What’s racist?

16 Aug

During the Olympics (remember them?) I posted on the unfortunate tweets by a couple of athletes (see 8/2/12), which inspired a friend to ask about Voula Papachristou’s tweet.

Whereas Michel Morganella’s tweet is obviously racist–suggesting South Korea “go burn” would suffice–calling them a “bunch of mongoloids” is just the bigot icing on that cake (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/swiss-olympic-team-expels-player-racist-tweet-172924516–finance.html)–what was racist about Papachristou posting, “With so many Africans in Greece… At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/voula-papachristou-greek-olympic-racist-tweet_n_1701410.html). Wasn’t it just a joke?

What an excellent question. There’s been a lot of Olympic vaulting to condemnation over both tweets, and some of it, I’m sure, is about being able to say “I’m not racist!” by declaring with outrage, “That is!” as opposed to really thinking through what’s racist, and what’s not.

Quite honestly, simply using the word “African” is enough to qualify as racist in some race-shy circles. But it’s not. Sure, you can use “African” in a derogatory way, but that doesn’t make the word itself racist.

And as for being derogatory, insensitive, ignorant or even cruel… these qualities alone don’t constitute racist. They’re not nice, but they’re not necessarily racist. So joking about West Nile mosquitoes feeding on Africans, while off-color (pun intended) isn’t necessarily why I’d call this tweet racist.

I define racist as perpetuating a social bias, whether by default or conscious choice, to advantage white people and culture through individual and systemic actions and permission. It’s important to note that “racist” is not a synonym for “racial.”

So why do I consider Papachristou’s tweet racist? My issue starts with the phrase “so many.” Underlying Papachristou’s joke is an observation that there are “so many” (!!) Africans in her country, as if there shouldn’t be. As if however many “Africans” there are, it’s too many. And then she concludes, “at least” they’re good for bug food. As if to say: Phew! “At least” there’s one upside to “so many” Africans invading Greece. Right?

Although a joke might have been her intent, the tweet itself speaks a mindset that believes “Africans” should have boundaries, including a population cap.

But, wait! Aren’t I, Alison, being racist by reading color into her tweet? After all, she didn’t say “blacks.” She said, “Africans”–which includes Egyptians and white South Africans. Yes, “African” denotes a racial spectrum beyond just black. And, “African” has been synonymous with “black” historically (despite being factually incorrect). Much as Indians and Pakistanis are often overlooked when people talk about “Asians” (the term has always been biased to East Asia), Egyptians are frequently excluded in talk of “Africa” (which is a sub-Saharan African-centric term).

So I’ll say this: the tweet is both racist and not. Yes, it’s just a tasteless joke. And it’s also racist. That’s the part we can learn from. It’s not intentional hate, maybe (which I believe is Papachristou’s defense: that she‘s not racist. She’s a good person), but that’s another confusion about racism: that it’s about ugly, obvious hate directed hatefully at hated people by a hater.

Nope. While that’s a form of racism, there are other manifestations, including oblivious racism, passive racism, tacit racism, intellectually justified (and quite rational) racism that are all still racism, too. Because they perpetuate white privilege, no matter how “good” the people doing or allowing that perpetuation may, in fact, be.

** Thanks to EB for the question.

One Response to “What’s racist?”

  1. mari stair August 17, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    Thanks to you Alison for an excellent explanation.

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