Why do we have such a problem with being called racist? 

i wonder if it is because some of us have a slightly messed up understanding of what it means when we talk about racism.

Let me give you an example. When many of us think of racism, we tend to think of this definition that Robin di Angelo [author of the book, White Fragility] uses as an example:

‘An individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them.’

There are three statements in there that this simplified explanation of what it means to be racist beings to the table…

[1] It is always an individual – so that negates the idea that there can be systems or structures that can be racist.

[2] It is always conscious – so a person is always aware of what they are doing when they exhibit racist behaviour

[3] It is always intentional – so racist behaviour only ever happens when someone is trying to be mean to someone else.

Now, all three of those things can be true. A racist can be an individual; and racism can be conscious and intentional. But if our definition is that those three things always have to be in play, then if i say that you have exhibited racist behaviour, what you will hear me saying is “You are a bad person!” Because not you have been put in that category over there with all the bad people that we group together as racist.

Whereas, what we are suggesting when we talk racism and racist behaviour, is that most of our bias is unconscious. So we are not intending to be racist or we are not aware that what we say or do is affecting someone else negatively.

This definition of a racist, which is an Either/Or type of definition, which Robin di Angelo refers to as the Good/Bad binary [you are either good or you are bad] is the cause of the majority of defensiveness on the topic of racism. 

The Power Aspect

i think it is helpful to add here that there are two very different definitions or understandings that i have often seen cause a lot of confusion in conversations about race.

The definition of Racism i think most of us grew up with is the idea of ‘Someone who hates someone from another race’ – it might not necessarily be as strong as hate – could be fear or distrust or superiority or other descriptive words, but the main thrust being someone from one race looking down upon someone from another race. By this definition anyone can be racist. 

But that i have discovered in my five years of really trying to lean into this topic is that there is another definition. This would be described as a more academic or perhaps activist definition of racism and it includes the idea of power. So it has all the same feelings or negative energy or superiority of the first definition but also adds that racism is not possible unless there is a measure of power that allows you to enact your racism officially [through systems and structures like government] over the other race. As white people did during apartheid or in the USA via Jim Crow for example.

By this second definition, black people in South Africa cannot be racist. They can be prejudiced and hateful, but not racist.

What often occurs though is you have two people who each have one of these definitions of racism coming head to head and obviously chaos ensues, because one person is saying anyone can be racist and the second is saying that black people can’t be racist. And they are both right. Which is why defining your terms and making sure you both are meaning the same thing with the same words can be super helpful.

I can’t help being Racist

This is a heading worth clarifying quickly.

Robin di Angelo puts it excellently like this [and you can watch her explain this over here]:

“The inevitable absorption of a racist world-view that we get by literally swimming in racist water.”

So maybe it would be more helpful to state: i can’t help starting out racist or with some measure of racism in me [in terms of my thinking and quite possibly my words and actions as well] because of the context i grew up in, both as a South African, but also as just someone in the world [which has tended to be quite focused on putting whiteness on a pedestal].

But i absolutely can commit to the work of unlearning, dismantling, moving away from the racist ideas, words and actions that have found their way into me. And this for me is a lifelong commitment.

Robin goes on to say,

“I didn’t choose any of that, I don’t feel guilty about any of it. It is the inevitable result of being raised in this society in which racism is the bedrock.”

Hopefully, given the definitions of racism that i have, i don’t need to explain why Reverse Racism is not a thing. Because whites in South Africa are never going to be treated in the same dehumanising ways that black, coloured and indian people were under apartheid. From a power and legal perspective.

Hopefully this will help some of you enter into a conversation that has felt a little scary or aggressive up til now. Defining words and terms can really free us up to do the work that needs to be done. Given the history of the murkiness of the waters i grew up in, i imagine that i will be doing anti-racist work [in myself and then others] for the rest of my life. But it is important that you get on board.

Watch this short video with Robin di Angelo that helps explain this stuff a little better.

[For some excerpts from Robin’s book, White Fragility, click here]