Reposted. Originally posted to my Tumblr account 15/09/2014
Hi. My name is Cambrey, and I’m racist.
I’m guessing that, right about now, some of you are wondering who’s hacked my blog. Can this be the overly-opinionated, share-sixty-articles-about-social-activism-every-day weirdo we all know and barely tolerate? Sorry, it really is me. And I’m racist.
Good news, though: so are you.
Wait, that’s definitely not good news…
The truth is, every white person in this country is racist, whether we like it or not. Personally, I don’t like it. Nobody I know likes it. Very few people I know want to talk about it at all. Say the word ‘racist’ in polite conversation and people will look at you as though you just dropped the F-bomb. (Make a joke about Asian drivers, though, and see how many people object.) No one likes to think of themselves as racist, because none of us like the idea of racism. We don’t go around with swastikas tattooed on our arms or wearing white hoods and lynching black people. We’re nice people, good people.
The obvious question now is: if I don’t hate non-white people, how can I be racist?
The obvious answer is: because we all participate in systems of oppression against non-white people. It’s an unthinking product of our society. In our conscious minds, we know that judging people on something so arbitrary as their skin colour is not okay. We know it, we believe it and we don’t want to think we’re the kind of people who would ever be unfair to someone that way. But we are. In the words of the creator of the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes experiment(1), Jane Elliott:
“I was taught how to be a racist at birth. I know how to be a racist. I hate it.”(2)
I came to write this post because the unconscious racism in my life has become increasingly obvious in recent weeks – and none of this racism came from hard core Nazi sympathisers. It came from nice people, people who I get along with, people who genuinely try to be kind and fair to everyone. It came from my own child. It came from me. I am teaching my kids to be racist without even realising it and I hate it.
And here we come again to the question: if I hate racism so much, how can I be racist? How can I be teaching my children to be racist?
And here we come again to the inevitable answer: because I am not teaching them not to be.
The other day, my children and I were driving through town and talking about crayons and colours, and my son mentioned skin coloured crayons. I didn’t say anything, although I did remember what Jane Elliott had said on the Oprah show(2) about ‘flesh-coloured bandaids’. As if the universe was trying to make a point, at that very moment, we passed a black woman on the footpath. And my son, who’s five, said, “She isn’t skin coloured.”
I felt awful. It didn’t matter that his statement provided an opportunity to have the discussion about how ‘skin coloured’ can mean anything from black to brown to yellow to red to pasty, pasty white (and we did have that discussion) – at that moment, all I could see was that in only five years, my son had already absorbed the idea that white was the only ‘correct’ skin colour. When my son provided me an innocent opening to discuss the variety of skin colours by talking about crayons, I didn’t take it. I, who’ve always been proud of how progressive and inclusive I am, who’s the first to annoy people by lecturing them about racism and sexism and any other kind of ‘ism’ I can find. I was teaching my children to be racist simply by failing to teach them not to be.
This, along with several other encounters and some well-timed articles by people of colour on this very topic, opened up the disquieting idea that maybe I wasn’t so far above all of this. It brought back every time I’ve heard someone make a racist joke, and I’ve satisfied myself with a disdainful Look, and the thought, “Thank God I’d never say something like that.” It brought back every time I heard a news report about violence in Aboriginal communities and thought, “It’s such a shame these minorities give the rest of them a bad name.” It brought back every time I proudly declared, “I don’t judge by colour. I judge everyone based on their own actions.”
See where I’m going with this? Until a few years ago, I didn’t even realise that statement was racist. I thought I was being fair. I was not. As Michael Denzel Smith wrote recently in an article about sexism(3):
“There is a tendency to judge the actions of those with the least amount of power the same as those with more power and then ask, “Isn’t that what equality means?” It’s a clever rhetorical evasion of the issue. Equality is the goal, but to pretend that we actually exist as equals right now is to ignore reality.”
This is why people who complain about non-white people getting ‘special treatment’ are participating in our racist culture. White people are privileged in this country – yes, we’re going to keep talking about privilege because it exists. Even poor white people do not face the same barriers as non-white people of any socio-economic background. This is not opinion, this is cold, hard fact. This is why there are – and should be – Indigenous scholarships. This is why there are – and should be – additional services available to non-white people, especially Aboriginal people. This is why the ‘special treatment’ currently available to non-white people is woefully insufficient. This is why we need a Minister for Indigenous Affairs and a Minister for Immigration – and why we should be furious that when we do have them, they’re usually wealthy white guys.
This is why white people should be asking, “Why are black/Asian/African/insert-ethnicity-of-choice-here people so angry?” Not because that anger is unwarranted, but because it is. It is a direct consequence of the prejudice they experience Every. Single. Day. White people often ask why people of colour are so angry because we think it is unreasonable. We think their open anger is unacceptable and we’re tired of hearing about how hard their lives are. We should be asking why people of colour are so angry because we could learn something. We could learn how to change our thinking. We could learn how to get just a little closer to the equality that is currently lacking in our society. We should check our privilege and acknowledge that this angry person who might be making our lives ‘difficult’ for a few seconds has been dealing with ‘difficult’ situations all day and for every minute they spend in a racist society. Of course they’re angry!
There is no counter-argument to the statement that we live in a racist society, any more than there is a counter-argument to the statement that we live in a sexist one. You cannot make this fact untrue by bringing up people of colour who aren’t nice people. So what? There are plenty of white people who aren’t nice people. They don’t stop having white privilege because they’re a prat, and racism doesn’t cease to exist because a non-white person happens to be a prat too. If one prat doesn’t speak for all white people, then one prat can’t speak for all people of colour. And you cannot judge people solely by their actions, as though they exist in a magical vacuum where their race has no impact on their lives. White people and non-white people are constantly judged based on their race, and until that ceases to be the case, we cannot claim that, “I don’t see colour, I judge all people equally.” Because, right at this moment, we are not equal. (And we’ll get into why colour-blind statements are another form of racism another day.)
And finally, being a racist doesn’t make you evil. We are racist because we were taught to be racist. The first step to changing that is to admit there is a problem, and that we are a part of it. And to realise that we don’t have to be. In the end, I have to come back to Jane Elliott(2).
“I’m a racist. I was infected with racism at birth. I want to get over it. It is going to take me the rest of my life to get over it, but I can do it. But I have to choose to do it. I choose to do it.”
I choose to do it.
Rant over. xo
I highly recommend you give Jane Elliott on Oprah a watch. She’s an amazing woman and we can all learn a lot from her. If you’re interested in finding more about this topic, Google is your best friend. There are some great blogs out there by people from all backgrounds, and reading their accounts is a great way to start building our awareness of the problems non-white people face every day. Racism will only change when white people begin to acknowledge the issue, and stand up against it. Speak up, people.
1 Jane Elliott, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Elliott
2 Jane Elliott on the Oprah Winfrey Show, 1992 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HsXAIzYklk
3 “How To Know That You Hate Women”, Michael Denzel Smith, 2014 http://feministing.com/2014/09/11/how-to-know-that-you-hate-women/
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne. Acknowledge sources when sharing.