Friday, March 21, 2014

Surviving Casual Racism: I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Last month, I posted this piece on casual racism. Many of you read and commented on it, here and various social media platform.  I also posted the piece on my FB wall where it had a more intimate, disturbing, and yet ultimately heartening reception. It also became a sort of learning experience and an odd measure of the people in my life. I had been planning on writing a follow up piece but as some of you will know (from my twitter feed), another unexpected and hurtful incident occurred yesterday. In many ways, it cemented what I had written about in my original piece. But it also threw into stark relief what I have noticed and learned in the last few weeks. So here are some of thse new insights:

First, for some odd reason, racism hurts more than sexism does. I am not quite sure why this is the case, but increasingly I feel that it is linked to growing up in an environment where I did not face racism on a daily basis. As a female child in India, sexism was, and still is, part of my life from the earliest moments of consciousness, and I learned from many people - both male and female - to identify it and resist it.

Racism, however, was something quite academic. I knew about it, I even experienced it indirectly and structurally as a colonial legacy, but I never faced it on an individual level until I landed in New York City as a sixteen year old. Because I came to individuated racism late, I experience and resist it differently:

1. I notice it and I lack the ability to ignore it
2. I am more hurt by it as I don't guard against racism as vigilantly as against sexism, mostly because I don't expect it and so am baffled each time.
3. I have increasingly lower tolerance for racism. But I also have increasingly lower tolerance for all forms of injustice.  I thought age would inure me, but instead it seems to make me less patient. Perhaps 'intimations of mortality' urge me to fight this more desperately because I know I have increasingly less time to do so.

Secondly, I realised that until recently, I would not speak about racism except to friends who were, like me, people of colour. I didn't feel comfortable enough speaking about racism to white friends, mostly because I didn't want them to pity me.

In this sense, racism is like many other forms of intimate violence. The humiliation and pain of being reduced, othered, and dehumanised is so great that I felt that I could only share the feeling and seek support amongst other victims.

Yet posting the piece last month has opened up a new, and in many ways, liberating and empowering world for me. Yes, writing the piece has meant I lost a couple of friends - mostly people I didn't know that well and who felt that the piece was 'attacking' them personally. In one case, someone I have not seen for twenty years took issue with the piece on facebook and demonstrated just how embedded racism can be.

On the other hand, writing openly about racism I face in my daily life, mostly in small gestures and words, also blasted open the doors to other conversations. Many friends wrote and messaged to offer support and unconditional love. In the last month, I have had conversations about racism with many white friends, discussing the insidious ways racism turns up. In all these cases, I have been fortunate to find allies who want to listen, understand, find ways to support me, and try to change things at their own individual levels.

I had long worried that speaking openly about daily racism may be seen by white friends as 'drama' or 'over reaction.' Instead I had a friend point out that I regularly 'hid' the racism I experience, and asked me why I did so.  It was only after that conversation, I realised that he is right: I do hide racist incidents, and for multiple reasons.

The humiliation seems never ending and acute, and talking about a racist incident revives the trauma of living it.

In an odd way, telling white friends about racist incidents makes me feel less than equal to them. Even as I write this, I can intellectually recognise it as a victim's reasoning, similar in some ways as that of abuse survivors.

Experiencing racism makes me feel 'dirty,' even though it isn't my fault. Experiencing racism makes me question myself and makes me wonder if I 'deserve' it. It heightens every insecurity I have about my achievements and experience. Each racist incident - no matter how small and unthinking - reminds me that regardless of my experiences and achievements, I can be reduced and dehumanised on basis of my skin colour. It also makes me paranoid and makes me question what white colleagues, friends, bosses 'really' think of me.

In addition, recounting it to white friends, makes me feel the humiliation all over again, because it is something they never have to face, never have to experience. It is a privilege they have that I will never be able to access, and speaking to them, the structural imbalance of power between us threatens to overturn whatever sense of equality we share.

In turn that recognition of inequality threatens any friendship we have. After all, aren't friendships made and shared amongst equals? Can we still be friends if we are unequal, at an intrinsic biological level?

Yet the past month of discussing racism openly with white friends has been illuminating. Speaking about the humiliation of racist experiences has dissipated some of the shame and anger. I have also been consistently surprised, heartened and comforted by the support I have found.

I have also found that the cliche about speaking up in relationships matters. While racism is something my white friends don't experience in their daily lives, they are not oblivious that I face it. All they need from me is trust that they stand on my side. And they need me - not always - but at times, to tell them how to fight my corner. They are already staunch allies, they just need to know how they can protect, help and nourish me.

