It’s your lunchbreak and you decide to stroll over to the nearby park to take advantage of the warm summer day. Numerous other people had the same idea and the park benches are rather full. You see an open spot next to a sweet old lady and immediately imagine passing the hour hearing tales of her long life. She would probably enjoy the company and so would you. With this thought in mind, you bravely walk over intending to introduce yourself and to request to sit alongside her.
As you get nearer, you see that she has placed a little handwritten note on the bench next to her. It reads:
in large, curving black letters.
As a person of color, you are shocked, outraged and in disbelief. Who would do such a thing? Is it even legal to do something like that? Various possibilities become apparent at once. The overwhelming conclusion is that she is probably a deranged individual with no social awareness. Normal people don’t do things like that, do they?
Horrified, all you can do is sneer at the woman as you walk past her. It would do no good to cause a scene and she’s clearly not well.
Later that evening, you decide to log on to one of your favorite gay dating apps. Scrolling through the numerous headless torsos, you come across one that seems particularly appealing. The profile text is short and to the point:
No fats, no fems, no Asians. I don’t cross the color barrier (just a pref).
So this particular headless torso is definitely not an option in that case. You roll your eyes and keep scrolling.
While most of us would easily label the first encounter as racist, there are many amongst us who might brush the second one off as a harmless display of ‘preference’.
Why is this the case? Why do we tolerate certain forms of racism and may even be hesitant to label them as such when we would vocally denounce overt, dangerous racism?
In countries with a history of racist practices and laws, where one race has been dominant over others (usually Whites over people of color), there has been a clear evolution towards non-racial polices, laws and practices. This can be seen in countries such as the United States, South Africa and Australia.
There was a time when all these countries had state-sanctioned forms of racism that were deeply entrenched within the social, legal and psychological environs. We may choose to go as far back as slavery, but even more recent history is littered with legalized forms of racism that were tightly woven into the fabric of these societies. Apartheid, Jim Crow laws and the suppression of Aboriginal people are some prominent examples.
However, as the world has progressed towards greater equality and justice for all, these draconian laws and practices have slowly fallen away. Today, prevailing rhetoric in these countries is about non-discrimination, equal opportunities based on ability as opposed to the color of one’s skin and a widespread rejection of any racist ideals. We have done a pendulum swing: whereas racism used to be upheld by the law, now overtly racist practices are forbidden and may potentially be punished. Racism has gone underground.
A question that seems of central importance comes up in this regard:
If we previously lived in overtly racist societies where discrimination based on skin color was the order of the day, where did it all go?
Yes, the world may have come to its senses regarding the absurdity of racism on the surface. But did those changes really deeply affect our consciousness and way of life? Was it the quantum leap we would like to believe it was?
The short answer is no.
These days, for many of us living in racially mixed societies, seeing an overt display of racism angers us. We immediately denounce it. We write articles about it, post about it on social media and shake our heads at the aberrant, deviant individuals responsible. We might even report it to the authorities so that appropriate action can be taken.
And yet, everyday acts of racism go unnoticed or swept aside as minor annoyances but nothing more.
It’s all part of the same construct: covert racism, or racism masked as a right to freedom of choice, which is certainly as harmful. And its psychological impact adds up over time.
Covert racism is particularly concerning in online spaces.
Even more so in LGBTQ online spaces, such as dating and hookup apps or platforms. For some, this is unfathomable. A refrain I often hear goes something like this:
LGBTQ people have been oppressed for such a long time. They know what it feels like to be ‘the other’. Surely, they wouldn’t do that to their own people?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. If the saying goes that hurt people hurt people, then oppressed people certainly oppress people.
In order to back up the rampant online racism in LGBTQ spaces, these insidious little arguments pop up frequently in order to dispel the idea that it is actually racism at all:
- It’s a preference. Everybody has characteristics that they are attracted to such as height, eye color and so forth. Why can’t race be one of them? You can’t really help who you’re attracted to, can you? Nobody can force you to be sexually attracted to someone if you don’t feel that way.
Ah, the joys of racist logic. We are socially conditioned beings. And while some of what we are attracted to may be challenging to explain, most of it comes down to what we are exposed to, what we are taught is acceptable vs. disgusting and who we believe we should like based on our own social background. This means that we are not hardwired to be attracted to Men’s Health cover models at birth. It is a social learning process based on all our experiences, media exposure and ideas about what constitutes attractiveness.
A true preference is trying two different options and then choosing the one that you like the most. Not simply dismissing a whole racial group out of hand. Have you met all Asian men? It is a well-established social psychology effect that individuals tend to develop a preference for things or people simply because they are familiar with them. If you erect walls that don’t allow for any familiarity, then there cannot be any attraction.
2. If not being attracted to a person of a certain race makes me racist, does not being attracted to a woman make me sexist?
I have frequently heard this little gem from gay men. This assertion links two –isms in a rather illogical manner.
To clear it up: by definition, gay means that you are only attracted to members of the same sex. Therefore, it is part of the definition of gay and has nothing to do with sexism. Additionally, sexism refers to prejudice or discrimination against women that in some way affects their lives. Not simply being attracted to them does not have any bearing upon this. On the contrary, not being attracted to whole race groups has all the hallmarks of racism (especially believing that all members of a race group possess the same characterisitics, abilities or qualities). So far as I’m aware, we yet have to create a socially-acceptable, all-encompassing word that (like gay) means you are only attracted to members of the same race.
So, if the lady sitting on the park bench with her little sign is unacceptable what makes these Grindr profiles tolerable?
Racism has not gone away, it has merely become more covert, insidious and disguised using words that sound innocuous. If we continue to tolerate this type of racism, where does it leave us?
Many voices might say: ignore the haters, stay in your lane, focus on those who are attracted to you and move on.
While this is certainly sage advice when you need a quick hookup and you’re not trying to right social wrongs, it may be found lacking in the long-run. It also means that we will fail to have these important conversations, to make hidden beliefs conscious and to truly move forward. It will always be the victim of racism who has to turn the other cheek while suffering multiple indignities on a daily basis.
I wonder what the world would be like today if Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela simply turned the other cheek.
This is the type of profile I’d really like to see more of in future…
Krishen Samuel is a queer author with a master’s degree in Public Health and has previously written for the Huffington Post UK and the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide.
Follow me on Twitter @krishensamuel