What do i mean by a ‘Racism Spectrum’?

This morning i chatted to four grade 6s about Racism.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a regular hobby of mine – “Hey kids, gather round and listen to how awful your ancestors were…” – in fact, this was an amazing opportunity gifted to me by a friend of mine who teaches at their school. Grade sixes were doing a project and four of them chose Racism and needed someone to interview and i jumped at the chance.

i was super impressed at their level of preparation and they each had about ten to twelve questions prepared and peppered me with them while furiously making notes and seemed to nod at all the right points while i was talking about systems and structures and so on…

One question stuck out to me though and i think it was the last one and felt like a bit of a p.s. off-the-cuff bonus question the one little boy decided to throw in, which went along the lines of:

‘What do racists think?’ 

Sho, what a phenomenally adult question that feels like.

I’m not a horrible racist [but]

i am really glad that question was asked though, because it took me to a part of the conversation we hadn’t really covered properly, and i believe that this is one of the biggest problems we have when it comes to racism and the race issues in our country.

When i say the word ‘racist’ to you, you probably immediately have someone in mind.

If i presented two pictures to you and said, “Which one is the racist?” i think it would be an easy decision, right?

Racist spectrum

How do you spot a racist?

With the two pics above it feels pretty simple right? Clearly one is a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an American white supremacist hate group, and the other is just some random white guy.

We tend to think of racists as people that are obvious to spot – they are overt in their thinking, blatant in their language and typical in their behaviour.

Which is why when i am confronted with someone wearing Ku Klux Klan clothes, i feel quite easily let off the hook as far as racism goes because “I am not like them!” Right?

Well here is another way of looking at it for a minute. Do you think of yourself as rich? i imagine most of us do not. But the records show that if we have a computer or smart phone or own a car then we are likely to be in the top 3 to 8% of wealthiest people in the world.

When i compare myself to my friend who owns their house, has two cars and a holiday house, then i really am not rich. When i compare myself to another friend who takes regular trips overseas for holiday and eats out at restaurants once or twice a week then i am not rich.

But when i walk through a township or drive past various people at traffic lights who are begging for their next meal, then suddenly i feel incredibly wealthy.

Back to racism, when the picture i have of a racist is a really bad person who hates people of other races and will do anything to hurt or even kill them, then i know that is not me and so it is very easy to distance myself from the idea of being racist. i am not a member of the KKK or the AWB or Afriforum and so i can’t be racist, right?

This is where the big twist comes in, because what if i told you i could be a really nice person and still be racist? 

Mind blown racist

The Racism Spectrum

Picture racism as a spectrum, with your extremely and overtly racist types on the one side and your really hardly barely racist people on the other. Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle. We have racist tendencies – mindsets, opinions, things we say or do without intentionally meaning to be offensive and so on – but we don’t actively hate on other people in our minds or actions.

As a quick aside, one of the biggest stumbling blocks i have found in many online conversations about race is that we have two main definitions of Racism which are quite different.

The first definition of Racism would be the one most of us have growing up which would be the idea of one race hating another. By this definition all people can be racist, because obviously you do have some black people that hate white people for example.

But the more Academic definition of Racism brings in the power aspect as well and says that Racism can only really happen when you as a race have the power to be able to subdue and oppress another race as white people did in South Africa. By this definition only white people, at least in the context of South Africa, although also most places in the world, can be racist.

The problem tends to happen when you have two different people each using one of these different definitions of Racism who come into contact with each other. They will definitely butt heads because one person will say “Black people can’t be racist!”[definition 2] and the other one will respond with “Of course they can. Anyone can be racist!” [definition 1] and very quickly things will go off track.

It is important that when you are arguing with someone, you are both using the same definitions of things.

Back to the Racist spectrum, once we realise that all of us [using definition 2 so speaking to white people here] likely have some level of racism in us and that it is not just the “bad, scary-looking ones” that are much easier to vilify and label and cast to the side, then we can begin doing the work of unlearning, dismantling, bridge-building and whatever else needs to happen for each of us to work on the areas of racism that exist within us.

So while i do not see myself as an overt militant intentional racist, and given that i was born into a cleverly designed racist system of a country, i recognise that i will probably need to spend the rest of my life working on reducing and eliminating the racism that exists in me.

The ‘random white guy’ in the picture on the right, by the way is an American man by the name of David Duke, who actually at one time was the Grand Wizard of the KKK which just goes to show that sometimes you cannot tell from the outside. But it could also have just as well been a picture of me, because there is work in this guy still needing to be done.

While i have been working very hard on my education and listening and intentional relationships and reducing all-white spaces i inhabit in the past five years, and have made some progress on eliminating terms like ‘non-white’ from my vocabulary because of having a better understanding of how the words we use can hurt, there is still a bunch of superiority or entitlement or assumption or suspicion [a lot harder to identify and get rid of] that needs to be dealt with. And i’m sure there are blind spots, which as i learn about them, can be worked on and hopefully put behind me.

It starts with us realising that the racists are not just ‘those bad people over there’ but that we too, have work needing to be done in us.

Until more of us realise that, it becomes too easy for so many people to disconnect from this conversation.

Where do you land on the Racism Spectrum, and which way are you moving along it?

This diagram known as the Racism Scale [i think by Dr Amina Wadud] is a helpful tool to help you answer some of this:

Racism Spectrum scale

Once i recognised that there was work to be done to root out racist aspects in my own life, i was able to acknowledge it and then start doing the work. As i have been trying out different things and seeing some progress, i compiled a list of 40 ways that white people who are asking the question, ‘But what can I do?’ can get going with it. Take a look if you are looking for some practical suggestions.

The hope is to continue to actively work towards being on the better end of the Racism Spectrum.