There’s a pretty strong tendency in our society to paint the world in terms of good and evil. Gandhi is good, Hitler is evil, democracy is good, totalitarianism is evil, UN peacekeeping troops are good, terrorists are evil. It’s clear, simple, easy to narrativize, and a convenient way to rally the masses (or turn them against one another, as the case may be). When we apply this thinking to racism, we tend to divide people into two categories: those enlightened individuals that are able see past race, and the racist, ignorant bigots that ought to know better.
There was a time when I would have put myself in the first group. But that’s bullshit, because I am racist, because I live in a racist society (if you think you’re the exception, try this experiment). If anyone happens to think that I’m not, it’s only because I try very hard to catch and suppress the racist associations, biases, and learned behaviours that I fall prey to on a daily basis. As a mixed race woman (my mother is White and was born in Canada, my father is Southeast Asian and was born in Malaysia), I probably also get by on the mistaken assumption that people who are subject to racism can’t be racist themselves. On the other hand, I also grew up in a small, primarily White, rural community, consumed a lot of American and Canadian pop culture, and for most of my life actively identified as White and middle class (or at least didn’t see why I was any different, in terms of cultural identity, from my White friends).
Thanks to a liberal arts university education and the influence of my peers, I am now more aware than ever of how structural racism operates, how it intersects with class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., and how I participate in various forms of oppression. Despite this, I still look at Black men differently than I look at White men. I still find myself repeating or reinforcing racial stereotypes. I still have to scold myself, every day, for the racist prejudices that pop into my head, like mushrooms sprouting from a spore-infested carcass. I can stomp on the mushrooms, but I can’t get rid of the spores, because they’ve been there practically since birth. They are the inevitable result of living, breathing, and working in a society where White supremacy is the norm, where equality is this thing we like to talk about but rarely try to achieve, because in order to achieve it in any real sense we would have to change everything, and change is scary, change is difficult, change is uncomfortable.
Even though I know the spores are there, I also know there are lots of things I’m missing, lots of things I never even think to notice because that’s how privilege works. Let’s be clear here, any ability I have to understand or combat racism, in myself or in others, is largely a result of my privilege. If I’m not constantly spouting racist slurs it’s not because I’m naturally better than anyone else, it’s because I’m lucky. I have to repeatedly remind myself of this because like so many others, I have a tendency to see myself as morally and intellectually superior. Mainstream liberal media, political parties, and large corporations like Coca Cola and General Mills have figured this out and are actively using it to sell products and propaganda. We think we know better, but we’re being manipulated just as surely as the “racist idiots” we’re so eager to publicly condemn.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out or address instances of racism when they happen. But making fun of people who express racist views behind their backs to make ourselves feel better doesn’t really get us any further ahead, and at worst it only serves to reinforce other forms of discrimination such as class or urban-rural divides. Sometimes people are racist because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to think or behave otherwise, sometimes people are racist because that’s what it takes to survive in their situation. Often people are racist because governments, corporations, and other powerful entities find ways of using our racism (and sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, or whatever else suits their interests) to their advantage and actively encourage it. If you had grown up in Nazi Germany, knowing that you could be thrown in prison or killed if you didn’t fall in line, would you still be anti-racist? I’d like to think that I would, but I can’t know for sure, because I’m not in that situation and I don’t have any idea what that’s like (although I might find out one day, if recent events in Europe and elsewhere are any indication). I’ve certainly let my values slip for less than that, because I was afraid of pissing someone off, because I don’t like confrontations, because it might be awkward, because I want us all to get along, or whatever.
Not being racist takes effort, constant effort, but it also takes courage. If we want people to not be racist, we need to create the conditions in which this ongoing endeavour is not only possible, but welcome. We need to create a world (not just a bubble) in which people don’t need to be courageous in order to treat one another like human beings. We need to fundamentally change the relations and structures of power. Because as long as the lion’s share of the world’s wealth is held by a small group of people who then have to assert control over the rest of the population in order to hold onto or augment that wealth, there will always be racism; as long as multinationals can move their business overseas the moment their employees start to demand better pay or working conditions, there will always be racism; as long as the pursuit of profit is privileged over human lives, there will always be racism; as long as the more privileged among us are unwilling to stand in solidarity with the least privileged, there will always be racism.
Not using racist language in public doesn’t mean you’re not racist, it just means you’re better at hiding it. Not being racist is not some magical state of being we reach when we are sufficiently enlightened, it’s a work in progress, not just for myself, but for all of us.