“But we are not the Racists”
We had just finished a BLM protest (at the time BLM protesting was still cool)
On the way to the car, she and I talked about the effectiveness of these protests in effectuating our collective desire for change.
She mentioned she felt dubious about the goal being realised and I expressed my belief that the efficacy lay within our ability to say the things that needed to be said and for the right people to hear what we needed to say.
And then she looked at me puzzled and said-with respect to those in attendance-“but we are not the racists”.
Her words struck me as incredibly ignorant, but also showed me how much work needed to be done, if we ever were to become, truly post-racial.
So, I thought it best to start by explaining what I understand racism to be, for we can never truly strive for racial justice until we understand/recognise what we are fighting against.
And yes, I know the post-George Floyd world is saturated by a wealth of anti-racism literature covering many different perspectives and I do not intend to saturate this any further, but simply to offer my take on the current climate.
So, bear with me.
Racism: what really is it?
Full disclosure, the word racism-especially the way it has been used lately, makes me cringe. I have heard white people in white dominant organisations, predominantly white governments, white-owned sports teams, with majority white coaching and leadership staffs, white-owned and run broadcast outfits, with majority white broadcasters, all speak for, commensurate with and take a stand against racism. And whilst this was heart-warming at first, the continued casualisation of the word and the obvious faux outrage with which it is sometimes used triggers within me an eye roll and dismissive snigger. Maybe because a lot of these declarations have a ‘jumping on the band-wagon’ feel to them and absent a clear desire to effect change. Or maybe because I have a problem with the way the word is used to start with.
Racism to me is like the multi-headed Hydra, in the sense that it manifests itself in a variety of forms and guises; it is both individual and structural all at the same time. Therefore, corralling all its various manifestations into an umbrella term might be a tad reductive.
As such, I generally like to differentiate between racial prejudice and racism. I shall try to explain as best I can:
Racial prejudice as the name implies is prejudice/hate motivated by the racial or ethnic identity of another. Racism on the other hand is the confluence of the aforementioned prejudice, with the power to affect the life chances of the undesired other. Hence, when a racial bigot attains power (power here defined loosely as the ability to make decisions that have real-life consequences to another) we hereby have a racist. A racist system, therefore, is one designed by a person or persons who possess a bias for or against a determined ethnic identity or identities(s) to facilitate the oppression or repression of said peoples. Or a system that fails to protect repressed folks from the malintent of those with relative power. So, therefore, whilst a person of colour could harbour racially bigoted sentiment against white folk for instance, they are rarely able to be racist, due to the absence of the requisite power. In the same vein, a white person with no power i.e. your random neighbourhood vagrant, cannot be racist towards me, a black person with some privilege.
However, for the purpose of ease, I shall refer to bigotry by this blanket term
I believe the misconception about what racism is and isn’t, originates (as most things tend to do) with media depictions of RACISTS. Hence, the word racist conjures up imagery akin to the bigots in movies like Mississippi Burning or Selma: middle-aged white men, with a southern drawl, using virulently racist language, whilst perpetrating or turning a blind eye to racist violence. Or maybe we think about more benign imagery of a George Wallace or (for those in the UK) Enoch Powell, making rousing speeches about black violence and black cultural inferiority. As such when most white people consider what a racist is, they are unable to see themselves.
And whilst one might be correct to consider the above mentioned to be racist, they, however, only represent the more militant manifestations of racism. What is most prevalent is the less noticeable and often unintended microaggressions, which form part of daily ethnic life. These could be as simple as conclusions drawn about a person, simply based on their race: which could be physiological make-up of blacks or the mathematical propensity of East Asians or the integrity of South Asian communities. So yes, you can be racist even without using racial epithets, burning crosses, or sporting a white hood from time to time. You could also be racist whilst acting in good faith. What everyone-particularly white people-needs to understand is that racism isn’t about what your intentions were, but how your actions or words impact the recipient of these.
Who are the racists, then?
The answer to this question is simple: all of us!
Yes, some way more than others, but the fact is we all to some degree participate or have participated in ideologies, beliefs, or actions that perpetuate racist ideas about marginalised groups and indeed our own groups. To this extent, white people are by and large the greatest culprits, being the designers and prime beneficiaries of an ethnocentric social hierarchy.
The idea of race as a delineator is a social construct and one which has existed for less than 600 years, which finds its roots in the anti-Semitist discrimination in 15th century Spain. This led to the development of the principle of ‘Limpieza’ or ‘purity of blood’ which was originally intended to exclude Jews from most aspects of social life and was extended to African slaves in the Spanish colonies. In fact, the word ‘race’ itself wasn’t found in the English language until the 17th century and some scholars believe the word to have been borrowed from the Spanish, as was the word ‘negro’.
Despite the artificiality of race as a delineator, it would be ignorant to declare us, to all be the same. Whilst that is partly true-in so far as we are all homo sapiens-there are glaring, verifiable distinctions between the races. Blacks and whites for instance are culturally and physiologically different in some ways, albeit these differences are more cultural than physiological. That said, these differences do exist, and whilst they shouldn’t reasonably form the basis for hate or hateful attitudes, the absence of proximity between the races, brought about by increasingly segregated societies, ensures that there is sufficient distance between these communities to allow misconceptions to fester. And these misconceptions could cause us to think, speak of, and act towards people of a different race in harmful ways.
I too have had to confront the way these misconceptions about people of a different race impact my belief systems. So yes, whilst a not-insignificant portion of knife crime in the UK is disproportionately perpetuated by young black men or terrorism-related offenses by Asian Muslims, this doesn’t make black men violent or Asian Muslims more terroristic than white people. One must first understand the depraved socio-economic conditions which cause many to see themselves as outliers within a system that only views them as ‘other’. This disenfranchisement has and will cause some black men to turn to crime and young Asians to Islamism but to conclude that these outcomes result from inherent cultural failings is not only erroneous but racist. To not attempt to understand and contextualise these behaviours prior to passing judgment, is racist. To draw conclusions about people simply by the way they dress or wear their facial hair is racist. To do all or any of the above makes you a person who perpetuates racism and dare I say, a racist.
Coming back to the girl at the rally.
Whilst I have no doubt about her anti-racist bonafides (if it was ever possible to know something of that nature) her ignorance about the way racism persists and operates, could be just as harmful as a person who was cognitively opposed to non-white ethnicities. For how can we seek to learn, if we do not admit a lacuna in knowledge?
It saddens me to think that a larger number of well-meaning white people are very similar: well-meaning enough to attend a BLM rally, share or retweet a post supporting the black cause, or to buy a book by Ta nehisi Coates. But may refute or show defence when called out on behaviour deemed to be racially insensitive. That in itself is racist. Remember, racism is less about intention than it is about perception.
So, if you are white and you are reading this, I will leave you with one word of advice: cast aside your non-racist credentials i.e. your black or Asian partner, child, neighbour or BLM protest attendance record. Being anti-racist goes way beyond a FB post or tweet or washing the feet black protesters. It involves looking inwards, acknowledging your privilege, educating yourself, and admitting that maybe, just maybe, you might be one of the racists.