I don’t think people really understand how racism works

Recently I was on Tumblr and someone I followed posted something entitled “You don’t get to decide” which was a list about how “people in positions in power don’t get to decide what’s oppression”. It was a nice idea and I agreed with most of its points- its not for men to say what’s misogynistic or for straight people to decide what’s homophobic.

These were all good points but then I hit one that stuck in my craw a little bit:

white people don’t get to decide what is racist

Now, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those white guys complaining about how the only group you can get away with bashing in today’s PC culture is white males. It’s a stupid theory and I realize that as a white male I’ve got things easier than a lot of other groups.

However, I think this is another case of people not understanding what racism is.

Racism is hatred or intolerance aimed towards the people of another race. The thing is, that race that you’re hating or intolerant of can be any race.

Ironically, the concept of racism can cross all racial boundaries.

In the Western world, which is still predominantly white it can seem as though white people do not suffer from racism, but the fact is, the whole world ain’t predominantly white.

In other parts of the world, white people are the minority and they can be subjected to the same discrimination or ostracism.

I have a friend who teaches English in China, and he says that the locals regularly gawp at him and even point at him and his colleagues and say “Foreigner!”. To him its more of an irritation than fully fledged persecution, but it stems from the same place. Imagine if I was to walk around the streets of my city pointing at all non-whites and shouting “foreigner” at them, that would be seen as racist. And quite rightly, in modern day Britain our culture is quite diverse. We have Brits descended from all over the world- Africa, Asia and all over Europe as well.

And there’s another thing. When did “white people” just become one race? During the holocaust Hitler singled out the gypsies for his concentration camps, and they suffered as badly as the Jews caught by the Nazis. Yet the gypsies were white.

(I’m aware I’ve used the terms “black” and “Asian” throughout this post and the same argument could be argued that these are not just big groups and contain different cultures and groups within those definitions, and I fully accept that. I use these terms as shorthand but am aware of the diverse nature of Asian culture and race, as well as the differences that exist within the “black race”. This may seem like a contradiction of my above point, but it is merely a writing tool to save time, and not how I view the world. I am sure this is how the term “white” is often used, but it does at times feel as though there is this view that all white people are more prosperous and better off than other races, and that it is some form of united group. Which is not the case, there are white on white prejudices in much the same way that there are rivalries and prejudices between different sections of the black and Asian world)

Race is a complex issue. There’s no denying that, but saying that white people can’t be subject to racism is moronic.

Is an Asian or black person who forbids their children to date or marry a white man any different from a white man who won’t let his kids date other races? Is the mocking or stereotyping of white people less harmful to equality and mutual respect than when it is done to other races?

I vaguely get what the point was trying to make, its not for a white person like me to decide what images are considered racist against other races. I was recently having a discussion about equality and related issues and the topic of the old Robinson’s “golliwogs” came up.

I think this was largely a British thing and younger readers may have forgotten about it, so here’s a quick explanation.

Robinson’s are a company who make jams and marmalade, their mascot for years was a golliwog, a cartoon of a black man with exaggerated racial features. They had them on the jars for years, when I was a kid, which is only about 20 years ago, you could collect little tokens and send off for badges of these figures in different roles:

An example of a golliwog badge

Now, times changed and the golliwogs were finally scrapped, although it could be argued much, much too late.

One of the people I was talking to about them, a white person, said that they weren’t racist. That there was no ill-will intended in the logo. Which may have been how many viewed it, as a child, I was too young to think about it in depth, but the little guy on the jar didn’t really make me think of the black people I was aware of at the time (Andi Peters, Mr T, Winston from the Ghostbusters, Dave Benson Phillips, Moira Stuart and a couple of kids in my school), it was just a little cartoon guy on the jam jar.

But now, I know it was racist, the name comes from an offensive term for black people, and that the look of the figure was derived from old fashioned stereotyping and prejudice. They were born of that mindset, and while that was not how many viewed them they still had that connotation and had no place in the late 20th century.

