm really not sure why you bring those into it - unless that happens to you too, and you're projecting, because you're all those things.

Really that assumption says much more about you than it ever could about me.

I'm pretty sure you don't know me, and we're definitely not friends, since I'm reasonably confident my actual friends a) are not the kind of weak and wimpy cowards who would create an "anonymous" account for the sole purpose of posting something like this and b) also are unlikely to imply that getting called racist for something is a sign that one's interlocutor is being "disingenuous".

(Also: Really? You're sure I get called homophobic? Who by? One of my ex-girlfriends coming up with a new reason for why we broke up?)
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