“Racism is prejudice, bias and discrimination based on the perception of particular qualities believed to be specific with an individual’s race, often impacting people of color or those racialized. Racism can be systemic (embedded in institutional policies and practices), interpersonal (behaviors, beliefs and feelings towards another person) as well as internalized (how one feels about their own race or heritage). Racism is rooted in power, privilege and superiority that values one over another. Racism in practice can be overt (ex. disqualifying individuals for employment positions based on skin color), insidious (ex. exclusion policies based on an overarching negative beliefs about an individuals culture or heritage), and unconscious (ex. not recognizing a lack of diversity within a group setting).” – Reece Malone
In this day and age there is a lot of discussion of how to be better supporters of people of color in our communities. We have all been raised in a white supremacist system and even people of color have taken in messages about their identity based on their race. Because of this we can often be blind to racism because we have grown up steeped in it. For instance it is easy to not notice when all of the presenters at a conference are white or to not think about how pricing and access to resources can limit the ability of people of color to have access to what our culture marks as success like high paying jobs, home ownership, etc. Race is a taboo topic to talk about in the United States even though it is having a huge effect on our lives.
So when we make a mistake, how should we handle it?
Remember you are not a bad person. For one it is important to remember that just because we have made a mistake around race and ethnicity doesn’t mean that we are bad people. Very few people like to think of themselves as racist and if admitting you made a mistake around race means you have to admit to being a racist very few people will own their mistakes in this way. Sonya Renee Taylor says ““the question is not ‘am i a white supremacist?’ the question is ‘where does white supremacy live inside of me, and what can i do to remove it?'”
Assume Good Intentions. If someone is calling you out about something that’s racist it’s not necessarily to make you feel bad. Often it is because they want you to learn from your mistakes, to understand how what you have done affects people, and do better next time.
Keep Calm. It is easy in these situations to think “oh my god I’ve fucked up” and spiral emotionally or become defensive. It is important to stay calm. Take some deep breaths. Talk to a supportive friend. Do what you need to do to manage your emotions before you engage with the person who called you out.
Avoid Defensiveness. It is important to stay calm and avoid getting defensive. This is about a behavior not the idea that you are a bad person so there’s no reason to try to defend yourself. If you get defensive this is likely to cause an escalating argument that makes you look like you’re not being accountable. Often people will deny the harm they have done and avoid taking responsibility for the hurt they have caused and this just makes the situation worse.
Get Curious. This is a really good time to try to learn more about what you said or did and how it might be perceived as racist. Often there is a history or situation that you have never learned that is affecting the situation.
Learn and Unlearn. Once you have learned what is problematic or hurtful about what you said or did you can learn how to do it differently next time. Unlearning racism is a life long process for all of us.
Apologize. If you have caused harm it is important to apologize for your mistakes. Make sure you are sincere.
Change your Behavior. The best way to support an apology is to change your behavior. Make sure the next time you are in a similar situation you don’t make the same mistake.
Not long ago there was a child in my house playing a video game. Whenever he was trying to catch up with an enemy to kill them he would say “Come Here Boy” in a southern accent. I pulled the child aside and said “It’s really not ok to say that”. He seemed completely lost. He said plenty of people on the game say that and he learned it from a friend of his who was a person of color. I explained the history of using the word boy to address adult African American men and how these kind of phrases are associated with violence against black men. He immediately got it, apologized, and agreed not to do it again. This kid did a pretty good job though he did have a moment of defensiveness.
Recently a magazine produced a list of people who were nominated for a prize in sex education. 9/10 nominees were white. A friend posted about this on twitter and the editor of the magazine came to him trying to “elucidate” how the nominees were chosen. They did not own that their system might be biased or apologize for the mistake. When he did not immediately call them to talk about the issue they began shaming him on social media.
Attraction, desire and race can be a complex thing. Even on dating aps, there are options to declare your race and ethnicity. When a overarching statement is made such as “I only date these kind of folks, or I don’t and will never date (insert an entire race) it suggests hierarchies of who is worthy, sexy and desirable and who is not. Consider centering personality characteristics, relationship values, and quality of a sexual encounter.
Yet another example
Who is involved in your organization including leadership, committees, and colleagues and who is the organization is intending to serve? If your business or organization offers services to a diverse audience or consumer, it’s definitely worth while to invite diverse voices to the table to lend different perspectives and share considerations. Organizations may attempt to be inclusive but there is a difference between tokenizing and inclusion and equity. One business felt that their committees needed people of color because the majority of committee members were white. Adding a person of color would show their diversity. Beyond closing the color gap among the committee, the employee didn’t feel heard or their ideas were taken seriously. They felt dismissed and felt undervalued. Only after a few meetings, they decided to resign their committee position.