How to not be racist.
The first step is understanding what racism is.
It seems like everybody’s talking about racism at the moment, but there’s significant disagreement about what it is. Some people claim that black people can’t be racist. Other’s insist that racism no longer exists. Still others seem to believe that white people are racist simply because they exist. It feels impossible to unravel it all.
To be clear, I don’t flatter myself that I’m more intelligent than the other black voices commentating on the issue, but the more I read, the more it seems as if I’ve been given a unique insight on the issue. You see, it appears that I’ve found a way to define racism that nobody else is considering at the moment, and because great power comes with great responsibility, it feels incumbent upon me to share it. So without further ado, here’s my advice to anybody who would like to avoid being racist:
Don’t discriminate against people based on their race.
Ok, I admit, this advice isn’t entirely original. It seems like a long time ago now, but believe it or not, this was once considered to be an indisputable definition of racism; discrimination based on race. Since those simple times, the meaning of racism has been warped and twisted, until finally it’s become so obscure that even people who have dedicated their lives to fighting racism can’t seem to agree on what it is.
This isn’t entirely surprising. Discrimination is a slippery beast. It pops up in unexpected ways, both consciously and subconsciously. It can manifest in well-intentioned behaviour just as easily as it can in behaviour which is designed to hurt, degrade and oppress.
Yet it’s important to remember that this doesn’t make well-intentioned actions equivalent to actions that are designed to hurt, degrade and oppress. Intention matters, which is another thing that we seem to be forgetting lately. We should also remember that though violence, cruelty and oppression are potential consequences of racism, they aren’t racism itself. We must focus on the disease, not the symptoms. Otherwise, the disease simply continues to thrive on new forms.
With that in mind, let’s talk about some practical steps we can take in fighting the disease of racism. How can we stop discriminating against people based on race? Well, first of all, we can stop expecting or allowing people to treat us differently based on the colour of our skin. Black people, that means that yes, you can be racist. How can it be possible for a white person to do something that a black person is incapable of? White people, well, there’s a lot to think about.
Realise that we’re not really talking about race.
Right off the bat, it’s important to note that racism is broadly an illusion. The prejudice which we call racism is centred around skin colour, not race. Black people aren’t a single race. Black people from different parts of Africa aren’t all the same. They, in turn, are different from black people from the Caribbean or black Aborigines in Australia. Some black people have been living in Europe or Asia or America for generations and have little or no connection to their ancestry. The only thing they all have in common is a similar skin colour.
It’s just as meaningless to define white people as a race. There are white people from Norway, and Italy, and Germany, and France, and in many cases, these people have mixed together. Again, what does a white person from Sweden have in common with a white person from New York other than a passing similarity in skin tone?
True, the difference in skin colour between a black person and a white person is more noticeable, but the differences in culture or attitude are impossible to predict based on skin colour, just as it would be impossible to predict which language a person speaks or which God they worship.
Attempting to make predictions about a person based on skin colour is exactly as ludicrous as attempting to make predictions about a person based on eye colour. It’s one of the stupidest things we’ve ever collectively decided to do. We should stop it.
Don’t tiptoe around skin colour.
Still, whether or not we should stop it, the fact is that we haven’t. So we need to talk about it. This has become way more difficult than it should be. Skin colour has become a taboo which needs to be referred to in approved code. Coloured, black, person of colour, African American and the latest, “person of colour” (which ironically divides all of humanity into the categories of white or other).
These language games with which we refer to black people (language games which black people have largely been responsible for enforcing) imply that being black is so terrible, such an affliction, that it’s insensitive to refer to it directly. Furthermore, like all taboos, this special treatment makes something quite banal feel both scary and significant.
From an early age, black people are being taught that they are under attack. Not all of us of course, but too many of us. We’re taught to react angrily if someone tried to make an insult of our blackness instead of reacting with sympathy at their stupidity. We’re taught about the unspeakable evils visited upon other black people and told that we too were wronged.
White people meanwhile are taught to tiptoe around the issue. Lately, they’re being taught to assume guilt for the crimes of people who they have no connection to, other than the same coloured skin. What does this do but reinforce the notion of an identity based on colour? How can we ever reach a point where our skin is unimportant if we’re constantly defining ourselves by what people with similar coloured skin did? Skin colour doesn’t define identity, or character, or anything at all, other than your susceptibility to UV rays.
Have the difficult conversations, and allow them to be messy.
Sadly, it would be hopelessly naive of me to leave it there. It’s true that skin colour doesn’t define identity or character, but it’s also true that for centuries humanity has pretended that it has. Even if people stopped being racist tomorrow, the impact of racism would still be painfully apparent. There is still work to be done. True, thanks to the work of the Civil Rights Movement, racism is no longer legal. But neither is murder, and we routinely see police officers doing that on TV
The final piece of the puzzle is conversation. Actually no. The final billion pieces of this monstrously overgrown and complex puzzle are a series of difficult, emotional and complex conversations which have no hope of reaching perfect conclusions. There will be anger on both sides. We will all feel attacked. We’ll feel as if we’ve been treated unfairly. We’ll be right. And this is the best we can do.
So instead of attacking each other based on our differing skin tones and differing experiences, let’s try appreciating the fact that we’re taking part in the conversation at all. Even from opposing sides. Let’s not rush to assume the worst about each other. Let’s take each other’s experiences seriously without pretending that we can ever speak for everyone whose skin looks like ours. Let’s make finding solutions more important than finding problems, and make finding common ground more important than expressing anger.
We’re all human, and by virtue of that fact, we have more than enough common ground to understand each other’s experience. We’ve all been treated unjustly at some time in our lives. We all know how it feels not to be seen or heard. Maybe because we’re a man or a woman. Perhaps because we’re too tall, or too short, too fat or too thin, too ugly, even too pretty. Our capacity for prejudice is something that requires our constant vigilance. After all, it can even be triggered by something as insignificant as the colour of our skin.