Saturday, April 17, 2010

Racism Hurts Everyone (and helps white people - shhh. Don't tell.)

In the excellent discussion of my blog post at Stuff White People Do, some mentioned that white anti-racists sometimes kind of hit this awareness peak, and then think that they are now the special white person who does not do those racist things that Other white people still do.

Personally, I believe that being a white anti-racist or ally is kind of like achieving Nirvana. By which I mean, it's a long road to travel, and most will never completely get there, but we can continue to work towards that goal. Overall it's a journey. Will I ever become the perfect white anti-racist who never screws up or reverts or makes a hasty judgment? Sadly, no.

For example, let's take something I did just the other day. (Hey, if you can't share embarrassing stories in an anonymous blog, when can you share them?)

This was set off, as so many terrible things are, by Facebook. Now, I share my generation's love for Facebook and I thought the Doppelganger meme thing was cute. You remember - change your profile pic to your "celebrity doppelganger" for a week.

And then I saw this post at Racialicious, asking if this meme left out POC or other marginalized groups (fat people, PWD [people with disabilities, for future reference]). In the comments, Just A Thought wrote:
The doppelganger meme leaves out a lot of people of all colors, but leaves out more POC. There are less POC celebrities, so less opportunity for someone to find their “twin.”
Yes commented:
As an East Asian American woman, my first thought upon discovering this–I don’t look like Lucy Liu. Well, shit. There’s not much of a range outside of that.

Sonnyboy wrote:
I have dealt with this all my life, but no matter how remarkably different their facial features are [other people of the same race] I am always told I look just like_fill in the blank__and usually the only thing we have in common is medium brown skin tone/and or long hair.
And honest to God, my first thought was - stop harshing my buzz, Racialicious! I was just trying to play a stupid Facebook game, not unpack my privilege! The ladies at Disgrasian thought it was ok! Heck, the meme was seemingly created by an Indian. Can I do ANYTHING lighthearted and fun anymore?

My reaction bothered me (obviously, it was a very privileged and asshole-y reaction), and I couldn't put my finger on why exactly (besides the privilege thing, which we've covered), until my class had its Native American sports mascot discussion.

OHHHHHHHH. I've fallen into THAT hole, have I?

Something that always bugs me on social commentary sites is the inevitable commenter who says something like "stop taking everything so seriously, everything isn't about race/class/gender. It's just a movie/commercial/t-shirt/sports game. It's just a joke/accident/misquotation. YOU'RE WRONG."

Everything we produce in our society is, naturally, a product of our societal conceptions of race/class/gender/whatever. So everything is therefore open for critique because everything - literally, everything - is a representation of our society in a nutshell. Without our social context, most media wouldn't make any sense at all.

When my students make this argument, I have a genius response that seems to work every time.


Are you upset that your mascot is called racist? Well, in a non-racist world, we wouldn't have mascots based on harmful stereotypes. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.

Are you annoyed that someone got offended by a less-than-politically correct joke? Well, in a non-racist world, we wouldn't have racist jokes to offend people. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.

Are you frustrated that you can't just watch Avatar in peace without someone pointing out the White Savior complex inherent in its plot? Well, in a non-racist world, we could have movies with non-white main characters capable of saving their OWN damn planet without worrying about whether white audiences will go to see a movie with a non-white main character. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.

Are you pissed that someone stomped all over your little Facebook game by pointing out the ways in which POC and other marginalized groups don't get to have any fun with it? In an equal world, we would have celebrities of every color, background, size, and ability. See, Lady Instructor? RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.

And it works really well when the subject turns to Affirmative Action.

Are you angry that your obscenely well-qualified wife/cousin/neighbor didn't get a job because "they" "had to" give the job to a less well-qualified (implied, never directly stated) black person?* Well, in a non-racist world that person would have a) had the opportunity to get a better education and would therefore BE just as qualified, and b) we wouldn't have the unfair hiring practices that led to Affirmative Action in the first place. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.

What my students (and myself) are actually doing is, of course, blaming the victim. Is it the person's fault who got offended over the racist joke that we shouldn't tell racists jokes? No, it's the system that encourages racism. The offended party is the victim here. Is it the black person's fault that Affirmative Action exists? No, he is the victim of the unequal hiring practices. Is it a POC's fault that they can't find a celebrity doppelganger that looks like them? Duh, no. It is, once again, our society's fault.

Now, this response, while it is handy, elides over another very important point.


