I finally figured out what I want to say in response to Zoe Marriott’s post Wake Up and Smell the Real World #2 in response to me, in response to her… you get the picture.
I’m glad to see that Zoe’s post didn’t result in a slew of defensive comments by white people claiming they’ve never done anything racist in their lives so can’t be called racist, as often happens when someone points out a need to be actively anti-racist in our everyday lives. The corollary, in my mind, is that if you are not actively anti-racist, that means you are probably passively racist, at least.
As quoted in The Stranger (out of Seattle, I think):
“Racist is the new n— [redacted by me(1)],” says Riz Rollins, the writer, DJ, and KEXP personality. “For white people, the only word that begins to approximate the emotional violence a person of color experiences being called a n— [redacted] from a white person is ‘racist.’ It’s a trigger for white people that immediately conjures pain, anger, defensiveness—even for white people who are clearly racist….”
The article is Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race and is definitely worth a read, as are the comments. Some are supportive, some are trolls protected by internet anonymity and many have the knee jerk defensive reaction mentioned above.
Or as Zoe said:
They know they’re a good person, not a hateful, chuckling Neo-Nazi. Therefore they cannot be a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic.
I think, besides the pain inherent in white people admitting that their lack of action maintains the status quo of a racialicized and racist society, it’s also a question of definitions. Specifically, how we define racism and what we mean when we talk about it.
For most people who haven’t thought critically about racism and how it affects all of us racism means the KKK burning crosses in yards sometime in the distant past. Most people don’t do that today on a daily basis.
Many activists use the definitions Racism= prejudice+ power (meaning only the people with power can be racist. For example, in the US, that’s white people). Or they use Racism: a system of institutional policies and cultural messages that is advantageous to white people and disadvantageous to people of color. Or they use some variation on the two. The key ingredient is power/structural in both of these definitions.
But breaking it down further, you can split it into Active Racism and Passive Racism.
Active Racism: Actions which have as their stated or explicit goal the maintenance of the system of racism and the oppression of those in the targeted racial groups. People who participate in active racism advocate the continued subjugation of members of the targeted groups and protection of “the rights” of members of an agent group. These goals are often supported by a belief in the inferiority of People of Color and the superiority of white people, culture, and values. (Definition lifted from University of Colorado). So that’s cross-burning and lynching, hate crimes, etc.
Passive racism: Beliefs, attitudes, and actions that contribute to the maintenance of racism, without openly advocating violence or oppression. The conscious and unconscious maintenance of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that supports the system of racism, racial prejudice, and racial dominance.
And now we get to scenarios that most of us know quite well. This is the kind of racism I–and most of us–are involved in a daily basis. Passive racism or benefiting from the privilege of being white is what is going on when my neighbor makes a comment about the dirty ___s that are taking over our building and I don’t say anything because I am trying to get her to stop complaining about us the management company. I am benefiting from being white. I am maintaining a system of racism by not protesting her racism, allowing myself to be complicit in the racism, because I haven’t spoken up.
Passive racism is also living in a neighborhood that used to be primarily Latino and South Asian. Now it’s not, because the people who used to live there can’t afford to anymore. I didn’t set it up like that, but I’m still benefiting from it. When you act in an anti-racist way, you may still benefit from it, but you’re exposing it, and by exposing it, making it possible to combat it.
I’ve gone far afield from the original topics of writing diverse characters (and the mistakes we will inevitably make) but until we agree on what we are talking about we can’t even have that conversation. We also started out talking about diversity in its multiple forms: race, age, class, ability, sexual orientation, and while I focuses on racism, the arguments are applicable to other areas where we discriminate.
And until we have this conversation, with others, with ourselves, then the diverse characters we write will just be white people in blackface or straight people with a rainbow over their heads, or women who are really men, without the cultural, societal, experiential luggage that comes with their identity.
So, that’s what I wanted to say. Plus, I agree with what Zoe said.
(1) It’s my blog so I get to redact any words I want.