Friday, May 4, 2012

The Right to Racism

April was a weird month for me. I got some devastating news that sent me to some dark places inside myself for a while. And it didn’t help that April was also the month that several race-related news stories hit the airwaves (or at least broke into my conciousness). From the murder of Trayvon Martin, to the Swedish Golliwog cake scandal, the expulsion of Nigerians from South Africa, and racist reactions to a black character in the Hunger Games movie, it just seemed like a bad time to be black in the world.

It is easy to attribute the racism that spawned these issues to a few bad eggs, but that’s not the problem. There will always be racists. The real problem is that racism is not just individuals who don’t like other individuals because of the colour of their skin. Racism is built into systems of power and privilege. Systems that allow some people – because of the colour of their skin – to have more opportunities than others.

Some people – because of the colour of their skin – have the opportunity to live in nicer homes, grow up in safer neighbourhoods, attend better-resourced schools, and live richer, more fulfilling lifestyles than others. Some people always get the benefit of the doubt – if they mess up, it’s not automatically assumed that it’s because of a “cultural” or racial pathology. Some people – because of the colour of their skins – can turn on the television and always see themselves reflected back. For them, race is not something they ever have to think about, if they don’t want to.

And the problem I have with too many of these people is that, because they don’t have to live their lives circumscribed by their race, too often, they dismiss the experiences of people who do.

After every one of the scandals I mentioned earlier, there was always a chorus of people (usually white) who would come out to dismiss any claims of racism. They would claim that somehow black people were overreacting and that there had to be some explanation other than racial bias. They would often say that black people were “playing the race card” to unfairly punish an innocent white person or garner unnecessary attention. In fact, many people’s response to the Swedish Golliwog incident (which I can’t even coherently express how personally upsetting and horrifying it was) was that it was merely a provocative artistic statement about race. Such explanations had a whiff of elitism - a hint that perhaps those offended by it were not sophisticated enough to understand the point of the "peice."

Now imagine if, in each of these situations, the issue involved wasn’t about race but disability. Would you suggest that handicapped people be “overreacting” in their outrage? Would it be a legitimate defence to say that they just didn’t “get” it?

Let me bring my analogy a little closer to home. I was born into an upper-class Nigerian family. Through no real merit of my own, I grew up in a series of nice homes in fairly safe neighbourhoods all over the world. I was able to attend some of the best schools in the world. So I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to grow up in poverty, not knowing where my next meal was coming from. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be taken out of school and put to work to help feed the family. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be forced to live with so little while surrounded by people who have so much.

But because I have never known poverty, does that mean that when a poor person complains of discrimination that I assume they are somehow making it up? Or that they are trying to gain unfair advantages? There is a system in place that privileged me over others. Yes, I worked hard to get where I am today, but I was given opportunities in which to prove myself. And that does not give me the right to dismiss the experiences of those who did not have the same opportunities that I had.

White people didn’t ask to be born into power structures that privileged them any more than I did. But they do benefit from the system – often in more ways than they are consciously aware. And to me, the fact they seem to be unable to acknowledge that these structures even exist, let alone admit that they discriminate ... well, this is more than a profound lack of empathy. It is how the racist power structure is kept in place.

As long as those who benefit from it don’t directly acknowledge it, they can continue to benefit. It’s the same with class in Nigeria. I don’t know how many people in my class and above who will admit that their money and privilege probably came from corrupt means. Unfortunately, corruption is how most money is made in this country. But no one will directly admit that they or their parent or family member did something shady (if not outright illegal) to get them the cushy lifestyle they enjoy. Rather, we will talk as if it’s someone else that’s doing it. And when the poor protest, we join in as if we are suffering also.

It’s a kind of hypocrisy (or at least a self-imposed blindness) that allows us to go about without acknowledging the full depth of the injustice that underpins our world. But, as writer Lindy West points out in her Guide to Hipster Racism post on the Jezebel blog, that is not a defence.

“You ‘can’ wear whatever you want, say whatever you want, and think whatever you want about whatever you want... But if a group of people comes to you and says, ‘This thing that you are doing is hurting us,’ and you keep doing it for fun, then you are a dickweed!”

So when an example of racist behaviour is brought to light, as people who are benefiting from a racially-biased power structure that extends all over the globe (it’s not a coincidence that most of the poorest countries in the world are also the brownest/blackest), stop trying to tell those who aren’t benefitting that it’s all in our head. Don’t tell us “lighten up” or “loosen up.” And don’t tell us that we’re playing “the race card” to gain unwarranted sympathy or attention.

You have no right.

Instead, listen to what we have to say, acknowledge we have a legitimate point of view (millions of us can’t all be exaggerating or making it up) and that there is a problem, then work with us to figure out the solution. Treat us with the same respect and dignity you would demand for yourself.

Anything less is just racist.


  1. Well written and argued, and very true. I think the majority of the Western world are opposed to overt racism (for example, the Norwegians uniting against the killer Breivik's hatred of multiculturalism) but fail to acknowledge the more covert or indirect forms. Not intentionally, though. 

    I think the idea of democratic freedom creates a blanket of caution amongst Westerners when they are presented with indirect racism: no one wants to be the person advocating limiting anyone's freedom of speech or artistic expression, even somewhat racist speech. Especially in the arts, which have been used for centuries as an oddly acceptable medium for publicly expressing sex, religious concepts, sexism, racism and a host of other 'isms'. 

