Be Less of a Jerk 101: Racism Crash Course

June 8, 2020

Be Less of a Jerk 101: Racism Crash Course

Have You Been Called Racist? Don't React Like a Jerk - 2020 Update

Stop getting offended when someone calls you white, part of white supremacy, a recipient of white privilege, or even *gasp* racist. Instead, try this: hush up, listen and learn.

Content Note: racism, sexism, and sexual assault

Stop getting offended when someone calls you white, part of white supremacy, a recipient of white privilege, or even *gasp* you get called racist. Instead, try this: shut up, listen and learn. Welcome to the crash course that is here to teach you how to be less of a jerk when you’re called racist.

I wrote this article first in September of 2016. It feels like now is a good time to update this to reflect what’s happened in the last four years and the current climate of the Black Lives Matter movement. As you’re reading this, keep in mind that racism is traumatizing, that white supremacy is a source of relentless inescapable trauma.

I want you to be aware that racism is traumatizing. This is a public health issue, this is a mental health issue, one that has been ongoing for generations and generations.

PRIMER FOR CONTEXT

Dark skinned man wearing a face mask

Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

It is June of 2020.

We are facing a viral pandemic, the size of which the people alive today have never experienced. Coronavirus is the virus which causes COVID-19 and COVID-19 is taking lives. And we don’t really understand the virus or how to treat it or what long term effects it may have on the body.

We are nearing the end of Trump’s first (and only?) term as president of the United States.

We are facing global recession, the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

We are seeing protests nationwide and globally in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Sparked by the video of a cop murdering George Floyd, a Black man who repeatedly said he could not breathe while Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and three other officers did nothing to intervene, and even aided in compressing George Floyd’s body as he and onlookers cried that George couldn’t breathe.

We’re seeing riots mixed in with the protests, some are part of the protests, others are started by agitators and even police themselves.

We’re seeing some looting, again also mixed in with rioting and protests and some are just opportunists taking what they want because they can.

Cops are destroying medic stations.

Trump has threatened to deploy troops against the wishes of individual states to provide “law and order.”

Meanwhile, police are showing up to protests in riot gear with equipment originally produced for the military.

We’re seeing cops assault, arrest, and kill protestors.

We’ve seen videos of police macing peaceful protestors and even a little girl.

We’ve seen a video of police shoving an elderly man to the ground, and as he lay bleeding from his head, they did not stop to render immediate aid. And as those two police are suspended for what they did, 57 cops quit their jobs in solidarity with the suspended cops.

What we’re seeing is that property and compliance are more important than people.

We saw a slow response to COVID-19, but witnessed an incredibly quick mobilization of resources to use force against protestors.

Likely, as numbers of COVID-19 cases rise again, it’s going to be blamed on the protestors, but the root cause is not the protests, it’s racism. Protest related virus spread is also sped up by police tactics of using violent force against protestors.

Why? Because property and compliance to authority is more important than life, in the system we live within.

Now that we know where we are today, let’s explore what happens when someone calls you or something you said or did racist.

 

Cartoon of White Privilege vs Black Experience, white man with gun telling cop to reopen the economy vs cop having shot a black man

Political cartoon by Benjamin Syngstad, @slyngstad_cartoons (2020)

 

LESSON 1: RACISM

BEING CALLED RACIST

White people get really touchy when called out for racism. Some of us get angry and oh-so-offended.

Some white people will respond by providing a list of their qualifications that “proves” their lack of racism. Common phrases include: “I have lots of [insert non-white ethnicity here] friends.” “I love Beyoncé.” “I am aware of those issues and I am not racist.” “I donated time and money to #BlackLivesMatter.” “I voted for Obama.” “I can’t believe you would call me racist.” “I don’t see color.” “This issue isn’t about race.” “There someone goes playing the race card.” “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Impact is different than intent. When someone is calling you out, it’s because your impact is harmful — no matter what you intended. When it comes to racism, sexism, ableism or any other kind of problematic discourse or behavior, stop reacting defensively when accused of an “ism.”

White people often derail conversations about racism and anti-Blackness by trying to relate via their own non-privileges. Or worse, they try to shut down the conversation by claiming they are more or just as oppressed as Black people. They center their valid but NOT THE ISSUE AT HAND experience as a white person who is a religious minority, queer, first generation, disabled, poor, not a cis-man, survivor of abuse. Or by espousing their ethnic heritage as if that absolves them of being part of a white supremacist system when they may be Irish (and Irish people were indentured servants) or their great great great grandma was rumored to be Indigenous.

