Give Us Free: Why Talking About Race is Still Necessary (Part 1)

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2013 has certainly been a jam packed year as far as race relations, transgressions, debates, faux pas and offences, both blatant and otherwise, are concerned. The most prominent incidences of this barrage of overt and covert racist attacks on the brown (black) global community are the Treyvon Martin tragedy that happened last year and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the perpetrator George Zimmerman this year; the seemingly troubled lily white pop princess gone “black” Miley Cyrus formerly known as Hannah Montana’s Hottentot Venus-esque cum cultural tourism display at the VMAs – coupled with the fact that only white artists scooped the prizes in categories that are traditionally “black” genres of music at the same award ceremony; USA’s self proclaimed Maasai “warrior princess” Mindy Budgor’s tell all novel of her sojourn  into the “dark continent” to impart her highly evolved feminist and humanist knowledge on the troubled people of Kenya and her subsequent rite of passage into Maasai warriorhood; “humanitarian educator” *cough* Olivia Mahone’s blackface themed, oops , I mean Afrika themed party and her dream to visit Afrika (the country, not the continent) and do her part by teaching English to the poor Afrikans and of course South Africa’s “Red October Campaign” where a thousand or so members of the “endangered” white population of South Africa took to the streets to protest the ongoing “white genocide” in the country. It’s been jam packed indeed.

Plenty has been said and written about all of these events as a significant number of persons of colour, along with some white allies, around the world have been anything but pleased with them and as a result probably just as many “allies” and neo liberals and right wing Caucasians are positively incensed by the negative reception of these events. They have come out in protestation of any critiques of these offenders with some of the recurring themes being that people are overly sensitive and that people of colour are just enjoying loosely throwing around the word racism and that at most these things can be attributed to ignorance and youthful foolishness or that these people are simply navigating their individual journeys through life. Of course the usual “people should just get over it”, “but blacks are inherently criminals,” and “we can’t keep paying for things done in the past by other people a long time ago” feature rather prominently in the mix.

In spite of the innumerable papers and articles written by people, particularly POC writers and academics, people continue to miss the point and carry on in their disregard for the concerns raised by the people that they affect negatively, namely brown people. This is quite the conundrum indeed. What seems to be the bother that is so evidently interfering with successful racial cohesion in our communities and how do these, seemingly harmless and/or helpful events seem to reinforce this barrier as opposed to tearing it down?

I am a woman, I am Afrikan and I am brown and I have observed, mostly, silently the debates that have ensued as a result of said events and I would like to disabuse some of our white allies, some neo liberals as well as right and far right wing Caucasians of a few misguided notions pertaining to how people of colour are affected by some of the things they do and why it is, in fact, very problematic. Since so many people have already articulately and poignantly written at length in response to these events individually I will not do that here but I will instead, in a three part series, respond to the responses to these articles and posts, particularly those written by disgruntled white allies, neo liberals and other right wing whites and POCs brandishing the mythological reverse racism ideology.

White Privilege

What is becoming abundantly clear to me is that a lot of white people have trouble acknowledging white privilege as real let alone processing and owning it and as a result they go on the defensive when they are called out on their privilege. I get it, I really do, no one really enjoys being told they stink but here’s the thing, if you stink you stink. At the end of the day people need to check their privilege and stop trying to silence others when they check it for them. This of course is not limited to racial privilege but also applies to gender and sex privilege and class privilege, abled privilege and any other privilege and the rule applies to all of us, myself included.

The reality is that there is an unequal balance of power between whites and persons of colour even though in theory that isn’t or shouldn’t be the case. POCs live a different reality, often an ugly one, in comparison to their white counterparts and the fundamental systems that run the world are undeniably set up to reinforce this for as long as possible.

Often times being white is all it takes to guarantee one admission into a restaurant, exemption from suspicion in the event of a crime or the mere threat of one, immediate and effective service anywhere they go, access to housing and accommodation, travel and freedom of movement or employment and respect and dignity etc (the list is longer but you get the point) in comparison to a POC. Even within the POC community there exists a hierarchy in the colour spectrum where some people of colour have more privileges than others with brown (black) people sitting at the bottom of that scale; the darker they are, the lower their ranking.

Reverse Racism: the myth

People have come out accusing some of us of “reverse” racism and they don’t realise that there is no such thing, especially when we are talking about people of colour challenging racism, inequality, imperialism and white privilege.

Controversial anti – racism activist, Tim Wise, recently proved the point that just because one may fundamentally be opposed to racial oppression and discrimination, it does not necessarily exempt them from tripping themselves over their unchecked white privilege at some point by doing or saying something racist because one doesn’t just simply amputate racism from their lives and simply be rid of it for good but instead has to constantly engage in some form of routine self care treatment to ensure that it doesn’t inadvertently accumulate and bring discomfort to others because the world around us still has ways of programming a sense of white superiority and brown inferiority in even the most well meaning or educated/empowered individual.

This skid mark on his reputation does not however disregard his work to fight racism and one of his most notable quotes concerning the myth of reverse racism reads as follows:

“What separates white racism from any other form …is [its] ability…to become lodged in the minds of and perceptions of the citizenry. White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, then by God, they’ll be seen as savages. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell is going to care?”

It’s also interesting to find for instance that people often perceive affirmative action initiatives as a form of reverse racism. In their research aptly titled “White People See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing” Samuel Sommers of Tufts University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard, found that a lot of white people in the U.S. feel that they are the new victims of racism, mostly thanks to affirmative action and this despite the fact that comparatively, white people are still disproportionately economically and socially better off than any other race in the world, particularly the brown race.

Attempts to equally distribute wealth as far as possible are seen as an attack on whites and this not only in the U.S. but even here in South Africa if some of the concerns raised by those in support of Red October are anything to go by. Usually you hear people say that they have worked hard for what they have and I often wonder if these people deliberately ignore the fact that their accumulated wealth was gathered by their “hard work” performed while trampling the backs of the oppressed or exploited persons of colour in one shape or form during centuries of colonialism, apartheid and slavery or they honestly believe that fact doesn’t play a significant role at all.

Regardless, some of the possible reasons for this perception i.e. the emergence of anti – white racism, other than it being an attempt to preserve white privilege and uphold racialized hierarchies are the economically tough times we are living in. There aren’t enough resources to go around or shall I say there aren’t enough resources going around on top of there being a helluva lot more people wanting a piece of the pie such  that what is shared results in everyone getting a smaller piece and for white people, smaller pieces than what they were historically accustomed to.

Another reason could be that there is an overt/ covert paradigm when it comes to racial discrimination where you have positive discrimination a.k.a. affirmative action being more overt through policies and being heralded as an effective tool of empowerment of the previously disadvantaged while anti – black bias has become more subtle or covert; mainly because of legislation but also because people have reduced racism to being a relic of the past, a thing that is characteristic of “bad” or “crazy” people and only manifests itself in a grossly violent and excessively and purposefully humiliating fashion.

A lot of people believe that a person’s intention plays a significant role in determining whether or not something was indeed an act of racism or if the offended party i.e. a person of colour, is just overly sensitive. However, refusing to acknowledge racism does not make it go away neither does it make it a mere figment of POC imaginations. In addition, people of colour challenging things that make them feel humiliated, degraded or disadvantaged simply because of the colour of their skin does not make them reverse racists.

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