No one likes to be called racist. Well, except those proud racists, but they often only hate one particular group of people (eg black people, “foreigners”, Jewish people, Muslims, etc) where colour, religion or ethnicity is specifically targeted in some way. Regardless, it is still bigoted to hate on another group of people. When people hate based on race, it’s because they look and sound different. They have been told that their problems are because of “them”, the other race. They may resort to violence. It has led to wars.
It’s easy to spot those racists. The in-your-face racists. The ones with swastikas or other emblems. We can pitch ourselves easily against them. We can call them out and imprison the ones that are violent or encourage violence (depending on the laws in your location). We can teach anti-hate, anti-racism. Or at least say we are all equal.
But it’s not that simple. Racism is more complex than that.
I’m writing this during Black History Month. A month where we take the opportunity to celebrate blackness. We invariably muddy the waters with talking about the history for civil rights in white dominated countries in the 1960s. Black people are more than that. Blackness has a long history, and many cultures and religions attached to it. I’m not Black, so commenting on something I don’t experience would be inappropriate. I will recommend actually learning about Black people beyond Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, though.
Why? Because when you look at the world history of all people of colour, when you study the economic and political reality existing within that history, you may realise why racism is more than hate on colour. It’s a few centuries old, systemically institutional status quo that perpetuates lies that white is right, and all else is less. This white supremacy delusion has been used to justify the theft of land and property, genocide and imprisonment of people. To make this happen, institutions were established to perpetuate the situation, even after the independence of former colonies.
That is the reality people of colour live in. In a reality where white people CAN’T see their privilege. A reality where calling out racism is an act of bravery and defiance. A reality where people of colour succeed despite the system not because of it. A reality where children of colour feel different, especially in white dominanted countries, and need to be raised differently to cope with the hatred people hold towards them. Generation after generation learning to cope with trauma and discrimination.
When Someone Complains
It’s a big deal. The complainant is sticking their neck out and exposing themselves to risk. The receiver may feel threatened, not want to appear racist, metaphorically checking their bodies for swastika tattoos, to reassure themselves that they are not.
I have seen many people (even anti-racist allies) complain about being called out on their racism, dismissing the point being made as irrelevant. They may block the poster on that social media platform, silencing that voice. That’s fine, I block anyone disrespectful too. But I found the ease at which even an ally dismisses a complainant’s very valid point, racist. It is part of a white person’s privilege to not address the issue raised. It’s part of privilege to switch off from the debate when it gets too much to deal with. Understandable, but not excusable.
So, when a person complains that you or something you have done is racist, listen.
- Just listen. Don’t argue back. Seek to understand the different perspective.
- Accept the feedback you’re receiving. Be open to criticism.
- Own your mistake by apologising.
- Learn from it. Particularly around language used and any rules in the space that disadvantage people of colour.
- The complainant is human, just like you, so hear their pain. Accept any sadness and anger. Take the feedback in good faith.
- Be grateful that they are speaking out. They didn’t have to. It would’ve been easier not to. Say thank you.
- Foster feedback by being open. Allow other voices in your space. Feel good that they felt able to talk to you about the issue.
- They may not be articulate, but still listen.
- They may speak with heightened emotions, but that’s because they care and hurt.
- They may go too far and insult you individually, so draw a boundary so they have a chance to apologise.
- If you are unsure of what to do, seek advice from others that are actively anti-racist. If you don’t have such a person in your life, seek one. Or at least follow some content creators on social media and access educational resources (books, blogs etc).
- But don’t silence the complainant by refusing to listen to their point or removing the person/content entirely from the space.
- Don’t say “I’m not racist”, because we all are, it’s how we are raised.
- Don’t seek console from others that you aren’t racist, because a lot of people will not see the racism either.
- Avoid reacting immediately if you feel hurt. It will hurt, which is human. So give yourself a moment to process the new information.
- Don’t pity the complainant. That disempowers further. Embolden by listening instead.
- Don’t tolerate racism in any space you hold. Decide when and how you will deal with racist content or people being overtly racist.
If You Are A Organisation
You need to have a robust policy in place to handle complaints. Race is a protected characteristic in UK law, so you are open to, and rightly subject to, legal consequences for any form of racial discrimination. As individuals, people of colour are protected under Race Relations Acts and Equalities legislation. Further details here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance
I have previously written advice on making our events inclusive to people of colour here https://www.deanexa.com/creating-an-event-that-is-inclusive-to-people-of-colour/
I hope these pointers can help us improve our reactions to racism allegations. No one is perfect, so do be kind to yourself as you learn to be a better human. And never tolerate racism.
And, because it’s Black History Month, here’s a bit of history….
Cover image: self suspension by Dea Nexa. Photo by Dea Nexa. Theme: Peaky Blinders.