The Nuances of Racism

Years ago, I took the dog to the vet. Once we got to the examination room, I informed the vet that I thought the dog might have fleas, but if she did, it was a mild case. He said to me, “Having a mild case of fleas is like being a little bit pregnant. You either have fleas or you don’t.”

More and more, I can’t help but wonder whether racism is like having fleas. You either have it or you don’t. I want to briefly address the differing levels of racism because I think that’s where many many many people get hung up, begin to shut down, and wear blinders. Pardon the analogy, but racism is not a black and white issue. It’s all kinds of nuanced shades of grey (brown?), and this fact gets lost amongst the defensive posturing and divisive, derailing language from people who don’t see themselves as being racist. So let’s begin:

There are plenty of people who are proud to be racist. They tend to be outspoken about it, have no problems using epithets and making supremely unsavoury commentary about sending Them back to wherever they came from, etc.

There are other people who aren’t so blatant about it. They’re more socially conscientious and wouldn’t want to out themselves as racist, but they know what side their bread is buttered on.

Other people will be less socially conscientious but will flinch or may even be taken aback at being called a racist. Hey! They’ve dated Asian women! They can’t possibly be racist. OMG Ebonics? AYFKM? This country is going to hell in a hand basket. Seriously. Learn to speak English.

People who believe themselves not to be racist get really, really angry if you tell them they’re racist. They don’t see it because what they believe racism to be Big. Blatant. Obvious. Heinous. Bad. They would never use the N-word and would only refer to it as the N-word. They don’t appreciate racist jokes and may even speak up when they hear such things around them. They’re unlikely to pass someone over or single them out because of the colour of their skin and may be self-congratulatory about it, as though this proves their lack of racism: see? they really can accept people, regardless of skin tone. “Press ‘1’ for English” may still send them into a tizzy, though. These are primarily the people to whom I was addressing my previous post: We’re all racist here. Especially white folk. Particularly the liberals.

Others may really just see all people as just people and please can’t we all get along? But will still think it’s ridiculous to be suing Paula Deen.

Each of these descriptions represent a point of reference on the spectrum of racism. There are people whose behaviour and beliefs fit in the gaps between these points.

And then there are the anti-racists — people who are actively working against racism. This is still an area on the racism spectrum, and there is nuance in this group, as well, because there is nuance in everything. From what little I’ve been able to gather (‘little’ here because I’m primarily occupied with my two boys and don’t currently have time for much else), there seems to be a sort of evolution of newly-minted white anti-racists — people who actively want to be allies, who will read and agree with Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, who will read Anti-Racism 101 articles, who will understand and accept that only white people can be racist in a country where white people hold the unearned, systemic power and that people of colour who do appear to do or say racist things are actually not racist but are prejudiced. They will come to understand that they should NOT expect people of colour to explain anything to them; that they are responsible for seeking answers on their own (JFGI). And eventually, they will really get that because racism taints every portrayal of a person of colour in the media, the way news stories are presented, the language that is used in describing a person of colour, they’ll come to understand that, even though they don’t want to think racist thoughts, they still catch themselves doing it. They actively work to own the fact that they still hold racist stereotypes because of what was fed to them while growing up.

And some of us just get so tired of waiting for others to come to this realization that we just grab racism by the horns and flip ourselves up onto its back, like Cretan dancers, riding the bull instead of running from it. We stand atop its back and say, “Yes! This Bull Exists! Denying its existence is no longer a thing we can do if we’re ever going to get equality in this country. In this world.” And so we say to ourselves and to others that a little bit of racism is still racism. Myself, I really like to push boundaries. So instead of adhering to the “That Thing I Thought Was Racist”, I go whole hog and state unequivocally, “I’m A Racist Anti-Racist” like I did when I wrote “We’re all racist here”. Part of the motivation for my proclamation is that I really don’t like living with the weight of shame. It’s tiresome and does not serve me or anyone else. It’s far easier for me to take open responsibility for a thing I screwed up on and actively work to ameliorate my understanding of a given situation than it is to wallow in shame and fear for the rest of my life, furthering the divide between myself and others.

