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

39 comments:

  1. Dear Sunny, very brave of you for putting it out like this. I hope everyone gives it some thought. I sure will. I only wish you had given maybe a few examples, since there might still be things we do/say in an insensitive manner even after reading your post. But thank you. We all turn a blind eye to so much injustice on a daily basis... Good to be reminded. Much love, Tamara

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    1. Thanks Tamara. I debated including examples but realised that I could keep going forever....a daily thing, sadly. So decided to stick to a few points, mostly asking people to be conscious in their words and actions...hopefully that is enough :-)
      xx

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    2. Just the right note. Not so long it feels like a lecture, but enough information to be actionable.

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  2. Very interesting post and I agree that it is only by being told of the impact of our actions that we may change for the better. There are so many cultural nuances that I am not aware of, I am learning about my friends and even family day after day. But it is a path of learning that we should all tread

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  3. I see the point of this piece. However, I really wish you took the time to expand on what you mean by 'white'. It is obviously not the white working class, for instance. White working class individuals, too, are systematically and structurally and behaviorally and linguistically excluded at times, just like many non-white people. And I agree with what you recommend about learning: I have white skin but clearly speak in a foreign language. When people find out I am a muslim Arab (which apparently is unbelievable!) there is often this awkward moment of 'silence', a barely detectable bodily jerk, a tighter vocal chord, albeit for a moment. It is only I that perceive these subtle changes, and I am not sure I would refer to them as 'micro' racial aggressions. I find it important to give people the benefit of the doubt, which doesn't seem to be the case here. Just like the post before me suggested, a few more examples would have helped sealed the author's argument together.

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    1. I see your point but race also provides privilege and protection that supercedes class (the poster below has explained it very well)

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  4. There is so little written on this topic which might be helpful to both whites and people of color. Thanks for expressing your anger and frustration with love and courage!

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  5. Sunny - thankyou for that. It was fabulously eloquent. I would respond with a few points, as a working class white woman.

    Recognising privelege should not be uncomfortable. If it is uncomfortable, it is because you are resisting. Our privelage is a fact and if we are genuine about learning / finding out, we would not want to resist, we would welcome that feeling as an opportunity to examine what is going on.

    Having a non white friend does not necessarily mean that you are open to change. It depends on the nature of that relationship, its power dynamics. Men marry women and live with them. It does not necessarily mean that they are not mysogenistic

    This does apply to White Working Class people. Yes they are excluded from society, but that is in different ways. If you were black or asian as well as being of low class, you would experience additional exclusion, again, just the same as white working class women have a different experience from men. Being working class, does not cancel out racism or sexism, but the ways that eg working class white men would express racism and sexism, would be different from the ways that middle class white men would express it, reflecting the level and type of power they held, physical, verbal, political etc etc.

    I recall someone complaining one time that they "Shouldn't have to look over their shoulder every time they said something" in case they were criticised for being eg racist. My response would be that if you feel the need to look over your shoulder BEFORE you say something, this is because you are aware that it is questionable and you are checking who is present to see if you can get away with it? If you feel the need to look over your shoulder - don't say it!!!

    I remember someone once commenting on the statement that this person treated everyone the same "Irrespective of race, creed or colour". Actually, we need to treat people the same RESPECTIVE of race creed or colour - ie taking into account the obstacles that they have to face.

    Again Sunny. Many thanks for that very eloquent and thought provoking piece.

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    1. Thank you. Specially about your point on class (as the poster above had also mentioned). Yes there are systemic inequalities that are class based but racism cuts past any privilege that class can provide. Too often racism impacts people of colour regardless of money, education, achievements. Race privilege exists even for the working class.

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  6. That's an interesting post, but after reading this long series of wrong, wrong, wrong, don't, don't, don't and even "do not ask what you said that I don't like because it's not my job to tell you" I do wonder why any of your white friends does even care to keep the friendship going. Unless obviously you reserve all this passive-aggressiveness for the internet.

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    1. Well at least I have the courage to post with my own name and photo. So is how you manage your aggression? Anonymously, on the internet?
      To answer your question: my friends - of ALL backgrounds - care about issues of equality and recognise how these impact us. This means they are able to be considerate and sensitive. It also means that they are able to empathise even when they don't experience the inequality or injustice themselves. And because they are able to empathise, they can learn without placing additional burden of being taught by those who are already treated as unequal. That is what makes them my friends!
      The ones who can't acknowledge their own privilege, understand how inequality impacts all of us, can't empathise, and refuse to learn fall away over time.

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    2. It really isn't Sunnys Job to have to educate people, but she did. She, as others, already waste significant amounts of their time wading through the impact of racism. For much of my life, I have raised issues about various oppressed groups, but strangely not particularly about the things that affect me personally. Why? Well because it hurts and thus has a cost attached to it.

      I learnt what I know simply from listening, reading, soaking up, contemplating and working it out myself. The biggest issue perhaps is being willing to reflect on your own reactions and feelings and where that might come from.

      Frank, as myself passed the article on for people in our circles to debate and discuss. In the end, the things I have done in relation to equality over the years are not for Sunnys benefit, or for anyone elses', but for my own. I for one feel that I would be less of a person if I did not consider the situation of those around me.

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    3. Thank you, Carolyn. Once again, you put the point across so eloquently. Best wishes

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  7. Being the white co-father of two black adopted children in Brooklyn I want to thank you for this piece. For us it is tremendously important to understand our white privilege and unconscious racism. I forwarded it to all my white liberal friends. Race sadly trumps still all other identity markers.

