Subtle Racisms

Im working on developing a new workshop on race that I hope will address partially the ways racism tries to hide itself inside the new liberal white person. Its always interesting to me how work that is done in the Black community becomes co-opted into the discourse of whiteness and then becomes meaningless.  Like “diversity”, “political correctness” and most recently, “anti-racist”. I got into this great discussion with Chris over at Race has nothing to do with you and our other friend, Jordan – about why the term “ally” and the term “anti-racist” have now become problematic. As Jordan put it, “I’m ‘pro-life’ for sure, but I’m sure as hell not puttin that button on my backpack. ” What he means here of course is that he is against war, death and destruction – and for the right of women to choose, so the meaning of ‘pro-life’ becomes lost, co-opted  by conservatives and useless to us.

Discussion point – I’m really interested in what your definition of “anti-racist” is.  Can we chat about this for a bit?
My colleague and friend Kamau Bell in his new show, The W. Kamau Bell Curve – talks about this new phenomenon of white celebrities coming out the mouth with racism, and then (semi)apologizing for it, before they walk outside and do it again. Bell questions how is that white liberals who claim to be ‘our friends’, think that simply because they say, “I’m not racist”. This phrase, along with “Ive got tons of black friends” is a shield to hide the lack of internal work on how race functions in their lives. When we remain in denial, there is no way we can understand how we impact other people when we continue to stress that we didnt ‘intend’ it to be that way. “I didnt mean it THAT way”.

This SNL skit by Queen Latifah actually does some great work in terms of vocalizing daily stress of this kind of denial in the workplace.


8 thoughts on “Subtle Racisms

  1. “Discussion point – I’m really interested in what your definition of “anti-racist” is.”

    Hmmmm. anti-racist isn’t a term I use in my real life much because it’s like saying, “I’m think murder is bad.” It doesn’t take any thought to say, “Racism is bad!” There’s no risk there.

    So *for me*, I’d say being anti-racist is asking myself, “Where am I coming from here? Where is racism rooted in me? How do I go about acknowledging my privilege and working to dismantle it?”

    This is hard to explain.

    It’s easy to march, wear a pin, sign a petition but for me (again for me, I’m not going to define what it ought to be for someone else) it’s meaningless unless I’m digging in personally. This is one reason when I write the anti-racist parent posts I try to do it as someone unpacking my own knapsack — it’s pointless to me otherwise.

  2. A friend of mine had this great analogy. Being white is like being a dinosaur with a big swinging tail. When the dinosaur walks into a room, its tail inadvertently knocks over what is in its way without the dinosaur being aware of it. I thought that was a great way of explaining what it means to be white.

    So, to me, these days, being a white anti-racist, is becoming aware of that big tail and trying to see what it is knocking down in its way.

  3. Dawn, I really tend to agree with you about the notion that it is really problematic that we even have to have the term at ALL! This was also my colleagues comment, that why should it be about being ‘anti’ anything? why shouldnt the world just BE aware and awake of how we hurt and cause pain to one another? Absolutely.

  4. Lisa Marie —

    LOVED the Queen Latifah skit!

    To me, the “anti” in “anti-racist” is the important part. “I’m not racist” and “I’m anti-racist” mean two different things to me. The first is “No, I’m not that bad thing you’re talking about. Can we discuss something else?” The second is “I take it as my personal responsibility to do something — anything (blog, write, teach, speak, protest in any way I can) — to counter racism.” I get what you’re saying about phrases being watered down and co-opted. But I think being anti-racist is a powerful and necessary step towards “just being aware and awake.” Instead of abandoning the phrase, I’d like to see us hold accountable those who use it to describe themselves. “You say you’re anti-racist? Great! So, tell me what you’ve been doing . . .”

  5. Yeah, I’m with Dawn. I don’t like the term in general. There were some grad students a few years ago kicking around the term “race-traitor” and I kinda liked that. The idea being, don’t stick up for white supremacy (or pretend it isn’t there) just because you’re white.

    Mostly, I am over the navel-gazing period of my race education, I have to admit. Sure, stuff comes up and I need to go back and look at myself again, especially in relation to raising two African American daughters. But mostly I’m over thinking all about me all the time and I’m more interested in what I do or say and the contexts I put myself in.

    I teach in an anti-racist way when I make white students come face to face with the truth of the importance of race in the U.S. and the true appropriateness of the term “white supremacy” to describe our culture. Not to mention when I teach them history. (It’s that easy, since so much race history is overlooked in HS education). I teach in an anti-racist way when I hold my African American students to high standards, support their interests and help them learn to articulate their concerns and beliefs more convincingly.

    Physically crossing segregation lines is another thing I consider anti-racist. Refusing to be afraid of being “the only white person” anywhere. (Put that on the list with “I’m not racist” and “my black friends.” White people always have these stories in which they were “the only white person” somewhere and we (white people) are all supposed to have some kind of agreement over what that means and how it feels–and it isn’t good. As far as I’m concerned it’s racist code, not to mention an assumption that white supremacy is a safe norm.)

    We have a personal affirmative-action program too. When we have a choice, we use African American businesses etc.

    Lots of little every day things, I suppose…

  6. Hi Lisa Marie,

    I’ve been reading your blog for the past two hours after finding a link to it on another page linked to in the debunkingwhite community at livejournal. My head is spinning and there are probably lots of things I want to say but at the moment there is way too much to process. I recently graduated from UCB with a Rhetoric PhD and I work on ethics and the relationship between the same and the other in an abstract sort of way but one that has immediate consequences within concrete face-to-face encounters/events in all sorts of contexts. I’m interested in taking my dissertation and expanding it to the question of how white America can ethically confront its own imperialist history and frontier myth, given that the frontier is the place where face-to-face encounters happen and something seems always in our history to have gone tragically wrong and this appears to me to have its roots in European metaphysics of the self, to put it way too simply.

    Anyway it’s past my bedtime so that was probably poorly articulated. I do research mostly in Anglo conquest and physical and cultural genocide of Native Americans but of course in the US races and cultures encounter each other in an almost infinite number of combinations and so I am interested in all kinds of encounters and interactions not to mention that I have the obsessive-compulsive reading disorder with paradoxical reading ADD that I think all PhDs graduate with. Beware! You will never be able to read for “pleasure” again.

    Not that the pain is not itself pleasurable but to go there would be a grave digression.

    I just wanted to say that I’m very moved by what you’ve chosen to share with the internet here and that it resonates very strongly, to me, with the forced assimilation of Native Americans insofar as white interracial adoption seems so wrought with unacknowledged imperialisms of various kinds that I find it difficult to believe–well, no. I’m unfortunately not surprised at all–that it doesn’t come in for more critique at the level of mainstream discourse. No in George W Bush’s America it does not surprise me but it does trouble me deeply.

    Honestly I don’t know what I want to tell you exactly other than that as a rape and incest survivor and as one who has been virtually cast out of his fundamentalist christian family for being transsexual–and although I realize our paths are not the same and our traumas are not the same–I am still finding many parts of your story resonant with things I have experienced, only maybe in that rather disjunctive way that keeps life interesting. So I wanted to say hello and thank you for putting yourself out there like this.

    And if you want tips on how to finish your dissertation I’ll be h

  7. Ha. My cat submitted my longwinded comment before I was even done!

    What I was trying to say there at the end is that I finished my dissertation in a mad rush at the end and if anything in how I did it is helpful to you I’m happy to share.

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