I don't have race privilege and never will. On the other hand, I have a hell of a lot of friends who do have that privilege who recognise and question it, acknowledge the injustice, and most importantly, stand by me as equals. Not on racial grounds, but as humans.

If I were the religious sort, I would say, that is a blessing! 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Open Letter to White Friends: How Not to be a Racist (Even Unconsciously)

Dear friends,
As my friends, you are part of a group that is international, diverse, and for most part, extraordinarily liberal. In some ways, you are probably more open to difference than the rest of society and therefore, in many ways, at the cutting edge of social change. And yet, just as many men who adore their wives and daughters but can still be deeply misogynist, being friends with me - an obvious woman of colour - does not mean you automatically stop behaving in ways that is racist.

Note: this does not mean that you ARE racist. But it does mean that sometimes the things you say or do are racist. And no, you don't have to burn crosses in my lawn or make up a lynch mob to be racist. Being oblivious to historic inequalities, disparate privileges, and or how these impact my daily life is also racist (and therefore damaging). So is repeating and replicating behaviour that confirms historical power inequities.]

In a friendship, we like to believe we are equals.

Unfortunately, a love for pinot grigio or an understanding of Italian Futurism does not automatically erase structural inequalities that some of us have to face, and fight, on a daily basis. This also means that unthinkingly racist acts, or acts that have a long racist history, the same acts that we face as micro-aggressions on a daily basis, are supremely hurtful when performed by you.

As your non-white friend who deals with racial micro-aggressions (and sometimes macro ones) on a daily basis, it is not excessive to expect friends - of any colour or background - should be a safe space for me. But our friendship also means that the unthinking acts of micro-aggression hurt more coming from you than from a random stranger.

However, I realise that levels of invisible social, cultural and psychological privilege that Western societies offer to its white citizens means that you probably have not ever thought about how you behaviour can come off as racist - or indeed hurtful because of the implicit racism - so here are a few pointers:

1. Understand that your seemingly innocent acts can be triggers. Most non-white people have a few centuries of embedded memory and their own lifetime of experience of inequality and prejudice. We grew up with this and live with it. And no, this is not 'playing the victim' or 'using the race card.' It is just my daily, normal life.

This lived experience and memory means your actions will have larger significance and import, often in ways you do not understand. This also means that what may count as 'banter' and 'fun' to you may well be quite hurtful to me.

There is a simple way to deal with this: stop, observe and listen.

2. Realise that a lot of what we use as normal terminology has deep racist roots. You may never have had to deal with these words as dehumanising, or with demeaning terms and images, but your non-white friends  have and do on a daily basis. So terms and actions that seem 'normal fun' to you can be not only deeply racist, but also horribly hurtful.

3. When a nonwhite friend calls you out for racist behaviour, it obviously hurts your image of yourself. Especially if you think of yourself as liberal and 'non-racist.'

However, chances are that your one act that has actually been called out has been the final proverbial one to 'break the camel's back.' Most non-white people are so accustomed to racist acts and speech on a daily basis that unless something really stands out, most of us won't protest. Many of us make the choice between social interaction, friendship, even love, and demanding equality and human dignity on a daily basis.

And yes, that does means I choose - on a regular basis - how much prejudiced humiliation I can take from you in exchange for being your friend. Yes, I am sure that sounds terrible to you but it is a choice I make in order to live, work, love, in a society that systemically devalues me for the colour of my skin.

We make this choice not because we don't hurt. It is just that if we protested every act of prejudice in our daily lives, we would not get through a single day. If we insisted that we be treated equally at every moment we are demeaned, we would not survive a single hour. We would not have a single friend, colleague or boss who would be white. We would be forced to limit our existence in a closed ghetto, with all its corollaries of material, social, emotional and psychological poverty. (And then we would be blamed for closing ourselves off!)

So when you ARE called out on behaving in a racist way, realise that your behaviour or speech has been unconsciously hurtful for a long time before your friend spoke up. Chances are you have been hurtful for much longer than you imagine, recognise or are able to accept.  You should not be feeling hurt that your friend called out your racism, but horrified that they have been forced to do so.

4. If your non-white friend does call you out on something, try and stop yourself from (1) announcing that you are NOT racist; (2) explain how you are part Asian/African/Native American/Hispanic - these are not free passes for prejudice; (2) demand that they educate you on what you did/said to offend them, all the while declaring that they 'misunderstood' you.  Yes, defensiveness is an instinctive response and an understandable one. But it is also the least useful of responses.