While you, the white person, are being mildly aggravated by the fervor over that joke, mascot, movie, or Facebook activity, you may be living in a house that an (equally well-qualified) POC could not get a home loan for, working at a job that rejected the application of an (equally well-qualified) POC for no specific reason that anyone in the hiring committee could put their finger on, and living a life entirely free from fear that police will pull you over and harass you or beat you for no reason at all except the color of your skin. Just to name a few examples.

But as I mentioned in a previous post, many people get uneasy at the idea that they benefit from the system or that the balance has been unfairly tipped in their favor. I saved for that down payment! I went to school for six years for the degree to get that job! I always use my turn signals so the police have no reason to pull me over! And etc.

Both of these statements are true - racism does hurt everybody, and white people do benefit from racism. However, I can only gently suggest the second to many of my students, or their defensiveness will discredit anything else I have to say.

And so I have to hope that by shouting the first statement I will get them to think twice about their victim-blaming annoyance, and by whispering the second, they may finally open their eyes and be angry about the ways in which they have unwittingly assisted in the active oppression of others.

*If this happened even a third as often as some of my students suggest, we wouldn't have a minority unemployment problem.


  1. i must say, i was disappointed I couldn't think of anyone to me my doppelganger (although actually, I just thought of one, right now... I'll try to actually post it on my facebook for kicks). But I do think it's interesting that it was started by an Indian guy, who's friends told him he looked like Tom Selleck...

    Anyway, quite honestly, if anyone is taking a facebook meme seriously... they really must either be too facebook-obsessed, and need to get away from the computer, or really don't have anything more serious to get worked up about it.

    While I'm VERY against racist mascots, and spent some of my undergrad time at U of I trying to convey WHY it is harmful and offensive, I think this is in a completely different category. A public university that rallies around a mascot that essentially misrepresents and mocks ethnic groups whose ancestors were genocidally mocked, and who suffer from intense discrimnation and marginalization is a FAR cry from a silly meme that serves as a procrastination tool.

  2. I'm glad you wrote about this. When my white girlfriends suddenly transformed into Claire Daneses, Katherine Heigls and Blake Livelys, I was so tempted to comment on one of their profiles, "Hey this goppledanger thing must be fun if you're white, blonde and thin!" But God forbid I say something that makes a criminal case out of something so trivial, makes my friend guilty, and simultaneously makes me "The angry black girl."

    To the poster above me who believes anyone who takes this seriously is either "too facebook-obsessed" or doesn't "have anything more serious to get worked up about", I have to disagree with you. While I acknowledge that racialized mascots are very troubling, I don't think about sports every day, or even every week. I do, however, check my facebook daily. As a multiracial person with decidedly caucasian features, my choices for doppleganger week were pretty much Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson and Halle Berry...none of whom look like me. I didn't think much about the trend, but it did rub me the wrong way once I began to consider the array of options open to my white friends, and the opposing lack open to myself and friends of color. It might seem insignificant, but it's crucial to magnify the little ways racism is experienced. If anything, blowing up these seemingly small slights shows how much racism pervades our every action and thought. It demonstrates how a POC is constantly reminded of their minority status. Maybe it shouldn't bother me, but seeing my home page basically transformed into a digital spread of "People" merely reminded me of the systematic ways I and people who look like I do have been denied access to innumerable strata of society. To get upset about it doesn't mean I'm a nitpicker or "facebook-obsessed". It means that I have to be made cognizant of my race even when I just want to check my facebook messages. Further, the accusation that someone who gets upset about this is essentially turning a mountain into a molehill only furthers the author's point about victim blaming. Many of us don't have huge opportunities to campaign against racism everyday. Bus boycotts don't happen everyday. Truth and reconciliation commissions don't happen everyday. For most POC, it is often the little digs that make up a day, from getting eyed by older white women while walking with a friend in Hampstead, to having someone react with a surprised "Oh?" when you tell them you go to an Ivy-League school, to feeling left out by a facebook trend (all of these happened to me in a single day last week btw). You have the privilege to say it's not a big deal; I don't.

  3. brynnplum, thanks for commenting. One thing that continues to strike me in exploring racial issues is the number of ways that POC are often reminded of their non-neutral, "other" status. I totally agree with the majority of your post.

    I do have to say, though, that michellespidermonkey is a POC. Just a reminder for all of us that it can be dangerous to make assumptions based on opinions posted online :)

    Of course, members of different ethnic groups can have vastly different experiences. I don't want to discredit either her experience OR yours. Both are valid and both are based on a life lived as non-white people.