    For Westerners indirect racism is like a bad smell; spray a little air freshener to get rid of the smell and hope no one noticed, and if you did then "Just forget about it. It's stupid and immature and no longer deserves attention." I think many Westerners today abhor the idea of being labeled as racist (specifically due to a horrendous history of racism) and so seek to dismiss the less obvious forms of racism before it becomes a 'problem' or before they are seen to be racist. However, as you pointed out, it's easy to dismiss it when you're part of the privileged.

    That being said, have you noticed how racism and intolerance is inversely correlated with economic health? No jobs and little money means people start to look for someone to cast their frustrations upon, and because we are a tribal species we tend to turn to outsiders to be our scapegoats (e.g. Germany during World War 2, the current anti-immigrant rhetoric from the US and Europe).  Such obvious cues as skin colour, religion, national origin and culture help to demarcate people into 'tribes' that can be attacked.  Unfortunately this is not only a Western problem, but evidenced across the globe, including Nigeria.  Perhaps the best way to handle racism is to provide economic opportunity for all.  However, this is another problem altogether!

    1. You've made a lot of great points here! I think what happens economically is that prejudice tends to increase in times of economic stress - and yes, that's true all over the world.

      But I make a distinction between racial prejudice, which is an individual thing, and institutional racism, which is on a much, much larger scale. It seems to me that all of us, whether we are individually prejudiced or not, live in a global structure that privileges the lighter-skinned over the darker. The reason why differs from place to place - a history of slavery, religious castes systems, historical beauty standards etc. - but it seems pretty common. What do you think?

    2. It's true that, at this time, lighter skin does have a greater privilege over darker skin, and as you say the circumstances as to why this is so does differ from place to place.

      However, I think this is changing. In short, progressive ideas such as racial equality, feminism, etc., all come about through the transition of generations. A point was made somewhere (can't recall where) that - historically speaking - scientific breakthroughs have not enjoyed widespread acceptance when first shared. Instead new ideas are embraced by subsequent generations who have grown up percolating in these ideas (e.g. it took the Church nearly 200 years to lift its ban on Galileo's 'offensive' works).

      The same thing can be said about perceptions of race and skin colour - we can see progressive change over the decades as racist ideologies slowly die off and are gradually replaced by generations without the same visual hangups, or at least not to the same extent.

      But there is still a long way to go. The world is still being run by a generation that grew up in a time that was largely Eurocentric and male-oriented, and that translates into the power structures and systems that we see around us. You and I grew up in a cusp period when eurocentrism and male domination were beginning to give way. We're living now in a time of monumental shifts in cultural and social perceptions - hard to perceive since we're in it, yet in time we will look back and see this is true.

      Children in this time are growing up in an environment where both men and women are powerful leaders, people of various skin-tones occupy the highest political and social positions in the world, and economic power is shifting to non-Western (and darker-skinned) places like China, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. In time perceptions of race and skin-tone will change just as there will be shifts in power and the systems that affect our lives. Preferences for lighter skins may eventually disappear or metamorphose into new, more exotic aesthetics (e.g. actually we can see it now, with a growing preference for tanned skin amongst some Europeans who see having darker skin as healthier and more beautiful, which communicates virility and fertility).

      But the most profound changes will probably take at least 50 years, and maybe more. Most likely well after you and I die. This may not help with the reality that is faced now, but at least there is some solace that things may change for the better in the future!

  2. Wow, there's so much in this post to respond to. I love the way you link racism with power - that's something so many people don't understand. It's not only about calling names - it's about structures and systems and economics. I've lived in London, New York and Barbados, and in all three places I've seen white people enjoying huge built-in advantages over everyone else, and mostly being in massive denial about this fact. The reality is that there's no excuse for not believing what millions of people are experiencing. I saw the video of the Swedish cake thing at the time, and was horrified by the way the minister and the guests were laughing and taking photos as they cut into the "cake" and brought heart-rending screams. They just didn't get it at all. It was fun for them, a joke, a party piece. I found it chilling. I remember listening to a lecture in the US by Tim Wise, in which he used survey data from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to show how white people at each time believed that racism was a big problem ten years earlier but was resolved now. That still seems to be the line, and it's still not true. Thanks for this reminder. I am a white man, and I was born into great privilege compared to most people in the world. The very least I can do is to acknowledge that and be aware of the people at whose cost that privilege comes. The next step is to do something about changing it, and that's where in all honesty I don't do enough.

    Very sorry to hear that you had such terrible news in April, on top of all this going on in the world at large.

    1. Your statistic about Tim Wise's survey data is fascinating. I'd love to read/listen to that lecture.

      Changing the system as a whole may be impossible for any one individual, but if people like you just continue to be aware that there's a problem and speak up about it, I think there's hope for the world.

  3. Didn't T.S. Eliot say that "April is the cruellest month"? What a wonderful post! Just what I wanted, actually needed to read right now. I had a mini-breakdown this morning thinking about some race related stuff happening in the Caribbean that I've been reading about this week. Sigh!!! The thing that always makes any discussion about racism so deeply painful, disillusioning and disappointing is the shouts of denial. Sometimes it all just gets to be too much, you know?

  4. This problem would probably never end. Some thought a black president would make a lot of difference, now it seems that was merely a concession.
    After all the years, tolerance is still being preached.
    The human race is a shame.

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