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Pet Sins January 2011

The racism of an 'anti-racism ally'

N, like most well-meaning Americans, sees the injustices of the Jim Crow era as appalling, and would never advocate open expressions of extreme hate and violence against African Americans. To her credit, she would voice her disapproval when she hears others making racial slurs or sees them practicing open discrimination.

However, she is dismissive when it comes to the "minor" daily incidents of discrimination, such as the unfortunately not-uncommon phenomena of non-whites being given inferior service in various business establishments, or various Americans of all stripes preferring to socialize and network with whites rather than with blacks, even when blacks exist in their workplace/community, are not invisible and have the same educational and economic background as their white peers.

"If racism is not provable in a specific case", N says, "It is not worth talking about. And even if it is provable, a tiny thing like being given the cold shoulder by a coworker or ignored by store staff is not such a big deal because your life and livelihood are not in real danger. If it is something you can't do anything to change, why waste time talking about it?"

While N's advice to rise above the situation and find more a positive focus might actually make sense in some cases of individuals who habitually imagine racism in situations where it isn't a factor; in most instances, N's dismissals targeted the legitimate complaints of others. We can argue about how much the little daily disses endured by people of color should 'matter' - many of us have learnt to let some things go in order to stay sane - but this is not the point of this post. The point is that even well-intentioned individuals like N, who see themselves as 'post-racial', are not quite at the level of treating everyone the same:

Something that seems inconsistent about N's arguments against discussions of race is the fact that N picks the "-isms" that she is willing to discuss. She hates listening to others discuss racism, telling them that such conversations are "unproductive and whiny", but she feels entitled to complain about classism, whining about her lack of resources even when it is clear to others that it was her own lack of frugality and her habits of everyday waste that contributed to her at-times precarious financial situation, more than social discrimination against 'working poor' (a class the now-middle-class college grad had exited from long ago).

Another indication that N discriminatorily applies her 'rules' about not whining about discrimination is the fact that she does not take her own advice on not complaining about racial prejudice. N had a friend G who regularly cancelled appointments with her when G's same-race friends dropped by. G obviously preferred her same-race friends to N, treating N as a 'backup' friend whose company was only sought when her same-race friends were not available. Given the circumstances, N was quite justified in feeling used and discriminated against. The irony is that she complained about the ethnic discrimination she received from G to the very same acquaintances to whom she had said she was not interested in discussing racism (when it happened to them).

Is N deliberately being unfair and capricious? Most likely not. Often, we are not conscious of the biases programmed into us. We are told indirectly by the climate of political correctness: "A decent member of society should not be bigoted," and we conclude, "Since I am a decent member of society, I can't possibly be a bigot", which blinds us to our own deeply-ingrained prejudices. But telling ourselves and others that we're not racist is not going to make our prejudices, particularly those we are unconscious of, magically disappear.

In college, N voiced her complaints about a classmate whom her professor put on the same project team with her. "That black girl.... she is so difficult to work with. She complains about the assignment being too hard. She doesn't want to push herself or try hard. I ended up doing most of the work."

N's statements may not be indicative of a special prejudice against blacks IF she has a habit of mentioning the race of any individual whom she describes as doing anything, whether good or bad. E.g. "A white guy stole my car," "a Native American driver did not stop for me at the crosswalk today," or "A Mexican coworker forgot to tell me of an important meeting" etc. But such is not the case with her. Over the years, N has never gone out of her way to point out the race of whites engaged in negative behaviors and attitudes. She sometimes mentions the race of non-black people of color in negative contexts, but not as often as she mentions blacks and negative behaviors in the same breath. To complete the picture, N has rarely mentioned someone's blackness in the context of a character asset or a good deed; despite the fact that there are many positive examples around if we care to look. But time and again, she refers to blacks in negative contexts. Here are some examples of how N has chosen to express her views over the years:

