Quarantining Racism

Just a warning, this one’s going to be about racism! Skip if you don’t wanna. Here’s a break link. And here’s a fold.

Hey, white folk. We need to talk about racism. Specifically, we need to talk, usefully, about what racism is. Because most of the time when we talk about racism, what we’re talking about is how that thing isn’t really racism.

We spend a lot of time and energy defining how things that look like racism aren’t racism. You’ll see a lot of this in these coming days (I wonder why), where someone – often a nonwhite anchor – will say ‘isn’t that racism?’ and be told ‘well, this person isn’t racist.’

I gotta help you out here. Racism isn’t a transitive property. It’s not chemical outpouring. Racism is a social structure. It’s a thing that exists outside of yourself and your intention. It’s a big, complicated system of things all the way around you and everything you deal with. Imagine it as a gigantic mousetrap game that’s set up around you, and every time you open your mouth to say ‘Cinco De Drinko!’ and stumble around in a sombrero for laffs, you’re basically dumping some balls into it, even though you don’t think that’s what you’re doing.

We spend a lot of our energy trying to define Racism as small. We want racism to belong to a tiny population of losers, ideally small-town people we don’t have to touch because they smell bad. We also want racism to be an action. We really, really want it to be a small list of observable actions, usually actions we don’t want to do. This lets us define racism as being remote from ourselves, even as we constantly push our definition smaller and smaller. Observe the number of people who say ‘Well I’ve never enslaved anyone’ or ‘I’ve never said the n-word’ as proof of their non-racist status, even as people argue ‘I should be allowed to say the n-word.’

We want it to be a Saturday Morning Cartoon villain failing – ‘Bobby Did A Racism!’ – that we can point to and most importantly point to. We want it outside of ourselves and over there.

We don’t want to think it’s every time we laugh at a place name that isn’t English. We don’t want to think it’s in our jokes about coloured water fountains. And we most certainly don’t want to think it’s in college-educated assholes who right now are trying to define contributing to elect the man Neo-Nazis love as ‘not a racist act.’

If you want racism to be a ‘stupid thing’ then you need to show you’re outside of the ‘stupid’ space, and that means being willing to embrace the world of complex ideas and systemic structures.