Can I Be Accidentally Racist?

Dear Reader,

Today is Juneteenth, aka the day of celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery. With the current protests surrounding George Floyd’s death and larger issues in the U.S., this holiday takes on special significance this year. In fact, at my organization, we were given the day off to consider racism, so, that is exactly what I am going to do here today.

Racism, of course, still exists here in America. It’s one of our most pressing human rights issues, yet, at times, it is treated like a matter of political opinion. Racism is also “systemic” meaning that its ideas prevail in the minds of many and play out in society in the policies and practices of institutions like schools, private companies, government agencies, and law enforcement.

Here are some stats to illustrate how racism plays out in the U.S.:

  • Our analysis of 2012-2017 data provided by the Tulsa Police Department, shows that black people in Tulsa are 2.7 times more likely to be subjected to physical force by police officers than white people on a per capita basis.”
  • All of the 22 people who have received death sentences while Lacey [Los Angeles District Attorney] has been in office are people of color.”
  • In 2018, the average Black worker earned just 62% of what the average white worker made.”

Of course, progress has been made and, of course, there is a lot more work to be done. Organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have taken center stage during this current fight for equality, yet, these organizations have also become polarizing organizations. Specifically, these groups in their fight for equality elevate the groups they are fighting for above everyone else. This is necessary to bring light to their causes but have rubbed some vocal conservatives the wrong way as they plead, “no, ALL lives matter.” I saw a meme parodying this attitude which I found hilarious. In this cartoon, Jesus is drawn with a speech bubble proclaiming “Blessed are the poor,” and some grumpy white man screams out in his own speech bubble “NO JESUS, BLESSED ARE ALL PEOPLE.”  

Outside the struggle for equality, another debate about racism has proliferated over the internet. Many white allies are being called out for being “racist.” For example, some Middle Eastern and Eastern European influencers painted their faces black in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. This is, of course, a hard NO in the U.S., however, the concept of ‘black face’ abroad has less significance. So, are these women racist? Also, other white allies are being shamed for participating in social media activism like changing their profile pictures to black squares. Are these people being unintentionally racist? In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to be “accidentally” or “unintentionally” racist. For example, if a 4-year old white girl paints her face brown to look like her best friend, no one is going to say this girl is racist — she’s a kid who does not know the significance tied to her actions. Racism is the belief that some races are superior to others based on racial characteristics, abilities, or qualities.

The foreign women who participated in black face to support the U.S. protests are not racist, as they do not believe in “racism” as I defined it above. These women, while trying to support the equality of races, inadvertently found themselves participating in an act that has been historically used to mock and insult black people. However, these women certainly were not acting with racist intent.

The only way someone could be accidentally racist is if this person knowingly acts in a way that perpetuates the belief that some races are superior to others and, for some reason, this person does not realize that this is what racism is…. There is a world of difference between advocating racist ideas and accidentally saying something that may be construed as racist by the listener. In short, if you believe that certain races are superior — you are indeed racist, and you damn-well know it. However, many do say unintentionally insensitive things. These microaggressions can hurt people even without intent. Although this act is not by definition racist, it can certainly be offensive and it would be helpful if in our fight for equality, we also took the time to understand why microaggressions can cause injury and adjust our own behavior accordingly.

Today, it seems that in an attempt to correct and readdress any and all acts of racism, we are inadvertently shaming people and calling them “racist.” We are unintentionally dividing ourselves. I believe that racism should be fought against people who believe in and institutionalize the thought that one race is superior. However, I do not believe that we should call out people advocating for civil rights in the “wrong ways.” Instead, let the emphasis be on educating allies and fighting our oppressors (as opposed to fighting both allies and oppressors).

Let us remember that racism is about intent and it does us no good to tear apart allies who are fighting for equality albeit in a, perhaps, misguided way. Instead, let us change our culture around race in the U.S. and educate people when they make mistakes or commit microaggressions rather than shaming them and calling them ‘racist.’ We are still learning how to talk about race in America. It is important that we can have a healthy conversation about how to fight for equality and discuss sensitive issues.

On this Juneteenth, let’s talk about race, even if it makes you uncomfortable, in the hopes that one day, we will not need to literally take to the streets to secure civil rights.



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