We all know people who are blatantly racist. I mean, we all know of the Pauline Hansons or Donald Trumps of the world. We would point our finger toward a person who makes well-known racist slurs, targets people because of their race or denies a person a job on the basis of race. However, we often forget that nice people are plenty racist too. If they weren’t, would racism really be such a huge issue still?
Most of the time in Australian society there appears to be no general consensus on what constitutes racism. There is a lot of back and forth on the question of whether a particular person is racist because of what they have done or said. Some people see racism as only the direct racism that uses offensive language or violence. I don’t agree with them – I believe casual racism, microagressions and structural (inherent) racism are all part of the racism problem in Australia. But not all Australians would agree with me. So around and around we go, deciding whether someone is racist or not. But what is the point of labelling someone as racist? To point out that they are bad? To make it clear we don’t like them? To show that we aren’t like them?
Recently, a friend and I (also a South Asian adoptee) were messaging about a racist experience she had in the past. We had spoken about it some time ago. She applied for a job and she was essentially told by the manager that there was no point in them hiring her because they didn’t have many brown customers. The cluelessness in, and injustice of, what the manager said to my friend has stuck in my mind ever since. So blatant. Such an expression of ignorance. Complete and utter racism.
My memories reminded me that, despite the speaker knowing that my husband is Central American, I’ve been told matter-of-fact in general conversation that Latino men tend to be rapists. I reflected on a time when I had a person walk passed me and call me a ‘f#$%ing wog in a suit’ who had ‘taken Australian jobs’. (Kind of confused me since I’m clearly Asian, but I guess this person had reached a level of ignorance where they didn’t even know that a wog was a derogatory term for a European immigrant, not an Asian).* Ironically, I was volunteering at a free legal clinic held in a soup kitchen, so I’m almost certain I didn’t take anyone’s cushy, paid job.
In light of all of these recollections and in the context of our conversation, I started messaging my friend to say something like, ‘I wish we could just put all the racists on another planet.’
Then I deleted it.
Because one of the most harrowing aspects of racism is that it is not confined to blatant racists – Nice people are racists too. You can’t round up racists. There are simply too many people who are kind of racist in a way that actually hurts or offends people.
People you would normally think of as very friendly, social, pleasant, even kind and caring. People you like and love and with whom you have a history and memory book. They still have room in their calendars and hearts for racism, micro aggressions and ignorant stereotypes. There is simply no easy way to label all the racists and then move them to Racists Town so we can skip along in our racist-free world.
Many of these people don’t even know that they’re being racist. And you could know a person for years without knowing that they are racist. Maybe because you don’t concern yourself with racism, don’t identify with a minority ethnic race, don’t have the opportunity to speak to them about racism. But it will come up. One day. People complain about the impact of social media, but one thing I do like about Facebook is that it makes it easier for me to crack the code of secret-racist-in-nice-person clothing because so much is shared and commented upon that involves topics people might not speak about in depth when face-to-face (think about whether you would bring up some of those topics at work, with casual acquaintances or with in-laws at brunch).
However, what I don’t like about social media, and about any kind of in person adventure into racism is what I think of as the ‘social test’. Though you never mean it to be a test because you didn’t realise that nice people could have a side business in racism: When you share your experience with racism or any other discrimination, or a post on that topic, because it is simply a factual part of life, you will discover people’s true beliefs. The people who try to reason with you that it wasn’t discrimination, when you know it was, those people show who they really are. The non-ethnic friends who cannot hold your disappointment with racism, let alone be an ally against discrimination. Maybe they are not directly racists or sexists or homophobic or any other kind of purposeful discriminator, but they are part of the problem because they are silent, and in their silence, they defend the status quo of power imbalance. Of course, you are better off without those kind of people in your life. But how do you avoid them? They are everywhere.
See, racists are not all evil, bad people. Instead, racists are the people you know, your neighbours, teachers, colleagues, friends and family. Personally, I find one of the most frustrating things about racism is that you can’t easily identify its followers on sight. You have to get to know them. It can take a LONG time of knowing someone before you realise they are a racist, especially if you are an intercountry adoptee who has been raised in a predominantly white family and within a white society to think white culture beliefs and norms are the global standard. You sometimes forget that you aren’t white. You know it, but at the same time, you sometimes forget they’re talking about people like you. So you make friends with nice people.
And later on, it turns out they’re kind of racist, or even totally racist, which puts you in a predicament to realise that they made an exception for you.
They don’t normally care for people like you. How lucky.
* Wikipedia tells me that in the UK, the slur ‘wog’ is actually used for Asians, but I’ve never heard of that as being a slur for Asians in Australia. So could it be that I’m actually more knowledgeable about Australian culture than the person who hurled racist insults to me 😉