My aim in proclaiming that we’re all racist is not to piss people off. I know in doing so it tends to shut down communication for many people because they don’t want to be associated with what they perceive to be blatant racist behaviours. They don’t want to be in the same boat as George Zimmerman or the KKK. And yet, if you ask these same people if all Christians are alike, they’ll be happy to tell you of the differences between the crazy nut jobs who drink tainted kool-aid or blow up buildings, the fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptists, the Appalachian snake handlers, the Pentecostals, Assembly of God folk who speak in tongues, the generally liberal Methodists/Lutherans/United, the Unitarians, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, Church of Christ, LDS/RLDS, Mennonites, Amish, and the peace-loving Quakers. Some may even remember to include Catholics therein. And that’s just the US and Canada. Never mind Ethiopian, Eastern, Russian, or Greek Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Armenian Christians, etc. All will agree that these different sects still fall under the umbrella category of Christianity. Many people get the idea of nuance within Christianity, but tell them they’re racist, or even allude to it, and they’ll vehemently deny it as though you just told them they like to eat poo or maim small animals for fun and profit. Get it off! Get it off! It burns! How dare you! I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU!

These same people may still clutch their purse if a black man gets into the elevator with them, cross to the other side of the street if a black or hispanic man is walking toward them, roll their eyes or have a subtler but still negative reaction to the creative naming conventions that black Americans tend to make use of more frequently than other groups of people, may still believe that all black people can sing and dance better than white people, that Asians are smarter than everyone, that Hispanics are best suited as wait staff, maids, and gardeners, that Native Americans are all alcoholics, or have a flash of concern if they see a Muslim man board an airplane with them. Or a Sikh man, for that matter, because they don’t know the difference between a dastar and a keffiyeh. And never mind that it shouldn’t matter whether the man is Sikh or Muslim — why is anyone flinching in the first place? We all know why; we just don’t like to talk about it. And by talk about it, I’m not referring to the popular thing that is done where we pin the blame on radical Muslim terrorists. I’m talking about really getting to the heart of the matter and actually spend time working through exactly why terrorism exists in the first place and what drives people to such deeply desperate measures. I’m talking about working to see the human existence behind the media caricature. How many of us even realize that’s a thing we can do?

One of the things that slips our collective notice in our avoidance of the topic of racism is that the subtle racism of those who believe themselves not to be racist or who believe themselves to be anti-racist echoes the white supremacist structure of our entire society. Its reverberations course through our daily lives, adversely affecting how we interact with and see people of colour. It reinforces a division that many of us, regardless of skin tone, are seeking to dissolve. Subtle racism is the elephant in the room, the thing whose existence is rarely discussed due to our collective disgust regarding the actions of overt and blatant racists.

Unconscious, inadvertent racism is, in many ways, worse than the blatant racism. At least with flagrant racists, there is no question. We all know how they feel. They are so divisive as to create a feeling of collective unity among everyone who opposes them. With unintentional racism, though, people of colour can feel lulled into trusting their white friend not to be racist and then out pops an unconscious remark rooted in racist belief that is really very jarring for the friendship. The lack of awareness becomes hurtful on a personal level, shedding light on a rift in experiential or empathetic understanding that wasn’t otherwise apparent.

So while the individual manifestation of racism may differ — whether you’ll happily find yourself at an anti-immigration rally or cheering Kansas Representative Ponka-We Victors when she rightfully slammed Arizona Rep. Kris Kobach, while also thinking some variation on “Wow, she’s such a credit to her people!”  or “It’s so good to see a Native American really making something of herself…” and then have thoughts trailing off into images of culturally and financially impoverished Native Americans on reservations, feeling pity for all of them — racism is still racism, subtle or not.

Having a mild case of racism still means you’re a racist. Lie down with dogs and wake up with fleas, goes the saying. Being born in a culture where white people hold collective, systemic power is effectively akin to growing up in a dog kennel, wallowing in dog beds for the entirety of one’s life. It’s impossible to escape untouched and unscathed by racist belief and behaviour. You can’t help what country you were born in or the sort of thought-diet your culture fed you while you were growing up. You very much can choose to continue that diet or you can take a supremely critical look at it and begin to question it all. Responsibility is the burden of free will and owning your shit is a solid step toward the collective freedom of us all.