In asking “am I racist?” – in that simple act of self-exploration – you did several things. Firstly, you acknowledged that spending time finding out if you are a racist – or have some beliefs or unconscious behaviours that equate to racism – is actually really rather important. Definitely as important as other questions you may have time to quiz the internet on, such as “why does my cat lick me?” and “who is Dev Patel’s girlfriend?”. Secondly, in pursuing this line of inquiry in the comfort of your own home, you saved someone else – most likely a person of colour – from the inevitable anxiety of having to explain racism to you, and deal with whatever bad reaction may result.
Racism doesn’t have to be difficult to talk about, but it often is. We’re all agreed that racism is terrible (aren’t we?) – that it’s for knuckle-dragging hooligans or Nazis and has no place in the modern world. Many of us can spot instantly the hackneyed stereotyping and would take action against abusive name-calling. But like all the great evils of humanity, racism is not static. It doesn’t take one shape, it is fluid and constantly fluctuating. It is the Joker of Batman comics – you think you’re fighting some other villain, but lo and behold, it was Racism pulling the strings all along.
It’s the “small-r racism” – the subtle stuff that seems innocent enough but on closer inspection reeks of white superiority – of which many people, even those disgusted by the thought of racism, are guilty. Perhaps it’s the passing comment you make on your new Bangladeshi neighbours’ children. “Poor girls,” you say to yourself, when you see them walk to school in their headscarves. And you mean it – you do feel a bit sad for them that they should be denied the chance to be like you (which is obviously the best way).
Maybe it’s the “compliment” you paid your black colleague – “you are very articulate” – because their accent and vernacular is closer to yours. Or the very low-bubbling resentment you have that all your black colleagues “keep themselves to themselves”. Why wouldn’t they want to hang out with you (you being the superior being and all)?
It’s the privilege to say that “XYZ is not about racism” – not because you don’t know racism is heavily linked to the issue, but because it doesn’t affect you, and is a distraction from what you want to say and your narrative on the matter. And that is undoubtedly going to be more compelling and insightful than the real-life, urgent experience others are having, right?
Occasionally, you can see it in the “one rule for me, one rule for you” stance, where people look at intent rather than result (“but I didn’t mean it like that”) which as an aside does not stand up in any court of law (“I did not mean to urinate all over the street, officer, but I can see how you might have interpreted it that way”).
Maybe it’s the belief that “positive discrimination is discrimination” because if everyone works hard they can achieve – and if it so happens that white people are consistently on top then so be it: white people must be fundamentally harder workers.
Sometimes, “small-r racism” can even strike you in the place that brings you the most joy: in the heart. I’m thinking of the man who says he “only likes Asian women”. What, all of us? All 2.2 billion of us? What could we, 2.2 billion women, possibly have that no other woman has? Except for a race-specific kink or stereotype …
There are countless other examples. And so, given all of that, it’s easy to see why a frank conversation about racism can be difficult. How, if you ask the question “am I racist?”, the answer is unlikely to be the resounding “no” we’re all looking for. And that can lead to anger, denial, sadness and drama.
For the people of colour affected every day by racism, it is a burden. And by pushing those same people to constantly justify their thoughts and feelings, to fly off the handle when they try and explain themselves, to push them to give one set answer that speaks for all when there are many different opinions – that is merely to increase their burden for your benefit, and that in itself is its own little form of … you guessed it, racism.
But you didn’t do that when you looked at all the millions of websites, articles and brilliant resources on the issue. When you chose to educate yourself and listen with an open mind to the stories from the people most affected by it, in a respectful way. Instead, you asked the internet: “am I racist?” You have the makings of a true ally.
Since you’re here …
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to support it, our future would be much more secure.