The person I was talking too had a point- they’d never viewed them as racist. But that doesn’t mean they’re not.

Its hard for a white person to understand what a black person might have felt about these things, and so we weren’t to judge whether they were racist or not. If black people found them to be racist, then regardless of intention, they were racist.

But in the same way, a person of Chinese origins couldn’t make the same decision. No other group can decide what a group finds offensive or racist, but it cuts both ways. Its not for black people, Arabs or Asian people to decide what’s considered racist against white people.

So the line that kickstarted this irritation in me was flawed, although I guess “it’s not for other races to decide what another race finds racially offensive” wouldn’t be as snappy, and also might undermine this whole “people in positions of power” thing they were going for.

To cast white people as outside of the racism bubble is ludicrous and in itself rather racist, judging the entire racial group as one united section who all have the same experiences and qualities.

Incidentally I saw something the other day where people in the US had wanted Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to be removed from libraries because it contained racist language. If you’ve read the book you’ll know its not a racist book, but a novel that deals with the issue of racism. Complaining that it has racist language feels rather stupid, as it is about racism and so those terms come up.

Similarly, and this is the only time I’ll probably ever be linked to Lee’s classic book, in this post I have used terms with racist connotations, I would like to believe that anyone reading this could see that these terms were only used to illustrate my points and as part of the discussion of racism, and not in a derogatory or racist manner. However, if anyone has been offended by some of the terms used I can only apologize, that was far from my intention and I meant only to use them within the context of the subject I was writing about.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


3 Comments on “I don’t think people really understand how racism works”

  1. Even more frustrating is the double standard applied to things like cultural appropriation, where anyone can wear a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt on St. Patrick’s Day, but if a white girl wears dreadlocks, it’s appropriating and racist. It’s wrong to sexualize Geisha into a lingerie costume, but fine to sexualize French maids the same way. Wrong to cast not black enough actresses in movie about a black woman because “people of color aren’t interchangeable” but it’s okay to cast Americans as Canadians, English as Welsh, Irish as Norse… so apparently white people are interchangeable? It’s okay to use racial slurs against whites, and it’s okay to offend and hurt white people’s feelings, and heaven forbid a white person complain or think it unfair to be treated by the color of their skin.

    I, too, understand that some double standards are about creating equality where it did not exist before, but some are about erasing individual’s cultures and trivializing wrongs just because the people are white, and that isn’t about creating equality, it just perpetuates inequality all around.

  2. Charles Friend says:

    You should include the whole quote, because its great: http://analyzing-people.tumblr.com/post/49846431693/white-people-dont-get-to-decide-if-something-is

    I think you’re smart enough that you’ll eventually see how you are wrong. It’s a wisdom thing. Look up privilege vs prejudice, and just age a little bit. Read your post again when you’re 27.

    • chrisebpage says:

      Wow. Thanks for that condescending response.
      The full quote wasn’t on the page I saw, and wasn’t that person’s quote. The line I referenced mentioned came from a list which had stuff like:
      “straight people don’t get to say what’s homophobic”
      (I think I actually state this in the post)
      But I think my point still stands. Racism isn’t the preserve of every other race other than whites. I have a friend working in China and he’s experienced racist views on him, and he’s white.
      Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and post a comment, but I think you’ve missed my point entirely, it’s not about privilege. A white person has privilege here in the West, but do you think they have the same one in Asia or Africa?
      My whole point is that we can all see racism, but that as a white person I appreciate that I can’t pick what isn’t racially offensive to another group, because I’m not of the group. If a member of that group says something is racist or something they’re uncomfortable with, then I will not do it. But I can definitely identify racism.
      Incidentally, while that quote is rather pithy, I still think there’s an implication that all white people are racist or involved in the process of putting down other races (being the one who is doing the metaphorical punching) which just isn’t true.
      Chris, 27 (28 at the end of this month).

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