Thursday, February 12, 2015

White fragility and the nice racist

Last week I was invited to a race-dialogue hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the HRC in Johannesburg. That sounds like a mouthful. And it was. There I was surrounded by names and titles, bringing "only me" to the table and feeling not just a little intimidated.

But as the afternoon progressed, and we were all sweating alike in the midst of a load shedding summers day, I got a little more reckless and dared myself to raise my hand. The occasion was somebody's contribution towards a definition for the elusive species: the racist.

The racist, he argued, is a narcissistic personality type amongst white people, who believes in his/her own superiority based on genetics.

Phew -  great sigh of relief from the attending white folk, because, we are not that. None of us believe in the idea of white superiority.  So we are in the clear.


The majority of racists are nice people. In fact, the narcissistic, K-word muttering, red faced hater is rarely spotted these days, and if so, can almost be sure to gain unwanted publicity and be shunned collectively by all the nice racists, who are relieved to once more be able to say: we are not that.

In fact, most nice racists are so wary of being seen as racists, that they do their utmost best to be kind and supportive to black folk, their Facebook profiles often feature a "black-lives-matter" plaque, they donate to charities or do "work in the township", some of them even have black children, partners or friends.

I know this because I am one of them.

If put on the spot, I would probably say that these days  I am more of a recovering racist, slowly emerging from my white unconsciousness slumber (courtesy of our dialogue members) -but nonetheless a life long racist.  Because similar to an alcoholic, I might be steering clear of the trigger for years, but  through my whiteness I remain tied to the dis-ease for life.

This of course will get many white peoples defences up from the word go. They have an issue with "generalisation", "stereotyping", "boxes", "name-calling", but clearly only when it is directed at them.

The fact that I feel hurt when I suddenly become conscious of my "box" within the system of whiteness, after having lived a lot of my life happily unaware of my skin colour, once again only proves my privilege.

The degree of my fragility as a white person in a racial context is determined by my previous privilege. The greater the hurt I feel by being put on the spot about my whiteness, the bigger my sense of entitlement and resistance to self awareness. This may not be my fault, but that does not exempt me from having to look at myself carefully under the lens of a racial reality, that I managed to avoid for the longest time of my life.

 Naturally, because it is not within human nature to voluntarily give up privilege, we defend it with clever smoke screens and pure denial.

By saying: Yes, racism exists, but there are also good white people who are not racists - we are avoiding the issue. No living person will be able to ultimately prove racist indoctrination in every white person on the planet. But why does this matter? Is it a generalisation? Yes. In this case it is a useful generalisation, because history and current social and socio-economic realities show us without a doubt that whiteness comes with the baggage of power, entitlement and superiority. Is this something we choose? No. But to run away from this reality by simply denying the impact it has on us and humanity in general,  is not the answer.

As white people we are once again in the  privileged position of choice: We can either carry on with our smoke screens of "not all white people are racists", our denial and defences,  live happily ever after in our white privileged circles and die a comfortable death.

 Or we can choose to step off our privileged platform of white fragility, dive head on into the hurt and come out the other end a recovering racist,  working on our relationships across differences.

 This choice is of course often predetermined by our other life choices. In my case, it was not so much a choice I freely made, but the only way to consciously parent my children of color. Other white people might have a partner of a different race, or a friend they don't want to lose. And yes, it hurts to face my own bias, my part in the "evil" continuing and my continuous benefiting from my whiteness. But to turn back is not an option.

Because to not "go there" ultimately means that our interracial relationships as parents, partners and friends will remain within the realm of superficial encounters based on a status-quo, that reinforces our white privilege to determine it's nature. In other words the white person decides when the hurt gets too much and they are going to withdraw from the discourse and the black person holds back in order not to upset this status-quo.
So my point? 

It is dangerous to try and define racism or the racist as part of finding a cure/solution to racism. It makes it easy for me as a white person to distance myself from whatever is defined by saying: this is not me.

Racism is anything and everything a person of colour feels triggered by in relation to a white person. A racist is every white person growing up within the parameters of today's society, largely dominated by euro (US)-centric media, white supremacist narratives and legislated structural and institutional racism.

And yes, of course, there is room for misuse and misinterpretation. But to what end? How does a woman benefit from calling rape within a system that violates her all over by putting the burden of proof on her?

So lets please not try and dig around for construed realities in which black people might benefit from calling me a racist.

I even go as far as to say that it ultimately benefits me as a white person to be challenged and called out as a racist, even if I feel it is unfair. It gives me the opportunity of going deeper, of examining my unconscious feelings and thought patterns. If I still feel there is no truth whatsoever in the perception of the other person, I can still walk away and not let this impact my life (another privilege). But chances are, there is a grain of truth even in the seemingly wildest accusations.

We need to overcome our white fragility and boldly step into our white hurt. Change does not happen in our comfort zone.

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