Does racism exist? Yes, of course it does. What a stupid question.
With that obvious question (that somehow manages to still receive a very public platform as a topic up for debate… despite centuries of systematic oppression, institutional discrimination and interpersonal micro and macro aggressions…) now concluded, maybe it’s worth asking a more pertinent question.
Maybe our queries should be redirected away from the validity of black and brown experiences. Maybe black and brown people should no longer be subjected to having to defend our everyday realities. Maybe the people who have never and will never experience persecution based on the colour of their skin should no longer be given a platform to comment. Maybe these people should be held accountable.
Therefore, I propose we instead ask the question:
If you don’t think racism exists, are you racist?
Before I begin, I want to say emphatically that the answer is yes. Despite knowing the answer, I posed the question on my Instagram story in a poll. Though this may not be the most sociologically sound form of research, it proved a quick and easy way of gauging the racial understanding of a small sample of people who happen to follow my account.
My followers tend to be a mixed bag of activists, writers, support workers, hometown friends and random people I don’t know; all of whom I imagine to be dotted around sporadically on the political spectrum. I know from experience that many are die hard bigots unable to see another perspective past their own privilege, whilst on the other end of the spectrum, there are many who have dedicated their lives and/or careers to fighting the good fight on behalf of those without said privilege, and then there are those somewhere in-between.
The results of this poll were comforting: 82% voted yes, 18% voted no. Admittedly, I was surprised by this outcome, but then realised I’d recently been on a mass unfollowing spree of anyone who made me purse my lips with resentment. I had done this as a cleanse – a fresh start to the new year. This accounts for how non-vocal my DMs were after the poll. I expected a lot more outrage.
With my results, I discovered that those who voted no were unanimously white, with the majority being white male. The irony of this is not lost on me, nor is it unsurprising. Let’s just put it bluntly; if you are white you are not the authority on race relations and there is absolutely no reason (other than a long history of maintaining the monopoly of power and control which could trick you into believing otherwise) for you to feel entitled to such a position.
I had requested that none of the responders should feel it their right to enter my DMs uninvited to further discuss this, however, I did choose to open up discussion with some of the no voters whom I knew personally, and whose responses caused me to raise my eyebrow in disappointment. When I enquired into their reasons for voting this way their viewpoints generally centred around the following;
They knew racism did exist and was not voting the contrary,
They however were playing “devil’s advocate”, seeing “both sides” or “not discounting the possibility” of an alternative view,
They were being empathetic to those who “don’t know any better” are “faultlessly ignorant or uneducated” and whom just needed a sympathetic and patient ear as they “do not know their privilege”.
Needless to say, this perception is problematic and damaging. The first issue here is that it decentres black and brown people from the discussion. Our views, knowledge and experiences come second to the sentimentalities of well-meaning white folk who “don’t mean” to participate in racism whilst reaping the benefits of it. Intention does not outweigh the harm inflicted by well-meaning or innocent actions.
What this then does is open up an arena for Oppression Olympics, whereby different actions require different levels of repercussions depending on the intention.
Am I meant to be less offended depending on context? Am I meant to excuse a person for their racist actions based on a catalogue of exempting factors? Was I meant to internalise self hatred at a slower pace growing up because comments about my hair, skin colour and appearance were unintentionally said with malice? No. What you are advocating for with this approach is the excusing of racist behaviour based on merit.
If an act is racist, the person committing the act is racist. That is unfortunately a fact. The level of understanding behind the actor’s actions is then only up for consideration on an individual basis, our reactions to the act may differ when these factors are applied, hell, it may even differ depending on what mood I happen to be in at that particular moment, but it never deters from the fact that the act was racist and therefore the person acting, is racist.
Playing devil’s advocate doesn’t allow for a more nuanced approach to racism, it simply puts the lived realities of black and brown people up for debate. It suggests validity in any alternative view, no matter how controversial or aggravated. Whilst facts are posed as questions, we provide platforms for die hard bigots to dominate and dictate the dialogue.
Racism is everywhere. Positioning Afua Hirsch on an all-white panel, on one of Britain’s most popular daytime TV shows Good Morning Britain, to talk about tabloid racism and the monarchy (the most flamboyant expression of inequality), whilst our country’s most notorious and vocal bigot (Piers Morgan) proceeds to shout over her that “racism doesn’t exist” is no accident.
Neither is privileged actor and failed musician (Laurence Fox) being positioned on Britain’s most notorious political debate show, Question Time, as the authority over a black, female member of the public. She was then mocked, told “racism doesn’t exist” and then, ironically, accused of racism. It is the flawed views of flawed people which are given weight within a flawed system.
It’s important to remember that racism is a crime. It is not a victimless crime. And how we acknowledge victim and perpetrator is key to muting these discussions.
As with any offence, the victim’s voice should be prioritised and amplified, whilst the perpetrator should not be given a platform to defend their words and actions – words and actions that should be dismissed.
Imagine a stage in a huge theatre, with tiered seating balconies and a VIP section nestled at the back which is filled with those privileged enough to access it. These people are shouting loudly, trying to overpower the individual on the stage who finally has a platform to speak, to perform their solo number.
Yet despite the distraction, our attention as the audience is solely focused on the stage, our backs are turned to the raucous in the background. We do not offer them our attention. We certainly don’t stop the show, and invite them to the stage in which their words can be given equal weight on the same platform as the original occupier. We do not give racists a voice, nor do we act as the voice of other racists. This is the only effective way to respond to those racist enough to think that racism doesn’t exist.