Monday, November 2, 2009

“Everyone’s a little bit racist, right?”

Sure. But what are you actually trying to say?

Every so often I decide to court my family history of high blood pressure and heart disease by engaging in a conversation about race and racism with friends in a casual setting. (Once I tried to do it at work, but that just made everyone really uncomfortable and it was awkward for at least an hour after the conversation had evaporated into the ether so I’m probably not going to do it again.) First you get the “No one’s really racist anymore, I mean I have [insert minority] friends.” Then after you provide a rough overview of the effects of systemic racism you get the shrug and the, “Well, so everyone’s a little bit racist, really nothing you can do about it, I mean it’s how we were raised right?”

Ahhh. The Carrie Prejean excuse. The “I’m so intellectually cloistered and slothful that I haven’t looked past the preconceptions my parents held and have unquestioningly accepted them as my own” excuse. The “I’ve consistently shown that I’m smarter than this, but I still think it’s a valid excuse” excuse. The “You can’t rebut this so I’m going to use it” excuse.

Like hell I can’t rebut this.

Discussions of race understandably make people nervous and frankly I blame the “Racial Harmony Day” level of discourse that we’re presented in schools. It frames racism as an attitude held by an individual and posits that racism can be countered if you eat enough foods from other cultures. It doesn’t teach that the power of racism is in the fact that it’s institutionalized, ingrained and practically invisible. It’s this more sinister (but in turn more accurate) model of racism that gets to hide behind the henna doodles and misplaced bindis, the stiff Chinese collars and the just-for-a-day songkok. It’s because no one sees the man behind the curtain (again, apologies for anthropomorphising the kyriarchy) duping all of us into believing that as long as we have [insert minority] friends, we can address any and all “race-related issues”.

It’s because of this complacency that we allow ourselves to tell racist jokes, to share Russell Peters videos and to guffaw at Tokyo Breakfast (guilty as charged). Sure, some of us are laughing because we understand this to be a send-up of the respective stereotypes, but given the Archie Bunker effect (see Mary Beth Oliver’s lecture on race in the media where she points out that some people were laughing at his bigotry and other were laughing with) and the frankly piss-poor understanding of racism-proper it’s just irresponsible to tell and laugh along with these jokes unless you have explicit knowledge of your crowd’s level of awareness. But how to bring it up without actually ending up calling all your friends and co-workers racist (the one sure way to impugn their honour, y’know)? Jay Smooth breaks it down very well:

So yes. Everyone’s a little bit racist because we all participate in a racist society where we are subtly conditioned through regular rewards for upholding the order of things. But that’s not an excuse to stop talking about it. That’s not an excuse to not examine your own actions and eliminate those which may be contributing to the unhealthy race-smog we breathe in daily. That’s not an excuse to change the subject whenever someone tries to point out that you’ve done/said/laughed at/been complicit with something racist. In fact, that everyone’s a little bit racist is why we need to be pushing this conversation into every social circle we’ve got because this shit has got to change.

Get out there and consciousness-raise! Fly my pretties! Fly!


  1. I love the Jay Smooth video. In fact, I love a lot of things Jay Smooth says - like the Roman Polanski video, the video he made after Obama won about not resting on your laurels...

    Plus, Jay Smooth is a cat-owner too! <3

  2. I adore Jay Smooth. He breaks everything down succinctly and brilliantly. I wonder if he's a hostage negotiator IRL.

  3. Personally, I feel that level of introspection and/or self-awareness isn't possible, unless you've been the victim of 'racist' behaviour (covert or otherwise).

    [I put it in inverted commas because I honestly do believe it's mostly not deliberate. More of a spillover from cultural stereotyping, if you get what I mean]

  4. @ The Poultrygeist: I agree entirely that most racist behaviour is not malicious. It's because people don't identify with the hooded, cross-burning lynch mobs or the taxi uncle who really shouldn't assume that you share his views because you look Chinese that they are able to maintain this "I'm not a racist" veneer.

    The problem is that we all are because the society we operate in is racist (this is open to debate as I have seen racism defined as privilege + power and so racial minorities while also maintaining the system may not be classed as racist per se because of their lack of power in the overall scheme of things) and thus we need to watch our actions closer than we do. We need to look at our media more critically, we need to look at the assumptions made by businesses (see your post about makeup), we need to look at everything we see in the context of living in a racist society.

    It's not about the individual. There's seldom a deliberate, malicious racist act anymore (because people know that it's bad to be racist). What I'm trying to say is that while we may know that racism is bad, we don't fully understand racism and how it insidiously operates.

  5. Speaking for myself, I must agree with Poultrygeist.

    While I was always very sensitive to and appalled by the everyday racism Singaporeans display, it was a lot easier for me to let it slide. It wasn't until I found myself living on a vastly different continent for an extended period of time, where the color of my coat put me in 'my place'--moving from being a majority to minority species--did I really grasp how insidious and constant racism actually is.


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