How to Spot an Inconspicuous Racist
Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Humans naturally like to categorize—it’s part of how we learn and are able to process lots of information and ideas. Ironically, that kind of thinking can also be limiting. Sorting fruits from vegetables is one thing, but consider things that exist on a spectrum—we might end up trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Although the phrase: things are not black and white, there are many shades of grey will easily produce knowing nods, binary thinking still dominates many facets of our society. In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo tackles the idea of the good/bad binary.
The good/bad binary categorizes people into either good or bad. Characteristics are lumped together, defining people as either one or the other. Think superhero movies and fairy tales. “Good” people are educated, well-intentioned, and not racist (and possibly wearing capes), while “bad” people are bigoted, mean-spirited, and racist (and prone to moustache twirling). It’s one of the reasons it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism or confront their own contribution to inequality. The mere mention that an act or comment is racist can be interpreted as an attack on character that must be defended, something to the tune of “…but I’m a good person.” The offended white person may, too, soothe their bruised ego by referencing blatant and undisputed racist acts—the “as least I don’t…” defence. This is an attempt to re-establish goodness by pointing out another’s badness. This defence is not required if we accept that people themselves are neither good nor bad, and instead, it is their actions that fall upon a spectrum.
To illustrate, I’m going to take you back to a time and place that in some ways is also many different times and places.
I was on an overnight trip with some old friends and new acquaintances. On the first night we were hanging out before calling it a night. The conversation was jovial and relaxed, fostering a sense of comradery. It was a good time with good people. Other groups were staying not far from ours. A few people passed by, and shortly after one of my new acquaintances started performing a blatantly racist impression of them. Another acquaintance laughed along. I was uncomfortable, to say the least, and I worried they would be overheard. I looked over to see the reaction from the rest of my group. The rest of us were silent, waiting for it to end, and not wanting to participate. I locked eyes with a friend, and we both raised our eyebrows indicating shock. Was this really happening?
Later, my husband and I talked about the surprise racists in hushed tones. The incident wasn’t brought up again on that trip. Everyone played along nicely, acting as though it didn’t happen. After the trip, we didn’t see those acquaintances again.
It was easy to leave it at that. When retelling that story to others, it was easy to label two people as “surprise racists.” I’ve now learned it’s not that easy after all. If you read the story again, you’ll see that in addition to the obvious, there was also inconspicuous racism at play.
Racism is not limited to individual intentional acts. Failure to act perpetuates racism, too. In our society, race matters, whether we want to talk about it or not. As a white woman, I have too often fallen back on white silence and white solidarity instead of taking an anti-racist stance. It is easy to do because of my white privilege. Like Kim said in Untamed Episode 3, “…literally, society is just white supremacy playing itself out … over and over again.” Binary thinking would distill that statement down to: white is bad, a stance that will inevitably be rejected by well-meaning, binary-thinking people. Life and people are more nuanced than that.
Where did I find the inconspicuous racism?
I simply looked in the mirror. As Ibram X. Kendi asserts in his book How to Be an Antiracist, the opposite of racist isn’t not-racist—it’s antiracist. Silence conveys both tolerance and approval, whether that’s the intention or not. This is racism by omission.
It might seem a little harsh to say I was being inconspicuously racist, but perhaps only because of the aforementioned good/bad binary. When we label people as either racist or antiracist we shift our focus toward intention and away from the ultimate impact of individual actions. In my mind I believe all people are fundamentally the same, with the same needs and feelings, no one superior to the next. That’s all fine and good for my own comfort, but does nothing to bring about equality if I keep it to myself.
Racism doesn’t persist through intentionally racist acts alone. It is a system, and we’re all in it together, for better or worse. Think about it like a river. Everyone in society is in the river. At any given moment, we’re all either going with the current or against it. When we choose not to move, we don’t suddenly find ourselves on shore—we get carried away with the current.
Have you found yourself in a situation similar to my overnight trip? What did you do? Revisiting it with an antiracist mindset, would you do things differently if it happened again?
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