There’s a familiar script that plays out periodically in “Western” – perhaps especially American – news / infotainment media. A prominent figure says or does something. Members of the public, commentators, and sometimes other people directly involved call it out for being racist. The prominent figure speaks out, their words thick with emotion and pain at the very idea of being associated with racism, and explains that they couldn’t possibly be a racist – that’s just not who they are.
It’s a kind of non-apology that, seemingly by magic, shifts the focus from a concrete, discrete action (speaking is an action), to the heart of the person. We are implored to shift focus from the actual material interaction or statement, and instead engage in a full scale mining of the offender’s soul. The truth of their action lies in the ephemeral nature of their heart – in the “kind” of person they are, rather than in the concrete, contextual nature of what they did or said. If there is anything approaching an apology in the statement, it’s generally an apology for any theoretical hurt others may have experienced. It is an apology for others feeling feelings, not for the offender’s actions. The word “intended” generally figures prominently.
Ellen DeGenres recently cast herself in this script. On August 15 the white American comedian / talk show host tweeted a photo of herself photoshopped onto the back of black Jamaican Olympian runner Usain Bolt, with the caption “This is how I’m running errands from now on”. Many people called the tweet racist – pointing out that it shows a white woman using a black man as a form of transportation, an image particularly disturbing given the histories of, and present practices of, black people being dehumanized and reduced to tools for white people. Many people angrily responded that the tweet was an innocuous joke, and that critics were being ridiculous, oversensitive, and simply “trolling”. My favourite defense of Degeneres is credited to Twitter user Elmo Leon: “Ellen’s controversial tweet about Bolt is only racist if elements of racism are present in your mind”. At least, I believe Leon’s statement was intended as a defense – I read it as a pretty perfect exemplification of one of the key problems with how we talk about race today in America and Canada. Leon’s statement can be read in at least two ways. The way I’m guessing they intended it is ‘If you think this is racist, that’s only because you’re racist yourself’. This is a common response to those who point out instances of racism (or sexism, etc). The action / words themselves are not racist – it must be you who “sees” the racism. Either because you yourself are racist, or because you are invested in “seeing” racism where there is none. It’s interesting that the inverse is rarely noted. That perhaps the Leons of the world don’t see racism where there is racism because they are invested in not seeing it. Another way to read Leon’s statement is ‘If you see think this is racist it’s because racism has coloured your mind.’ By this I mean, it is because your experiences of being oppressed by racism colours your experience, thereby making you more attuned to the ways in which racism works, and the multitude of forms in which it manifests. Anyone who has years of experience with something is likely to be more fluent in the way it operates. And given that white people in America and Canada, including DeGeneres, are generally able to go through their lives without thinking much about race and racism, it is often easier for us to not “see” racism.
Ellen defended herself with the following statement / tweet: “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from what I am”. Sticking to the script, DeGeneres does not deal with the content of her original post. Instead of talking about what she said, she makes a character appeal – making a claim about “wh[o] she is”. Many of her defenders used the same bait and switch logic. An opinion piece in Time authored by Columbia professor John McWhorter is titled simply “Ellen DeGeneres is Not Racist”. Oh, okay then. McWhorter leverages his Ivy League credentials and experience as a frequent commentator on issues of race to dismiss criticism of Degeneres, and similar criticism, as “melodramatic…sloppy…and recreationally abusive”. He compares this criticism to a witch hunt.
The subtitle to McWhorter’s piece is “And never has been”. Which, when you think about it, is something he can’t possibly know. Presumably he is basing the statement on his observations of her 30+ years of public behaviour, but instead of talking about her behaviour, he makes a statement about who she is as a person. And that’s the crux of it. This idea that any time we discuss a discrete action or statement, it is invariably the entirety of a human being’s self, history, and essence, that is at stake. McWhorter, like the vast majority of us, slips into talking about whether or not Ellen is “a racist,” rather than whether the tweet and accompanying image expresses racist ideas.
I don’t know what makes up “a racist”. How racist does a person have to be to reach the tipping point of being defined as one, rather than being someone who has some racist thoughts sometimes? There is a fixity in the label of “a racist” that people are understandably resistant to. These ideas have been articulated by many people before me, but to to reiterate, since our contemporary society defines racism as a personal, moral failure, not being racist has become a necessary component of being a “good” person. This is logical, as it’s true that the vast majority of us do agree that racism is bad. It is constructive that we have collectively decided that it is bad to be “a racist”. But the current state of our discourse is, in my view, destructive. Our preoccupation with being “good,” not racist people, often deflects conversations from the ways in which racism as a material system of meaning shapes and colours almost every facet of daily life, and instead calls us into conversations about which of us are “good, not racist,” and which of us are “bad, racist”. These conversations often revolve around questions of intention. Most of us don’t “intend” to be racist. This means something. But, in the scheme of things, I don’t think it means that much. In a world where the only people held responsible for racism are the David Dukes of the world, I’m afraid we are not going to make much progress at all towards actually eradicating it.
