On humanising perpetrators....and making racists comfortable
A while back, I had to protect my child from a predatory adult in my social circle, a much liked and well respected family man. When I drew attention to his inappropriate behaviour, he (and his wife) reacted with utmost hurt and defensiveness, resulting in our mutual friends gathering around him as a protective wall and spitting me out like poisoned fruit. I had to be made the problem, as the alternative was the unthinkable: A predator in our midst who was a white man, caring father, successful business man and loving partner. Without further ado, this man, this epitome of goodness, was swiftly and unquestioningly granted the benefit of everyone doubting my child’s experience.
Good people tried to reframe to me what I believed was grooming my child for paedophilia to something completely harmless. Good people tried to make me see that I over-reacted and saw things that were not really there. Good people made me doubt my sanity. Good people might have held on to their children a little tighter around him, but stopped talking to me altogether. And if it hadn’t been for my mother-lion nature trumping my insecurities and self-doubts, who knows, I might have chosen the easier road, where my child imagined things, and my friends still liked me.
This is what people, who happen to be black, have to deal with on a daily basis: The experience of racist violence tainted with the doubt of good white people, who demand “proof” and explanations, who question those experiences until the victim walks away, angry and despondent, sometimes doubting themselves. And the perpetrators remain comfortable and protected in their self righteousness.
I have been listening, reading and processing a lot about my role as a non-black person in the fight against racism. Racism is not a black problem. White people invented it as a means to justify oppression in general and slavery (and apartheid) in particular.
Hence, racism is a white problem which negatively impacts black lives.
In the same way that “me-too” and “Harvey Weinstein” have highlighted sexual violence as a mostly male problem, thus shifting the focus from how women need to avoid getting raped to teaching men not to rape, white people need to be solely responsible for their own racist indoctrination and how to overcome it.
However, as a default, we (non-black people) still seem to think that black people need to constantly explain racist experiences back to us (in a calm and reasonable manner) so we can understand and empathise. We expect to be convinced and educated on the subject by an unthreatening black person and our willingness to listen (if we are not implied that is) somehow sufficiently proves our good white personhood.
We even created diverse dialogue groups, and quickly invented the concept of “safe spaces”, which really translates to white people being safe from accusations of racism whilst voyeuristically asking black people to role-play their worst racist experiences to them. Those experiences will be “gently questioned” so they can be reframed as not quite as racist, and everyone goes home feeling a little better about themselves. Except black participants, who have just spent valuable hours of their lives imprisoned in white “emotional labour camp”, reliving multiple trauma whilst enduring patronising white outrage on their behalf, or, even worse, moderating white tears of pity, guilt and defensiveness.
As non-black people we have to start asking ourselves what it means to take responsibility for our racism.
The obvious answer is to educate ourselves and each other so the constant burden of proof is lifted from our black persons. Once we know, we can’t pretend not to see. And once we see, we have to stand up and engage each other.
But how do we engage? Do we fight back hard, when we see another’s racism? Do we listen and try to reason with unapologetic racists? Should we strive to understand and connect with them as fellow human beings? Do we do all of the above, depending on the situation?
I have been told before (and acknowledge) that I am often too eye-rolling, judgemental, aggressive, and divisive in my engagement with other white people. That I should try to be more understanding (after all I haven’t been born enlightened either) and compassionate towards my fellow racists and try to connect to our shared humanity. It would only be in this space of shared consciousness, that I would be able to shift somebody’s racist beliefs and draw attention to their unconscious biases, which should be after all, my golden goal. Shouting at or berating somebody, would not change their views. And this may well be true.
However, it is also not. I had this conversation with my person, who is black, when I shared what I understood as my “mandate” to engage fellow racists through kindness by connecting to their humanity. I told her how I admired and envied my white friends (often the ones with non-black children and partners) who were able to stay level-headed, calm and pleasant in their engagement with racism; who even managed to sustain hours of difficult conversations with other white people over a glass of wine or at somebody’s Caucasian dinner-table without alienating anybody, chipping away at racism one friendly conversation at a time. I asked if instead of seeing racists as perpetrators only, should I rather learn to see them as suffering from a condition called “racism”, in order not to alienate them as “bad” people so they would be able to hear me.
As I was trying to elaborate this point, I quickly lost ground. Why – I was asked – do we have to make racists feel comfortable so they can change? Is it not counter-intuitive to expect people to change, when they are feeling good about themselves? Should we not rather expose every little racist thought and feeling like a bad smell following that person around everywhere they go so they can never feel at ease even in their own company? What is wrong with our society that we are constantly protecting the perpetrators leaving survivors feeling exposed and vulnerable and forcing them to “prove” and “explain” themselves (in a calm and reasonable manner) before we validate their experiences. Why do we constantly defend the concept of the inherent good white person for whom we have to prepare a comfortable platform on which to land should they fall from their pedestal and be confronted with their flaws.
And just to be clear we are not talking about the beyond-reason, abuse hurling, racist asshole, we all love to hate. We are talking about the subtly-condescending, stereotype-perpetuating, race-card-complaining, I-also-worked-hard-for-what-I-have-proclaiming, I-don’t-see-colour –lying kind of racist, who lives on a spectrum from subtle-and-barely noticeable to in-your-face-overt in all of us whites. We all have massive blind-spots and often don’t even know ourselves where we are on the scale. There was a point where I was right up there with my racist liberals (upper middle section of the spectrum), believing in my own incontestable goodness as my birthright, and that having children, who are black, meant I couldn’t be racist. I was convinced that if I hadn’t meant something to be, it wouldn’t be racist, and that black people should always give me the benefit of the doubt. I knew a lot more back then, and I felt mostly comfortable in my white skin.
Today I have come to accept that as I learn more, I know less. Confusion is my new clarity and I don’t expect any longer to be absolved from my responsibility for and made comfortable in my own racism. I understand that it is further violating to those who fall victim to racist abuse, when I attempt to humanise perpetrators to them.
My role in diverse spaces (and most white spaces) is to be unapologetically subjective and make racist perpetrators feel as uncomfortable as possible. If we are all uncomfortable enough, our racism won’t have any space to breathe, and we will have to do the work. Racist perpetrators will have to work on repenting, apologising, repairing or whatever is needed for their victims to move on. The victim/survivor decides if and when they are ready to put a human face on the monster that is haunting them. It is neither my job nor my place to humanise racism to black people.
What I might have to do sometimes in my own white corner, when it comes to racist friends and family: Hold them a little longer with the love I have for them and disagree with them in anger or kindness with the goal to educate them. But ultimately it is their responsibility to change and do the work, if they want to remain in my life.
So friends and family, read the shit I send you, read it twice and if you don’t agree, read it a third time, until understanding dawns. Then listen to me when I tell you what I fear or experience because to me this is not an intellectual exercise in political correctness, it is about the survival of my children. Don’t call me dramatic. Don’t call me a martyr. Don’t tell me what is good for me or my children. Learn about your own racism, then challenge it in others everywhere you go. Be safe for my children. Be my white person who is always unapologetically subjective on my side.
And if you can’t, I will have to accept that too. Maybe I still love you, maybe you are my mother or my brother, maybe you are my best friend from another life, but I will no longer be able to welcome you around my children and the people I love and live with. Because what I will never again do to my friends or children, who are black: Explain your unintentional racism as harm-less (and maybe they imagined it...) because you are just a well-meaning, mis-educated soul, made afraid of your own shadow as a child, and deserving of all our efforts to make you feel comfortable in your white skin.