As a white person responding to this I realize I’m opening myself up to charges of “racism” as it is defined in this article, polite or otherwise. I’m going to go for it anyway. You seem to define every slight or exclusion as evidence of racism. If the definition of racism is so broad as to include every slight (real or perceived), then we might as well admit defeat and move on because racism is here to stay. White people get emails from HR regarding the corporate dress code too and we’ve all been on the receiving end of a raised eyebrow or some other condescending remark/tone that signalled someone’s low regard for our abilities/potential. While such remarks may come from the mouth of a genuine racist (which I define as someone who consciously holds the view that people with a different skin color than their own are inferior) such messages also commonly come from the mouth of a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a sibling. Context matters. Personal intent/motivation matters.

All humans are insensitive or ignorant from time-to-time, myself included. No one can escape it. We make mistakes. We say stupid things. We hurt people’s feelings. This is as true of white people as it is of black, brown, etc. Men do it and women do it. Hopefully we try to learn from these mistakes and become better people in the future. Since we all come from different backgrounds and some of us exhibit differences in skin pigmentation we often fall into the trap of making ill-informed assumptions about other individuals or groups. This ignorance has the potential to lead to racism. Regardless, it is certainly desirable to remedy it whenever possible. However, the things we don’t know will always far outnumber the things we do have some understanding of, including the things we don’t know or understand about each other.

We interpret each other’s behavior through our own experiential and cultural filter because that’s the only filter available to us. Sometimes this causes us to reach the wrong conclusion about other people. But if we’re open to new experiences and to constructive criticism — if we keep talking to one another — then we can overcome these differences, or at the very least reach some kind of understanding. I wouldn’t call anyone engaged in that effort in good faith a racist, even if they do say something wrong or signal discomfort now and then. The point is they’re trying to be good people. They’re battling their ignorance and perhaps even their own demons and attempting to sincerely listen to the better angels of their nature. We all need to be on the side of those angels too instead of labelling every misstep as “racism” or examples of “microaggression”. Being accusatory alienates, and if racism feeds off ignorance it feasts off alienation.

Misunderstandings are part of the human experience. If we start from the premise that all such experiences are examples of racism, at least in so far as they occur between people with different skin colors, then we’re never going to encounter an individual of any skin color who isn’t a racist. Racism, like all isms, is an ideology. It is not unconscious (though biases usually are) and it certainly isn’t polite. It is best defined as the conviction that one race is superior to another and fundamentally rejects the principle of universal human rights. If someone sincerely believes, even if they live that belief imperfectly, that all people regardless of race, sex, creed, etc. should be treated with respect and deserve equal protection under the law, they aren’t a racist. Their treatment of you may be a consequence of honest to god ignorance or fear of the unknown. The explanation may be as simple as they’re having a really bad day. But even on their worst day they aren’t demanding blacks sit at the back of the bus, be denied access to the same universities as their children, or that they never have to sit in a meeting with a person with a different skin color than they have. Nor are they insisting on an end to interracial marriage or demanding blacks be denied the right to vote.

And yes, I recognize there is real systemic racism out there but we shouldn’t get in the habit of automatically associating systemic racism with other individuals trapped in the same system. If your corporation has HR policies that actually/potentially perpetuates discriminatory practices/unequal treatment, the ability to see your white co-worker as trapped in the same system as you facilitates the kind of bridge building that will be necessary to overturn the policy, or at the very least find some way around it. Educate and reach out instead of accusing the guy or gal in the next cubicle of being “racist” or inflicting “microaggressions” on you all the time. That he or she is following a corporate policy they didn’t write and perhaps had no idea was harming you or others is not necessarily evidence of racism. Maybe they are experiencing financial problems and their zealous adherence to procedure is due to fear of losing their job or their desire for a raise. You don’t know what’s behind their behavior.

That white people, especially those who grew up in predominately white communities, are often less comfortable around black people shouldn’t be a surprise. Black people who grew up in predominately black communities have been known to be uncomfortable around white people too. The Japanese culture is extremely resistant to non-Japanese immigration to this day, and the Korean and Chinese cultures at best only mildly more open to outsiders. Indeed, discomfort around others who exhibit differences (biological or cultural) is universal. People like certainty and fear what they don’t know/understand. Since skin color also correlates strongly with cultural differences, a black person from Africa, the deep south or the inner-city is going to pick up on some unease from a white person from Idaho who went to a high school without a single black person in it if they should meet, and vice versa. This is especially true if one or both of these people have little to no personal experience with others from similar backgrounds. But this discomfort is exactly the kind of experience we want people to have more often. It expands their horizons and erodes the crude stereotypes that previously filled in the blanks of their ignorance. However, few are going to be open to such experiences, let alone seek them out, if doing so is only going to lead to accusations of “racism” and “microaggression” each time they exhibit ignorance or say the wrong thing. Now if the white person from Idaho starts calling the black person vile names or has a swastika tattooed on his arm, that’s a pretty good indicator of racism.

Written by

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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