Some will try to flip the script entirely and cry that it’s reverse racism against whites to call white people racist. These public cries of woe turn the attention to their own feelings, invoke a falsehood about the existence of “reverse-racism.” This centers white people, white stories, white tears, and diverts attention from where it should be. (Also, you’re more angry about being called racist than about racism?)

WHAT A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK RACISM IS

Black child stands next to water fountain labeled "Colored"

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

White people are taught that racism is obvious. While there are many knots to untangle in this rat’s nest of oppression, one pervasive thread is how stereotypes play into our understanding of what a racist looks like. It’s dressed up in the bleached garb of KKK members. It’s tattooed with a Nazi swastika. It’s an angry middle-aged white man hurling slurs at a stranger. It’s a great grandmother at Thanksgiving who warns you against dating a Mexican. It’s historical, only. It’s segregation. It’s legal plantation era slavery.

To be called racist is framed as this horrible vile thing that you have to defend yourself against.

White people are fed a narrative that legal equality has all but eradicated racism. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” There are few quotes as misappropriated by white people as this one. White people believe that racism is only the hatred of another person for the color of their skin. Thus, many believe being “colorblind” is the best way to avoid racism.

All of these misconceptions are the result of stereotypes. Stereotypes of what racism is, what oppression is and even what groups of people someone can be racist against. But anyone can be prejudiced or discriminate against anyone for any reason. A person of color can be prejudiced against white people, but that is not racism.

WHAT RACISM IS, REALLY

Racism is “prejudice plus power.”

Reverse racism” does not exist. The society we live in today was built through, and is maintained by, institutional inequality against people of color. Prejudice is one part of racism, but racism functions at every level of society and acts on countless fronts to reinforce systematic subjugation while protecting white people. This is a systemic problem with deep roots.

Racism is a generational legacy of white supremacy continually traumatizing people of color, continually killing and looting Black and Indigenous people. This has been happening for hundreds of years in the context of North America, against anyone who could not assimilate and become white.

Racism is severe, long lasting, and never ending trauma inflicted on people for not being white. And not just generationally, but in everyday life. There are many ways in which white supremacy shows itself, both overt (obvious) and covert (less obvious, sometimes subtle).

It can be very uncomfortable to be called out for racism, but it is nothing compared to the oppression perpetuated by racism. I am a white woman and I know it can be painful and excruciatingly embarrassing to be called racist. You don’t want to be racist, but this is bigger than youRacists are a product of a society built on oppression, but they are not victims.

The following graphic is one depiction containing examples of overt and covert white supremacy.

 

Diagram triangle of covert and overt white supremacy

Original Image: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005) “Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive & Antiracist Organization-Tools for Liberation Packet for Anti-Racist Activists, Allies, & Critical Thinkers”.
Adapted by: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016)

This next infographic is similar to the previous one, but it has additional categories for expanding the understanding of the structural nature of racism and white supremacy:

Diagram triangle of overt, coded, and covert white supremacy and capitalism

This diagram about white supremacy was found in an article for Twin Cities Daily Planet (2017).

You don’t need to understand every example listed, but often we bristle at the ones we don’t  agree with, then we throw out the whole conversation. Don’t go all pufferfish just because you don’t get it, instead let’s see what a better response would be.

A BETTER RESPONSE

Stop getting angry, offended, or expressing personal hurt (ie; but what about ME?) if you’re called racist. Instead, listen and try to figure out why you’re being called out.

Do not expect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to personally educate you or provide you with their emotional energy and labor to teach you about what you did. Be mindful of what you are asking of others. There are plenty of resources out there, do your own research.

If you want to find resources but really struggle with executive function tasks such as organizing your thoughts to conduct effective research, there are ways you can still find information: ask a non-BIPOC person who you know is anti-racist if they know of resources, ask a BIPOC only if they have explicitly offered to provide resources, ask in a public forum generally for suggestions on materials to help you learn, and it is ok to say, “I am unable to independently find the information I know is already out there, if anyone is willing and able to point me in the right direction, that would be appreciated.” Be ready to have people tell you that you should just google it, don’t take it personally.  Some people may be able to “just google it”, it’s ok if you can’t.

