How (not) to handle your accidental racism

21 Nov

More from the Race Files (I’m on a kick)…

“5 Things Not To Do When Accused Of Racism: A Note To Paula Deen And The Rest of White America” (

Now I need to say upfront, I take issue with this article addressing Paula “And the Rest of White America,” not because the rest of the white US shouldn’t be paying attention, but because being white isn’t a criteria for being accused of racism, or actually having said or done something racist.

Let me clarify:

Racial discrimination is equal opportunity. That is, anyone can act out their prejudice against or in favor of their own or another racial group. White people can discriminate against Latino/as, and vice versa. Asian people can discriminate in favor of white people, and vice versa.

Racism is systemically empowered discriminated against racial groups other than the dominant group. The dominant group holds social, political and economic power, whether or not they are in the numerical majority (see South Africa under apartheid as an example). You can usually spot the dominant group because they’re “neutral”–that is, their racial identity and culture are the norm, so they go unnamed, while everyone else is identified because they’re  different (implication: from the norm). The dominant group doesn’t need to actively engage in oppressive activities and language: all they have to do to remain dominant is accept the status quo and go along with it.

Now, I hear lots of debate about racism, specifically whether or not white people are the dominant group we’re talking about when we talk about racism. Or if, theoretically, we could be talking about any group. So I return to my working definitions of “racial discrimination” and “racism”: when I consider the trifecta of social, political and economic power that is systemically (that is to say, culturally and institutionally) perpetuated and protected, locally as well as globally, I’m hard-pressed to generalize that “any” group (and therefore all kinds of different groups) benefit from racism. Just because there are pockets in the world where LGBQ folks are in the majority and even constitute the dominant group, those pockets don’t change the institutionalized fact of heterosexism and homophobia. So too with racism.

And just as LGBQ folks can actually support heterosexism and homophobia, so too can people of color support racism. So I might recommend that a more useful title for this article would be “”5 Things Not To Do When Accused Of Racism: A Note To Paula Deen And The Rest of Us.”

Nonetheless, the article is a great read. Here’s I’ll just highlight the 4th and 5th “what not to dos”:

Justify racist acts in certain circumstances as in, it’s okay to turn into a racist if someone is holding a gun to your head. If you manage to hold in your racism when you’re at your best, but react to fear or anger by immediately turning to racism, you’re a racist. In fact, fear and anger are at the very heart of racism.

Dodge. Because what distinguishes the accidental racist from an intentional one is the willingness to simply own up to your accidents and make amends.

Blogger Scot Nakagawa is right on with the observation that if you can justify racism, it’s not about the circumstances: it’s about you justifying racism. As for dodging, here’s our homework: the next time (because there will be a next time) you or I say something that is racist–or heterosexist or classist or ageist, let’s pinkie swear to stop and accept that we just participated in the unfair advantaging of some over others just because of who they are. Let’s commit to sit with what it feels like, notice what it provokes, listen to the internal scripts that begin running, observe the tactics we use to be anywhere but present with a real part of ourselves. Let’s agree to own it. Because the only way not to perpetuate all too easy systems of discrimination is to notice that we’ve been along for the ride.

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