Yes, being told that you are bigoted hurts. But being the daily target of bigotry hurts a HELL OF A LOT MORE. And racist behaviour or speech does not have to stem from active prejudice. So much prejudiced behaviour and speech is normalised and acceptable that few of us who are not on the receiving end of the hatred are even aware of the how much bigotry marks our daily existence.

Also understand that it isn't your non-white friend's job to explain and educate you. If you care about that friendship/relationship (or not being racist), it is your job to LEARN the innumerable ways in which racism is normalised in our daily existence and try not to repeat those.

5. One final pointer: 'race blindness' is actually a form of racism. Refusing to acknowledge that your non-white friends have different (and often horrifically damaging) experiences does not make you non-racist. It actually reinforces your racial privilege. All too often 'race blindness' is also used as a mechanism for saying and doing things that are racist and hurtful but with a comforting fig leaf of being socially acceptable. If this is you, then stop!

Structural racism means that even if you went to the same schools, make the same amount of money, live in the same neighbourhoods, and shop in the same stores, your non-white friend is treated differently. Not because of an innate ability but because of how they look. A lifetime of being treated differently means that your non-white friend looks at things you take for granted (bars, immigration counters, designer shops) very differently. What may be a small, normal, indulgence for you - like a trip to the spa - may well be a point of stress or fear for them. Refusing to acknowledge this difference does not make you non-racist. It makes you insensitive and callous!

Yes, acknowledging this inequality will likely make you uncomfortable. Recognising that you have privilege based on the colour of your skin IS uncomfortable. Or it should be! But the way to deal with the discomfort is not to wish it away or argue that you don't have the privilege. Or pretend a non-existent equality because that erases your 'friend's' life and experience.

The way you deal with the discomfort is by consciously and actively recognising those structural inequalities that your non-white friend lives on a daily basis. You can't wish the discomfort away...in any case, it will be a negligible fraction of what your non-white friend lives with on a daily basis. What you can do is recognise, acknowledge, accept the difference. And what you should do is introspect and question yourself on the ways your behaviour reflects, replicates and sustains small forms of bigotry. To you those may be negligible but to others, who cope with those micro-aggressions daily, those form a huge, overwhelming edifice of prejudice.

In many ways the world has moved forward even in the last few decades. It is increasingly difficult to remain in racially exclusive enclaves. Diversity - of language, race, ethnicity - is increasingly our 'normal' in our workplaces, our social networks, our homes and our bedrooms.

But the diversity also means that old rules of behaviour and speech don't work any more. That is also good! Yes, it is uncomfortable (and will continue to be so for a long time) to accept that your behaviour and speech must change. Change - and improvement - is always born of discomfort and its recognition.

None of us is perfect or born knowing everything. We go through life learning and changing. The fact that you have a non-white friend is a good starting point: it means that you are at least open to learning and changing.

With affection,
Your non-white friend

Friday, January 03, 2014

On Allies: May there be ever more in 2014

Yes, I know. I missed the year-end reflections on all I had learned in 2013. I have also missed the new year resolutions moment.  However given my recent readings and discussions, and in the spirit of optimism, I have decided to kick off the year with a post about allies.

As an ally to various causes that are not intrinsically my own, I come to this topic with some degree of understanding and experience.  When it comes to supporting causes in countries like Egypt or Guatemala or the Democratic Republic of Congo, I am not always fully educated about the complexities. In case of my support for equal rights, as a straight cis-woman, I can't even in my imagination experience what my LGBTQ friends do on a daily basis. And in case of racism, Mandela's death reminded me of my time in apartheid South Africa and how the experience of racism changes by location, period, structure and individual.

And yet as someone who discovered the theory of intersectionality soon after being disillusioned by mainstream Western liberal activism at university, I can also see that there is a way forward. At university, I had found little room for my experience as an Indian woman whose life did not fit the easy 'oppressed over there' category. As a foreigner who did not buy into the 'American dream' and planned to leave after finishing my degree, I could also not be categorised in the 'good immigrant' slot. There was also very little room for an Indian with a 'nice' education in many of the anti-racism groups as many believed my university education and Indian-ness inoculated me from racism in America (To be fair and honest, yes, it did and still does protect me from the worst excesses of structural and individuated racism in the US and various other countries). On one hand, few groupings, both in or outside India, represent my personal concerns and interests. On the other hand, my experience at the margins means I experience a range of micro-aggressions (and major discrimination) based on gender, class, race, nationality and so on on a daily basis. No surprise that intersectionality is the most logical way of explaining my liminal existence.

