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! 


  1. Some good parallels there. In my experience, the worst kind of let-down was when a white friend doesn't stand up for you in the face of a comment or action that is clearly racist (by somebody else). Took me a while to realize that expecting somebody to defend me because they're of the same skin colour as the offender is also kind of ...a generalization? Maybe they're just not confrontational by nature; maybe it's a cultural difference, whatever. I'm glad you have friends who care, but the best thing that happened to me was deciding to fight my own battles. It greatly helps fight the is-it-my-fault? shade of guilt. And I'm especially happy you're writing and initiating dialogue on such an important issue.

    1. Agree with you. I guess it is only human to expect friends to stick up for you, regardless of their race. Also I have been fighting my own battles but that can become quite isolating. Recently, I have realised that I have more allies than I imagine. So widening that means I (and others like me) have a chance of winning against racism.
      Thank you for reading...we will change things, one mind at a time :-)