I am a white middle class man. I have never existed within the confines of an oppressed people. Whilst anyone could feasibly be racist or sexist towards me it simply doesn’t occur within the context of historical institutionalised discrimination. It is generally either easy for me to laugh off or simply remark at as an oddity. I am under no delusions that my experience within my skin has, and will invariably continue to, shape my understanding of prejudice in a different way than women, people of colour, LGBTQI persons, and people with disabilities.
It is therefore incumbent on me to seek to understand the experiences of others who don’t enjoy the historical privilege to laugh off jokes or ignore generalisations. It is an endeavour I undertake not to self-serve but for the altruistic desire to minimise any hurt I may ever inadvertently cause my fellow human beings.
Even over the past year the effectiveness of the #metoo campaign has brilliantly communicated the contrasting experiences of females so as to change my perceptions of what I once considered harmless behaviour. It remains, I suspect, a perpetual work in progress due to the simple reason that our shared experiences will continue to differ across genders.
But what about racism? Due to the absolute horror of its historical manifestations it seems a topic that any progressive minded person is keen to quickly distinguish themselves from at any cost.
But do I, as a member of the demographic who has implemented so much racism, have a say in what is racist? Perhaps not. Just as my female friends have alerted me to the fact that something I may have said many years ago was inadvertently sexist, it appears my intent was irrelevant if the result was to make my female friends feel in any way victimised.
We as a people are learning. Only a decade ago a group of Australians appeared on a Saturday night variety show dressed in “black face” impersonating The Jackson Five. The crowd laughed whilst a shocked Harry Connick Jr. on set recoiled in horror. The difference between Connick Jr. and the Australian crowd was the knowledge of the American history with “blackface” and Jim Crowe cartoons. There is nothing objectively racist about painting your face black. It was only within the historical context of it being traditionally used by white Americans as a means to mock African Americans that it carries the weight of prejudice.
There is no evidence that the participants in that show held a ounce of racism in their blood. At most they were guilty of being ignorant to a fairly unique element of US history.
In 2019, Australians are more or less armed with the full knowledge of the historical roots of “blackface” and why it causes hurt irrelevant of our intent. We know it is, and why it is, racist so that anyone that did that now would be doing so fully aware that certain people would take sincere offence.
This is important, because intent matters. As the cast of that variety show learned, it is possible to do something racist without you yourself being racist. The difference is important.
We live in an era where even if a US President isn’t himself a racist, he is broadly supported by many who are unapologetically racist, and they feel empowered by his status. There are literally Nazis holding rallies in both Australia and USA, we must be proactive in condemning racism and refusing it a platform to be normalised.
For this reason, the word “racist” is word that will be overused at our own peril.
As someone who considers themselves left leaning and progressive, perhaps the most dangerous thing I can say amongst my kind is “wait, how is that racist?”. This needs to be recognised as different to saying “That isn’t racist”.
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, I acknowledge my ignorance of the experience of people of colour, just as I had ignorance of the experience of my female friends. That bridge between male and female experience was crossed not through subjugation or threat of condemnation, but through communication of experience.
I asked the sincere question “why is that racist” on Twitter today, hoping for a sincere answer, hoping for education. The answers I received were concerningly predictable as that which is referred to by anyone mocking the progressive left.
“You sound like someone looking for an excuse to be racist.”
“It’s not my job to educate you on racism. You’re clearly racist yourself”
It was ultimately suggested to me, before being blocked, that if a person of colour tells me it is racist then it is racist, end of story. This is true to an extent. As I have acknowledged earlier, whether something is racist or not is primarily the adjudication of the person taking offence. However failing to explain the ‘why’ ensures it will not be “end of story” but that the story will no doubt repeat itself.
I would suggest that the person who seeks to understand what makes something racist has truer intentions than the person who fearfully obliges by the proclamations for fear of condemnation.
It is unfair that the burden falls on people of colour to communicate their experiences to me just so I can understand why a ‘thing’ might cause them offence, I understand that. However the alternative is me remaining ignorant of the true colours of their emotion. I have no way to empathise with their experience, I can only sympathise. This relies on their ability to communicate their experience.
Calling someone racist because they dared question why something is racist immediately ends the communication, it ensures the experience will never be understood, and it all but ensures the offence will be caused again.