But living liminally is also a great advantage, I have learned. One finds points of contact, recognition and identification in the most unusual places. Liminality also ensures that I am always aware of my structural privileges and of my acute disadvantages, and am conscious that these are constantly changing based on my location and surroundings. I have learned to negotiate both my privilege and its lack with relative expertise, barring of course the regular, still unforeseen glitches.

This has also taught me how to be an ally, for causes where my support may be necessary but any intervention may well be unwelcome.  In no particular order, here are the rules to be an ally that I developed for myself (and apply):

1. Listen first. And listen hard. There may be points of similarity between struggles but my first job is to learn everything I can about another's cause.

2. Even if I know a lot, or even more than a local interlocutor, keep my mouth shut. It is not my struggle and often 'offering insight/help/suggestions' is seen as and can really be a form of appropriation.

3. Offer tactical and practical support, but do not insist on it. Know about how to deal with tear gas? Offer the information. Have experience about protest safety? Extend that knowledge. Lawyer? Medic? PR expert? Offer my expertise but don't take it personally if it is rejected. At the end, it is NOT my cause.

4. If I am allowed to participate and get involved, don't feel smug. This is not about me, it is about the people who are fighting and will continue fighting when I have left (An aside: my pet peeves include the entire genre of war/revolution/civil war stories and films where the generally Western hero jets in with good intention, 'grows' by being part of someone else's struggle - often even gets to lead it - and the story ends when he/she flies out).

5. Don't make a fuss when I am rejected. And for god's sake don't get on a high horse because my good intentions didn't cut the slack.  Remind myself: this is not about you!

6. If allowed to participate, ensure that I do not - by my knowledge, expertise or personality - end up at the centre of the movement/group/struggle. Even in a protest march or demonstration, my place is to the side of the key players, not at the front and centre.

7. Don't expect gratitude or indeed any acknowledgement. I chose to join someone else's struggle and it isn't their job to reward or even acknowledge me for my 'generosity.'

8. Keep reminding myself: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU (rinse and repeat as necessary).

However, the biggest lesson that I have learned - and apply to myself - is simpler: compassion. Perhaps I should clarify that I use the term loosely to indicate the range of meanings it evokes for me from the Indic traditions, including that of karuna, samvedana, and dayavirata.

Over the years, I have realised why so many Indic texts describe compassion as a difficult experience and idea. It is because compassion demands far more than most of us imagine: an ability to feel another's pain without centering ourselves in that suffering. In simple terms, for me compassion is about feeling the pain of another, of approaching them with a view to ease that pain, even if only by recognising and acknowledging it clearly. Compassion, in this definition, requires suppressing the need 'to do good' by appropriating another's decision-making and agency. Compassion in this sense insists that we allow the injured party to make their own choices, even if it means they reject us. After all, any pain of rejection we may experience will still be a miniscule fraction of their agony.

As I continue to fight my own battles, and stand as ally for those I care for, I sometimes forget that my allies can offer me the same kind of compassion.  It is easy, I know, when one is hurting to believe that any offer of support is another micro-aggression, another attempt to appropriate one's narrative and suffering. In those instances, it takes an enormous effort for me to accept that I too have allies. After the initial surprise at their response, I am always grateful for their compassion.

I end with a poem written by an ally after I had another unpleasant real world encounter with prejudice. As I raged on twitter, Sandy Nicholson tweeted this to me:

Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun!
Let's make swords out of things! That sounds fun! / Stare at me all you want. I choose not to give peace a chance.

And the only thing really evolving is information, From matter to animals to humans to technology.

It's all really just about storage space, and if that's all you have planned for yourself then I've already won this fight.
You can talk to me about progress if you want but the end of that timeline is our extinction either way.
so don't be so eager to iron out all the creases.
I choose instead to get pissed off when my friends are cornered

by a the kind of meat and potatoes idiocy that should really be boring by now. Never mind offensive. It's boring.
I choose not to let logic and decency form a callous over the part of me that gets angry.

I don't just want to win the war against casual racism I want to leave it looking like a knife fight

I want to cut trombones from victory laps And I want to have fun doing it
So bring me some sharp stuff I'll forget how to hold it properly and prick all my fingers but I'll do it honestly.


I may not win the battle, but I'll fight it so you know for sure whose side I was on (it was yours)

It did exactly what allies are supposed to do. Offered recognition of my hurt and extended compassion. And it reminded me that I am not alone.
Happy new year!

PS. Another lovely tweep, MJ Berryman storifyed the poem and it does read quite amazingly in tweets so do look it up.