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 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