So, you said something racist. Or, someone told you that you said something racist.
Or, someone you really like & admire said or did something racist, or is getting told on for saying something racist.
And now you feel uncomfortable. You feel guilty, maybe, or ashamed. Whatever it is, it’s weird and you don’t like it.
What I need you to do when this happens is stop, drop, and be quiet for a minute. You are not Racism Columbo, your job is not to interrogate the situation for whether it is actually, “objectively” racist. Your job is not to find the motive, to drill down to whether it was intended to be racist. Your job is not to revert to High School Debate Club mode and split hairs looking for plausible deniability. Your job is not to defend your fave from the racist stuff they said!
Your first job is to shut the fuck up for a second. If you have to say something, say “I’m sorry.” Then stop talking. Definitely stop typing in that little social media window. Stop. Don’t. Make. It. Worse. Honestly, if most people just stopped there, the world would start becoming a marginally better place almost instantly.
Important: Engaging with white people about race is an incredibly high-stakes and potentially exhausting activity for a person of color to take on. (Women, think of the last time you tried to sincerely engage with a sexist dude who mansplained your world to you. Did you need a drink/seventeen naps afterward? Did you feel like you’d been trapped in a horrible alternate reality with no way out? Yeah.) So if someone is willing to actually talk with you about this, chances are it is an investment having a better relationship with you, not a drive-by insult-fest or attack designed to tear you down and make you feel terrible and hate yourself. They are talking to you about it because they want you to get it and to stop doing the hurtful thing so that they can keep working with/hanging out with you. The people who hate your guts or think you’re a lost cause will just avoid you. There are worse things you could do than just listen without interrupting.
Step 2, after that initial encounter, instead of trying to justify or excavate why whatever it is isn’t racist or isn’t “really” racist or wasn’t meant to be racist or isn’t usually racist or is racist only on Tuesdays, think about why it is or could plausibly be racist. (Think about this quietly, inside your head.) Why might someone see it that way? What context or history are you missing? How might your action look to someone who doesn’t know about your pure heart and good intentions, somebody who experiences the same “mistakes” and “slip-ups” over and over again from white people? And what are the relative stakes & consequences here if you’re wrong? The saying about misogyny goes: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.” Welp, white people are worried about being unfairly called racist and feeling weird about it. People of color are worried about dying (in medical situations, at the hands of police, from environmental racism, etc. etc. etc.)
The history of racism is complex enough and insidious enough that chances are:
- Yep, race is a factor affecting that “fun” or “simple” thing you’re discussing. That one, too.
- It’s just possible that we white folks have some rill big knowledge gaps about it.
- Automatically discounting someone’s lived experience or point of view just because we’re momentarily uncomfortable is a crappy thing to do and we should stop it.
There are steps after that. Reading. Listening. Self-reflection. Finding ways to do the work of dismantling racism. Here is one organization that is doing work. Here is another. This one, too. (Don’t take my word for it or get distracted by whether any of these are the Perfect One. Do research and find something that works for you.)
For today, here are your steps if you should make a mistake and say or do something racist:
- AT MINIMUM, DON’T MAKE IT WORSE. This almost certainly means saying “I’m sorry” followed by a period of listening and quiet reflection.
- During that quiet time, think about what it would mean to accept, at face value, someone else’s insight on what is or might be racist. What do you lose when you say to yourself hey, wait a second, I’m the one who screwed up, so maybe I’m not the expert here?
Baby steps, friends.