Duke and the like don’t seem very interested in eradicating racism. If we rely on them to do it, I don’t think we’ll get very far. People of colour (POC) and Indigenous people, those who continue to experience the violence of white supremacy, racism, and colonialism, both systemic and individual, continue to disproportionately be held responsible for dealing with, and trying to remedy, racism. While it is critically important for white people and settlers to listen to the voices, experiences, and expertise of POC and Indigenous people, there’s a lot those of us who occupy these social positions can do while listening. White people are just as, if not much more, responsible for dismantalling these systems of racism, including recognizing the ways in which we participate both implicitly and explicitly in racism, and continue to benefit from white privilege.
I grew up in a white family in rural Prince Edward Island. My elementary school was, as far as I remember, entirely white. (I doubt this was actually the case, but the fact that I don’t remember a single non-white presenting student says a lot.) Though my parents are good progressives, and I do not recall being taught overtly racist lessons either in school, or at home, this does not mean I wasn’t taught racism. Racism is embedded in the institutions of which I am part. It is and was expressed both overtly and implicitly in my communities. This continues to be the case in my adopted home of Vancouver / Coast Salish Territories. I have racist thoughts sometimes. I sometimes realize I’ve made a racist assumption. I have had the privilege of an extensive education in white supremacy and racism, both through my academic studies, my own reading, and my community activism. I usually recognize when I think or say something racist. And sometimes I don’t (it’s admittedly hard to recognize yourself not recognizing something). Being raised in a racist society generally means its subjects will learn some racist attitudes, assumptions, and ideas. This does not mean that we can’t unlearn them, or that we are not responsible for the ways we contribute to racism.
This preoccupation with intention, and the accompanying focus on what “kind” of person we each are, is counterproductive. Very few people “intend” to be racist. And yet there is data, on top of data, on top of data that illustrates we live in a profoundly racist society. How can that be? Perhaps it is because – for the most part – actions, and not intentions, shape our world. Whether we intend to be or not, many of us continue to be complicit in a racist society. In my opinion, a person can be a “good person” in many ways, while also having racist thoughts, or making mistakes sometimes. Humans are complex and imperfect. I genuinely believe we can unlearn our racism, and dismantle our racist institutions. But it doesn’t happen when we’re busy saying “That’s not me!”. It doesn’t happen when we continue to pretend that only “a racist” is capable of being racist, of expressing racist ideas, or of contributing to the maintenance of racist institutions.
None of this is to suggest that we are not responsible for our actions, or our speech. It is up to us what we do about all of this. We are taught all kinds of destructive things in a violent society, but that doesn’t absolve us from working to unlearn those things, and, in the meantime, acting respectfully to those around us. And if you’re a white person living in this society, just being aware of your white privilege and “acknowledging it” does not absolve you of that privilege. The only way to absolve ourselves of white privilege is to abolish it, which means abolishing white supremacy.
They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. Well, friends, I have a problem. And I’m guessing some of you might too. By keeping most of our conversations about the roles we play in oppression on our actions, rather than making every conversation about oppression into a trial over the “kind” of person we are, we can remain focused on the behaviour that needs to change. This also means being less of a jerk. If your first impulse after a friend tells you you just said something racist is to defend yourself, saying “But I’m a good person,” you’re not listening. You’re also making a conversation about a system of oppression that is thousands of years strong, and shapes every institution in our society into a conversation about you. Which is, if nothing else, pretty arrogant.
Two notes to readers:
A note about the way I wrote myself into this piece: I initially included in this piece a few examples of times I’ve recognized my own racist thoughts or assumptions, as a main thrust of this piece is to ask fellow white people to consider the ways in which combating racism starts with dealing with our own conscious and unconscious racism. I wanted to include some examples that many people would consider relatively “small,” everyday moments of racism. I’ve decided not to include these examples as I know that reading them may be triggering, angering, and / or painful for some people of colour and Indigenous readers. I have received this feedback a few times when I discussed experiences both of my own racism, as well as experiences that illustrated the benefits I receive based on my white privilege. I also recognize that making this editorial choice means I get to spare myself of the public shame / embarrassment of being explicit about my own racism. This is the decision I made today. I am very open and interested in feedback on this decision, should anyone wish to offer some.
A second note, about my use of “we” and “us” in this piece. A few times in the piece I use the words “we” or “us” to refer to a shared experience or responsibility of being white, a settler, or to simply invoke the ways in which we are part of shared publics. I have tried to make clear the context through my language, and I hope that my use of these terms does not include or exclude people inappropriately. Again, I sincerely welcome feedback on the ways in which I employ collectivity in this piece.