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    1. Thank you. Unfortunately race does trump other identity markers but we can change the way it impacts our lives. You as a parent are part of that change. Thank you again

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  8. Hi Sunny,

    I'm with Tamara, it was really interesting but a few examples would have been good. I kept reading it wondering if these are things I do that I'm oblivious to but I have no idea what micro-aggression looks like. I have no idea what the innocent acts or normal terminology with racist roots in points 1 and 2 might be and I would like to now so that I can stop doing things that are causing my friends harm.
    The bit I found most helpful was after point 5 when you talked about how your experience of a shop/spa/immigration counter is different to mine. This is honestly something I've never considered and giving me a concrete example made it possible to try to see it from your point of view.
    Really its not a far step from 'Do I do that?' to 'I'm sure I don't do that, she must mean other people.' Other than that, another interesting read. Thanks Sunny.
    Helen

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    1. Helen,
      I understand your point. But I chose not to include examples because I have written about the topic before and felt that they would take away from the main points. But here are some earlier pieces: http://sunnysinghonline.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/casual-bigotry-and-daily-living.html and http://sunnysinghonline.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/very-illiberal-phenomenon-amongst.html and http://sunnysinghonline.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-allies-may-there-be-ever-more-in-2014.html Hope these answer your question more fully. Best wishes

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  9. Well said Sunny, very well said.

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  10. Very well said Sunny. Bravo!

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  11. I'm really enjoying this debate! what is ultimate marker: race or class? Perhaps the intersection of the two? There is so much to say about this question, and the posts highlight the many nuances that affect our lives! I'm the same Anonymous 2/09/2014 1:40 pm.

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    1. Intersectionality is a great tool but in my personal experience, class (money, education, job) is able to sometimes protect me (at least from the overt, brutal, violent acts of racism, although not always). But at the end, no matter how many degrees I have, the number of books I write, and what I achieve, I can still be reduced to racist slur by anyone with racial privilege. I can also be erased by well-meaning "race blindness" even from 'nice' people who refuse to acknowledge that racial markers make my experience of the world a different (and generally a worse) one.

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    2. The answer to this one might be "It depends". In the UK, it does not matter what background you have, you can still be stereotyped by the authorities, stopped and searched by the police etc etc, with assumptions made and not just by the authorities. I recall one time walking along one time in an inner city area with a black colleague and having a number of people running up to him asking him if he was selling drugs, despite the fact that he was smartly dressed etc etc. I was amazed as it had never ever happened to me. He said it happened all the time and this was stereotyping by people who would be considered working class or even an "underclass". If you are Black or Asian, in a Black / Asian country however, class is likely to be much more of an issue than race as people would share their race. Gender is another key issue when women, whatever their race often come below the men. No matter how many degrees Sunny has, I bet you will still at times be called "love"......

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    3. Very true. Also, 'love' is the least offensive thing I have been called, regardless of degrees, achievements, and all. And then there are the subtler assumptions, prejudices, cliches...exhausting, really

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    4. The ultimate markers? Sex, of course.

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  12. Hi all: am having trouble allowing posts here so not quite sure what is going on. Please do leave your comments. Am sure we will get it sorted asap. Thanks

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    1. Update: Still not resolved. But seemingly replies work so may be easier to reply if you can't comment directly. Thanks

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  13. very helpful. Thank you for this!

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  14. Wow you're trying to stop racism but you're actually dividing people into different races. You are part of the problem. You're more backwards than a racist

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    1. Spoken from a position of unchallenged privilege, I see. Recognising racial privilege exists is the first step to fighting racism. Of course if you are the one with the privilege and power, then it is easier to brand me a racist instead of introspecting. I am not surprised, although definitely saddened.
      Best wishes

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    2. Anonymous. Your letter seems to acknowledge that there is racism (to be stopped), a Problem (that you say Sunny is a part of) and that there are racists (that Sunny is more backwards than). That being the case, clearly the people are already divided and as Sunny says, it is only by recognizing that, that you can begin to discuss and resolve the issue. Otherwise, people would be saying "Problem, what problem?" Unemployment, health and many other statistics confirm that there is indeed a problem.

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  15. As a older white male, I, we must be on the top of your, excuse my scatological reference, shit list. But I agree with your article to a certain degree. Racism is a slippery rascal and can appear it subtleties, so it is hard to define. Also because it is a feeling, it means different things to different people. I think there is more pressing problem and that is what is a women's place in the world. i have traveled a lot and MOST of the countries in the world (like Pakistan and any Islamic country to pick on them) treat women as second class citizens. Yea, they may be masters of the house but most men think they are too precious to go out in the world to solve problems. If you think racism is subtle and ingrained into male thought patterns, then sexism is hardwired into their DNA. I proclaim not me. If there is a needed revolution in the world it is the women of the world standing up and saying they want to be part of the decision process to solve problems. From my travels there is a new age coming for women power. But you better hurry ladies, the men have taken the world to the abyss creating more bloody problems.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I have written consistently about gender as you will see from many posts here and in other outlets. As a woman of colour, I daily live the double bind of gender and race, and am disadvantaged by both. I also write about that intersection though not in this piece. Thank you again for reading and commenting

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  16. Not managed to read it, but I don't doubt that it is all good stuff!! Hope London is warming up nicely for you Sunny!! All the best to you.

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    1. Thanks, its been hectic but always good to get writing out :-)
      Yes, London is much nicer with less rain though I could do with a bit more sunshine. Best wishes

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  17. You're spot-on. I'm originally from India and have lived in the US for the last 25 years. I am much more likely to pick up on sexism than on racism. But they both do happen. Thank you for putting this in words. Sharing with my friends on Facebook. Blessings!

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    1. Thank you. And yes, despite living in various places outside India, I am still learning about this. Best wishes

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