Even if you aren’t angry at being called racist and instead feel deep shame, centering your shame is a selfish act. To center yourself, is adding to the problem by diverting energy and attention away from the issues at hand. Do not allow your white sensitivities to take up space. Be part of the solution or at least learn how to stop being part of the problem.

It isn’t enough to be “not a racist.” We must be anti-racist, which is an active process. White supremacy means that white folks do not have to think about race all the time. We can just turn it off. The news about the protests getting to be too much? Think everything would be better if people just stopped talking about it? Don’t read about it, don’t talk about it, and the problem can seem to disappear. You may have stopped looking, but the problem is still there. Black people do not have the privilege to turn it off, they’re constantly confronted with the discrimination inherent in the system.

I’ll expand on this idea of accepting the reality of white supremacy and coming to terms with ignorance in another updated post.

LESSON 2: MULTIPLE -ISMS

Two women looking at each other

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

THE SCENARIO

Charlie shares a news story on her private Facebook page about Roosh V promoting the idea of legal rape (rape of women). She shares it because she is outraged by the message, the sexism, the promotion of violence, and all that such a thing entails. Several people comment, the conversation is primarily women who are talking about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. They are speaking about their fury with male privilege and misogyny.

A white straight cis male named Jack comments, “I just looked this douchebag up and *surprise surprise* he’s Iranian!”

Charlie responds, “You have derailed the conversation with an inaccurate and, quite frankly, racist comment.”

Jack snaps back, “I’m the least racist person you know. How many African Americans and Hispanics do you work with and have in your home every day? Look up Roosh V’s blog for your edification.”

Charlie responds, “Don’t talk down to me. It’s condescending and rude. I know who Roosh V is, I’m the one who posted this thread in the first place.”

Jack, no less angry than before, writes, “FYI , you’re offended? You called me a racist for fuck sake!!! Who do you think you are to judge me? The point is my family’s closest friends not ‘collected nonwhites’ happen to be African American. Typical. Read his blog then pop off.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

Jack is displaying multiple “isms” in this exchange. He is inserting himself into a discussion without acknowledging his privilege as a cis man, he makes it about his own anger, as if he is the dude who would save all the women because the guy is such a douche. He deflects the conversation from that of rape culture by making a racist comment. A culture of which Jack is a part of, whether he wants to be or not. Jack is mansplaining. Jack is taking focus away from the actual problem.

THE SCENARIO CONTINUED

Charlie later discusses this exchange with a friend, Skylar. Charlie is white and Skylar is a Black woman. Skylar is upset by the content of Jack’s comments and tells Charlie, “I can relate, the way he talked over you happens to me all the time with white people.”

CHOOSE THE BEST REACTION FOR CHARLIE

A. Tell Skylar that sexism is not like racism.

B. Tell Skylar that was a mean thing to say because Charlie is white and not like that.

C. Remind Skylar that not everything is an excuse to pull the race card.

D. None of the above.

If you chose D, you are correct.

Do not silence Skylar. If Charlie reacted by silencing Skylar, she would be doing the same thing that Jack did. Charlie would be whitesplaining. A better response would be to listen to Skylar and react with compassion.

SUMMARY

It’s not ideal to be constantly unintentionally problematic. However, you can and should learn from it. Listen to the people who are willing to point it out. If you feel immediately bristled, respond later with thoughtfulness rather than react defensively.

Unlearn racist cultural norms and replace those with anti-racist actions.

We may have to admit offensiveness, ignorance and privilege over and over again. What you may consider a misstep with good intentions could be very damaging. It’s a gift to know when that happens, it means you can now be aware and do something about it. If you didn’t mean to be racist, then you should want to learn about how your well-intentioned behavior is a problem so your actions can match your intentions.

I’m stubborn and sensitive. Admitting I was in the wrong is not a painless thing, but those pains are necessary. My white sensitivities are proof of a system that has protected white sensibilities for centuries. I like to think I glean a wee bit of knowledge each time I have a growing pain, and that I’m hopefully accumulating enough mistakes and corrections to allow me to be less harmful and more helpful.

Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, none of that is mutually exclusive. Privileges are layered.

Kristance Harlow

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