(Warning: This blog is not for the faint of heart!)
One of my most formative experiences in recent years was when a much-older white man (almost) accused me of reverse racism. I was requesting permission to hold a formal, yet inexclusive, gathering that would highlight racial and gendered differences in experience. The intention was to provide space for people of minority racial groups and the female gender to exchange stories while allowing people who didn’t share their identities to participate in their reflection and get a glimpse of the world seen through their eyes.
Why I had to get permission from this older gentleman is not important; suffice it to say that I did. All I remember from the conversation was his lecturing me about his disapproval of subsets of people grouping themselves according to identity characteristics. His view was that it was divisive. We should stop emphasising our differences and rather dwell on what we have in common across identities (which, in his view, was much more than what we have in common within identity groups). This would be what would lead to unity and reconciliation among people. He offered that, besides, in his view, much of the treatment people of minority identity attribute to unfair differentiation or discrimination can be explained in different ways. He then concluded that, of course, he could not deny me permission to hold the gathering that I proposed because – an old, white man as he was – he would be accused of being racist.
I pause to recognise that what this older, white man expressed is important. I’m very sympathetic to his feeling that minorities overplay the race card and, in fact, colour-blindness is the solution to racial reconciliation. This is a view shared by many. I am even sympathetic to his feeling like he was disempowered by social discourses that emphasise that allowing people of colour to set themselves apart and reflect on their experiences – or even downright segregate themselves – is appropriate and necessary for their healing. With that, I get his feeling that any white person (least of all a man) who tries to disrupt that would be perceived to be exercising the kind of domination that has oppressed minorities for centuries. Thus, I understand his feeling vulnerable to being called racist for expressing a dissenting view in the face of prevailing – if almost exclusively liberal – social acceptance of the need to allow spaces for minorities to cultivate the consciousness and pride around their identities that they were denied for so long.
However, I still think he was wrong. Let me share why.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that this was a man with a lot of symbolic capital. He was just past the peak of his career, in that place I assume must be really wonderful as all the angst of having to prove yourself professionally is behind you and people just take it for granted, based on your wealth of pedigree, that you are worthy of all your accomplishments and acclaim. He also had a whole lot of authority over me, and the permission for which I had come to ask him that elicited his near-accusation. If I’m honest, I found him a little intimidating as a personality and by virtue of his standing in life; so it took quite a bit of self-motivation for me to even approach him on the question. So, as you can imagine, I was quite perplexed when he seemed to deny the greater power that he held, even if just between the two of us engaging in his office.
Secondly, why I refer to it as an “almost” accusation is because he never said it in so many words. In fact, the terms he used had it veiled enough that I left our meeting confused at what had happened. But, slowly, as understanding dawned my indignation set in. As I was leaving and full realisation sinking in, I bumped into a friend who looked like me and recounted what had happened. She agreed: I wasn’t crazy, this man had flipped “it” on me.
I had gone into his office as the weaker of us two, there to request from a senior authority the space for people like me to gather to reflect on our contemporary experiences. Significantly, I was also the weaker for being a member of groups that were formerly disadvantaged by groups of which he forms part. After all, he was a white man and I was a black woman, and it is part of the legacy of our past that he is socially and materially more privileged than me in the present. Yet, he had turned things round before my eyes, suggesting that he (the more powerful of us) was a social victim and I (the less powerful) a perpetrator of racism toward his kind. He had largely dehistoricised our encounter; and ironically, while verbally acknowledging race, he essentially denied its true significance. By claiming that he was being silenced by me, he had effectively silenced me. And, to some extent, he had exercised the oppression that white men have committed against black women for centuries.
Here, I return to the definition of racism that Dan put forward in a prior blog: because racism is a socio-political wrong dependent on institutional power, it is race-based discrimination that can only be perpetrated by members of a group that holds socio-economic and political power. I would argue – perhaps provocatively – that when, in a world of the kind of racially-coded structural and institutional inequality we blogged about last, white people claim that they are victims of racism, they perpetrate racism. They claim the power to say what racism is and is not, use their historical and continuing privilege to block the acknowledgment of the experiences of those who are victims of historical and continuing racial disadvantage as being racism, and deny that they could ever be guilty of racism.
Colour-blindness typically points to racism-blindness – and it’s a condition that mostly those who are not racially discriminated against have. It also makes it extremely difficult to battle racism wherever it hides. We don’t need to deny race and racism’s existence. We need to move beyond simplistic perceptions of racism: beyond the notion that racism is only that which was perpetrated historically by bigots who claimed that black people were effectively animals and chattel. In terms of a more sophisticated understanding, racism persists today with claims of “white victimisation” by previously oppressed groups being used as silencing devices and escapes from recognising and dealing with continuing racial inequality. Racism also persists in explanations drawing on “cultural difference” and the threat of the obliteration of “civilised” cultures being used to justify perceptions of inferiority of minorities, unfair discrimination and the denial thereof. And where the “self-segregation” of minorities and their failure to “culturally assimilate” is understood to be “reverse racism”, we may find racism in those who make the arguments.