You’re Probably Not Racist.
But like the rest of us, you might be confused
You might not have noticed, but over the last few years, there’s been a quiet war raging against the English language. As far as I’ve been able to work out, the enemy is any word that has a clear, unambiguous meaning.
Notable casualties of this war currently include the word “Literally”, which can now officially be used to mean figuratively. “Gender”, which…nobody is quite sure about the meaning of anymore. And “Racist”, which is now used to describe, well, everybody.
Actually, scratch that. Racist now describes everybody who’s white. If this strikes you as a racist thing to say, that’s either because you’re still operating from the old definition or because you’re white and your fragility is showing. The new definition of racism removes the need to think or talk or empathise by simply grouping everybody whose skin is a certain colour and judging them collectively based on that one characteristic.
White people benefit from — and are therefore responsible for — every aspect of a society which was designed to oppress everybody else. They are descended from — and are therefore responsible for — people who owned slaves and stole land from people of colour. And given the well-established fact that an individual’s bigotry and ignorance is indelibly passed down genetically, their descendants must hate people of colour as well, even if they claim they don’t, right?
Signs of the new racism include — but are not even close to being limited to — wearing or too actively admiring anything from a culture that is not your own, disagreeing with somebody who has darker skin than you, failing to anticipate the feelings of a person whose skin is darker than yours, and most importantly of all, believing that you aren’t racist.
Are we really all racist?
I must say, turning racism into something I can just infer based on skin colour has been a huge time saver. But as clarifying as this piece of revisionism has been, I must admit to having a few concerns. For example, if we remove colour from the equation for just a moment, aren’t all of these things just inevitable pitfalls of being human? Haven’t we all, regardless of race or colour or creed, pissed somebody off and been insensitive and treated people unfairly?
If we’re even more honest, aren’t we forced to admit that we’ve all treated people differently because of the way they look, and made assumptions about people that weren’t justified, and failed to act when a situation benefited us, even if it disadvantaged somebody else?
For example, the device you’re reading this article on was likely made by people who work in conditions you wouldn’t want to work in for a salary you couldn’t live on. In fact, the money you spent on your phone or laptop could support one of the 800 million people worldwide who live in extreme poverty, for almost two years.
We’re all failing to act on these injustices. We’re all profiting from them. But it’s not because we hate the people who don’t. It’s not because we want them to suffer. It’s because we’re stupid and blinkered and often too focused on our own problems to think about other people’s. We deserve to have these flaws pointed out, we have a responsibility to try to be better, we even deserve the condemnation of the people whose backs were standing on, but maybe our children don’t. Maybe everybody who happens to look like us doesn’t.
So what can all of this teach us about racism in general? Well, perhaps that some of the behaviours that are being attributed to racism are really just shitty aspects of our shared human nature. In that sense, we really are all racist. But in another far more important sense, were not. To understand the difference, let’s think about another thing we’ve been doing a lot of over the last few years.
The rise of extremism
Extremism has become so normal recently that anything less is considered a sign of a weak spirit. Political affiliations aren’t simple value judgements anymore, they’re battle lines which define the boundary between what is good and what is evil. It’s no longer enough to disagree with ideas, we have to be against everything to do with anyone who holds those ideas. It’s not enough to recognise the flaws in a system and work towards solutions, the entire system must be burned to the ground, and rebuilt according to our vision. Regardless of who gets hurt in the process.
We justify this extremism by judging entire groups of people by the actions of the worst among them. This isn’t the same as racism (racism is judging entire groups of people by nonsensical or non-existent beliefs rather than real but wildly exaggerated beliefs), but it’s close. They’re second cousins if not siblings.
Unsurprisingly, combining this mindset with the fight for racial equality has made racism worse, not better. It’s like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Instead of moving towards a world where the colour of a person’s skin matters less and less, we’re centring people’s entire identity around it and then defining that identity by the actions of the worst people who share that skin colour. Then we wonder why race has become more divisive and toxic than ever before. How could we imagine that it would lead to anything else?
And again, this behaviour isn’t limited to any one group. It’s just a stupid thing that humans do. It’s the same thing that makes you swear you’ll never drink again after one bad hangover, or makes you hesitant to trust a new partner after being treated like shit by your crappy ex. It’s why we talk as if people from different groups are incapable of understanding each other’s experiences, or even why we think of human beings in terms of “groups” at all.
We don’t need to be part of a group to empathise with each other. We don’t have to have identical lived experiences to understand each other. Empathy exists precisely because our experiences aren’t identical. Skin colour and nationality and genital configuration don’t bestow access to a secret level of humanity that is unavailable to everybody else. Being human does that.
We are each a minority of one, living a life and having experiences that nobody can understand just because they look like us. We have to talk. We have to listen. We have to put our natural, sometimes justified mistrust to one side, and have a two-way conversation with somebody with the aim of understanding and of being understood. This is easier to do with people who won’t say anything that challenges us. But it’s far more valuable to do with people who will.
Some people really are racist, but most people aren’t. You probably aren’t. Allowing the word “racist” to become shorthand for “people who don’t agree with me” or even, “people who don’t look like me”, spreads a net so wide, that it can’t fail to catch people who it shouldn’t. And that leads to the whole concept of racism losing its meaning. Instead, maybe we just have to accept that there are times when we’re not as good as we could be. When we’re uncertain or unaware or too focused on our own lives and our own problems to recognise somebody else’s. Whatever of the colour of our skin, that’s something we have in common with everybody on Earth.