  • N was not pleased with the conduct of someone she met at a party. "TYPICAL black! TYPICAL black! VERY sexually aggressive!" She said loudly over the phone to whoever she was complaining to.
  • N had some insights to share about her visit to a certain Midwestern city. She said, "That city has very liberal social benefits, so many blacks migrate there from other states to collect welfare. It is a mostly white city, but entire blocks of downtown are filled with blacks standing on the street selling drugs!" (She somehow neglected to mention that this city - which has what she considers to be an overly-liberal government that encouraged welfare dependence - has been described as having a "phenomenal corporate base" and a friendly business climate. It also had attracted a highly educated black population, having the highest number of black professionals per capita in the nation.1)
  • N recounted a visit to a department store after moving to a new area, "People here are so trusting and lax when it comes to loss prevention. I saw a black man grab some merchandise and dash out of the store. I immediately told a salesperson what had happened."
  • N recalled an incident she was involved in taking some foreign visitors to a fair: "There were some black kids stealing ice-cream out of a vendor's truck while the vendor's back was turned. I let the man know what the kids doing, and he tried to stop them. The children's mother, who was present, started swearing and cursing at us instead of disciplining her children for stealing. It was a very unpleasant scene and made a very bad impression on my foreign visitors."
  • N was in the parking lot of an auto supply store, changing some auto parts with an acquaintance's help, when another man fixing his car there chatted her up. During the course of the conversation, the stranger casually mentioned he had owned a couple of BMWs. After the stranger left, N turned to her acquaintance and said, "That black man is lying and bragging, isn't he? He says he has multiple BMWs. You don't believe him, do you?"

    The acquaintance replied, "He mentioned he *had* a couple of BMWs. And from what he said, he implied that he owned them in tandem, not at the same time."

    Now whether the stranger presently owns multiple BMWs concurrently, or owned them one after the other in the past, or is flat out lying isn't even the point here. The point is, N inflated the black man's claims in her own mind (from "I went through a couple of BMWs in the past" to "Look at me! I have two BMWs right now!" ), and THEN she accused him of bragging. Even if the stranger did say that he presently owns more than one BMW, why would she automatically accuse him of lying?

    If it isn't already obvious, there was only *one* man talking about BMWs in the parking lot. It was completely needless to mention his race to identify him to someone else. Once again, N mentioned what she imagines to be someone's negative qualities (boasting and lying) in the same breath with his race, intentionally or not linking the two in her own mind and in the ears of her listeners.

  • N was involved in a minor auto accident in which the other party was at fault. "It was a black woman who hit my car!" she related. "And the cop who showed up to take the report was also black. Because they were both black, they were chummy and chatty with each other. I'm afraid that the black cop might lie on the accident report and make it seem that I am at fault." What she feared did not come to pass. Perhaps N is projecting her own prejudices onto someone else.
  • N commented on the adopted child of two acquaintances. "She is a black girl whose birthmother had drug problems. She is developmentally disabled and has special needs. They are going to have problems when she grows to school age."
  • N also considers herself well-read on international affairs and has on more than one occasion mentioned Haiti, bringing it into a conversation without much of a reason. "Haiti is the only country in the Americas ruled by blacks and it is the poorest! All because the blacks drove the whites away and tried to govern the country themselves. They made a big mess of it!"

    Whether that assessment is accurate or not is beside the point - interested parties can read about the struggles and triumphs of Haiti's people on their own. What might be worth noting is that N does not display the same interest in discussing the poorest country in Asia, or the poorest country in Europe, for that matter. If we want to talk about the figures that are used to assess a country's development as measured by the Human Development Index; or living standards, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (Purchasing Power Parity), Haiti ranks higher than Afghanistan (a non-black country that N does not seem as interested in criticizing) in terms of HDI.2 Haiti also has a larger GDP (Purchasing Power Parity) than a number of Asian and European countries, as well as a number of other nations in the Americas, such as Suriname and Belize.3 (both of which have a lower black population than Haiti.)

    N has never mentioned the failings of the government of Afghanistan in the same breath with 'race', nor did she mention the poverty of Kosovo or Moldova in conjunction with to the inhabitants' ethnic heritage. Haiti seems to be a more favored target of criticism for her. And N invariably mentions the blackness of the population in the same breath with Haiti's problems. She has not mentioned Barbados, another Caribbean nation with a majority black population (90% of Barbadians are of African descent4), which is rated as having a higher quality of life than China and many other Asian and European nations.2 As of 2010, Barbados's Human Development Index ranks it as a developed country2. It shares with Japan the distinction of having highest number of centenarians per capita in the world.4

Some of the statements N made are clearly biased and unbalanced. But to give N the benefit of the doubt, let us, for the purposes of argument, assume that there is nothing blatantly false about some of her individual statements in which she mentioned someone's race. Take for example the statement about her project partner in college. Her classmate may indeed be black. The classmate may also happen to have issues with work ethic. And in the incident concerning the shoplifter, the individual involved may indeed have been black. The question is why did she consider the offender's blackness relevant to mention when she does not see an offender's whiteness as relevant in a crime?

Ironically, N criticixes those who complain about racial prejudice as being 'unconstructive and negative', but she doesn't see her repeated and selectively applied (largely to blacks) mention of race in negative contexts as 'unconstructive and negative.' There is no other racial group that N mentions in a negative context with such regularity. But N sees herself as 'non-racist' and even as an anti-racism ally because she 'respects' Oprah and voted for Obama.

It is strange that blacks as a group seem to be mentioned more often and with more negativity in her conversations than any other group, considering N has little personal contact with blacks in her daily life. Unfortunately, N's repeated negative expressions have influenced the perceptions of people around her. Some of her immigrant friends, after years of listening to her negative talk, had developed a negative impression of African Americans that they never had before meeting N. When someone pointed out the harm that N was doing, N's reaction was to blame her friends for simply repeating the ideas that N had put into their heads. "I did not make my observations with a racist intention. If people walk away with a racially biased impression, it is because they had a degree of racism to start with."

At least two things are questionable about that excuse:

1) Assuming that N is right about her friends having a slight degree of racism to start with, there is still no denying that she contributed repeatedly to increasing the amount of racism in society by reinforcing or even boosting the immigrants' level of racism, indirectly reducing the quality of life of everyone in this country. It is like N feeding sugar repeatedly and consistently to a pre-diabetic and then putting all the blame on the pre-diabetic when s/he develops diabetes. True, the pre-diabetic might have to shoulder some degree of the blame in not repeatedly saying no to the wrong foods, or if that proves too difficult, the pre-diabetic could choose completely removing himself/herself from situations in which a bad diet is repeatedly offered. But the fact is the disease would not have progressed to that stage without N's active input.

2) N's response of "it is someone else's fault, not mine" is an interesting reaction coming from someone who usually takes issue with people for blaming others. She has repeatedly blamed blacks for perpetuating their own misfortune. "Their community leaders focus too much on complaining about racism from outside the community instead of encouraging people to make positive changes from within." Whether this argument is entirely fair or not is outside the scope of this post. The point is N seems to believe that no matter what situation you find yourself in, you should always focus on what you can do to improve it instead of blaming someone else, even if the blame is justified. There are some merits to that approach. The world would be a slightly better place if N would practice what she preaches. N, finding herself in a 'negative situation' (being accused of being racist and turning others racist) puts all the blame on others without holding herself accountable. For the purposes of discussion, let's give her the benefit of the doubt, believe her self-assessment as 'an anti-racism ally' and agree that the accusations of N being racist are based 100% on misunderstanding. Even so, we can easily identify ways in which N could have easily avoided the misunderstanding. Maybe she should become more conscious about the contexts in which she mentions race, for starters. If that is too much work, maybe she should make a commitment to stop talking about race altogether.

To be fair to N, there are instances in which she has tried to dissuade others from expressing racial hate. And she claims that she is an ally because she purportedly treats black individuals fairly and does not advocate discriminating against individuals on basis of race. But even as she tries to 'fight' racism occasionally, she contributes to racism with far greater frequency, causing one observed to comment wryly: "With friends like that, who needs enemies?"

For every 1 statement N makes against racism, N makes another 10 remarks that reinforce racial prejudice. This is especially sad, if we assume that N really means what she says about being an anti-racism ally, because it demonstrates how someone with good intentions, but who lacks self-awareness, has done far more harm than good to a cause she claims to support.

  1. Minneapolis: among the nation's best secrets - 6 Hot Cities for Black Business
  2. Wikipedia List of countries by Human Development Index
  3. Wikipedia List of countries by GDP (PPP)
  4. Wikipedia entry on Barbados