Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let’s talk about race

This is going to be a long, and sometimes hard, one. I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about race and racism lately, all of them great and all of them by women of colour. In particular I’ve been reading Mochamomma’s blog in which she’s discussed the unicorn cake debacle, and the “ask a black girl” phenomenon.

One of the things that has come up again and again is how rare it is for white women to blog about race and racism. I go.

Race and racism have been at the front of my mind for most of my life. As a white girl who grew up in rural Ontario the only people of colour I knew as a child were the Japanese boy in my class and the Trinidadian fruit pickers who worked on a nearby farm.

But, I also grew up with a Quaker hippie mom (of the social justice and political action variety rather than the pot smoking free love variety). I had a strong awareness of the existence of racial bigotry but had yet to witness it.

All of that changed when I was thirteen and spending my summers in St. Catharines with my best friend.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not I would tell the whole truth here. I realize that I am opening myself up to some serious judgment and anger. All I can say is, I was thirteen and I only had one friend so where she went, I went.

This is what you need to know about St. Catharines in the 80’s and 90’s: It was a breeding ground for neo-nazi skinheads. The teenagers were all neatly divided into their little boxes, especially the freaks. You had boneheads (distinct from the anti-racist skinheads), mods, hippies and punks. I was none of the above but I was definitely a freak. I also had no idea how to meet new people on my own. My best friend, however was a striking mod chick much admired by many . When she started dating a nazi punk I wound up spending a lot of time around him and his friends. I hated it but I didn’t know how to avoid it without alienating someone who meant so much to me (to her credit, the boyfriend in question gave up his Nazi ways in the time they were together).

For the most part I left the room any time they started talking their bullshit. Occasionally I took them to task only to be dazzled by the bizarre twists of “logic” they offered in defence of their views.

Eventually I was able to make other friends and stop spending time in the company of boneheads. But, honestly, I can’t say I regret that time because it taught me something about hate and hate groups that I don’t think I would have otherwise understood. Sometimes it’s good to spend some time behind enemy lines.

One thing I learned from that experience was that these people are people, they’re not monsters. Making them monsters makes it too easy to distance our selves and society from their beliefs and their actions. When we recognize that they are people we have to also examine how they came to be that way, because they sure as hell didn’t just spring from the head of Ernst Zundel like Athena from Zeus.

When I was sixteen I left home and moved to St. Catharines to finish high school. There were still plenty of boneheads but my new friends were very vocal anti-racists who had had the shit kicked out of them more than once by boneheads. I saw how ineffective it was to piss them off and I felt the fear of being chased by them. I even had them move in next door to me. After that my best friend (a different one by this time) who was Filipino refused to come to my apartment, and who can blame her? If that’s what they do to white people, what might the do to her? I had to call the cops one night because one them was pounding on my door screaming “Fucking faggot!!” at my friend who was visiting.

Most people’s experience of racism is not so dramatic. It’s the systemic racism of the criminal justice system or the unfair hiring practices of a workplace. It’s the subtle shifts in attitude when a person of colour walks into the room. It’s the throw away comments that people don’t think twice about. It’s the luxury of “not seeing race” because you can’t “see” your whiteness. It’s the wilful blindness of white people when they talk about how inspiring and heart-warming the latest edition of the white saviour trope was.

I still come to tears when I remember how volatile it was back then. How much a fabric of our daily lives it was that one of us could get beaten down at any time. I was there when my friend was attacked by five guys in steel toe boots and I was there to watch him get twisted into his own brand of hate, indiscriminately accusing people of being nazis, and even terrorizing their families.

I learned what unfettered hate looks like. And I understood that this was a natural consequence of the much subtler and more pernicious kind of racism that was a part of the very fabric of our culture. And aren’t those radical neo-nazis a perfect distraction from the much more insidious racism that affects people of colour on a daily basis?

You know what? I can identify a nazi skinhead in my sleep. I know how to tell a nazi punk from the rest of ‘em, no problem. You know what that means? It means I know where I fucking stand. It means that when I see those white laces and the iron cross on your jacket I know not to make eye contact and steer clear.

But when my coiffed middle class (white) boss at my minimum wage job starts talking about “chinamen” that’s a hole other bag of shit. That’s a blind side from someone in a position of authority and I am left speechless, because I need this job.

And when my university professor says “us” in reference to white people and “them” in reference to any people of colour – even when there are people of colour in the class – he is not only contributing to the othering of POC, he is effectively erasing those who are in the room.

One of my favourite profs in University was Andrew Winston whose research focuses on the role that social science and science have played in perpetuating racial stereotypes and racist policies (that’s a simplification but you get the gist). In intro psych we were assigned a book called “The Race Gallery” by Marek Kohn which outlined the history and the flawed science of race based research, particularly in the area of racial classification and intelligence. My take away from that book was that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact. However, and this is the important part, just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Race is real because it affects the identities and realities of everyone. Not just people of colour, everyone. Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender. The issue, for any thinking white person, is how do you inhabit and experience your whiteness? What does it mean to you to hold a racial identity that comes with so much privilege? What can you do to recognize your privilege and address it in a meaningful way? And if you answer that question with anything that sounds like, “Well I’m X so I’m oppressed too” you’re missing the point. Identity is a complicated and ever shifting thing. If you engage in the “more oppressed than thou” game everyone loses. The point is to think consciously and openly about what kind of privilege you benefit from and what that means.

Talking about race is hard, for everybody. But the difference is that white folk have the luxury, or shall we say privilege, of not thinking or talking about it. If you, as a white person, don’t notice that everyone in the room/film/book is white it’s not because you’re so progressive that you’re colour blind, it’s because you’re simply blind to the ways in which people of colour are simultaneously erased and problematically defined by those representations. If everyone in the room is white, why is that? How does that change the nature of the discussion? How does that affect the way people behave to one another? All too often an all or mostly white space is seen as a safe space to say ignorant or flat out hateful things.

So this is me, talking about race in the only way that I can, through the lens of my experience. I actually like talking about race and racism, just as I like talking about gender and sexism and homophobia and every other element of the kyriarchy (still getting used to that word). I most like talking about race with people of colour because talking about it with a bunch of white people is like talking in a vacuum and frankly, I’m more afraid of hearing some racist crap come out of another white persons mouth than I am of being called out by a black friend.

Update: I've since written a follow up post on why it matters that white people talk about racism.


  1. These two things...

    "It’s the systemic racism of the criminal justice system or the unfair hiring practices of a workplace."

    and this

    "Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender."

    are two things which I not only believe to be true both in research and in practice, but they are the just about the smartest things I've seen written about this topic in a long while.

    Don't be afraid of your own experiences because they are yours and led you here. And your Here is a good place to be.

  2. Thank you for giving me the kick in the pants to write about it.

  3. Well said.

    "It’s the luxury of “not seeing race” because you can’t “see” your whiteness."

    I've been looking for a way to phrase that for years.

  4. Nice to hear from a white person the actually get it. I hear from so many that don't think racism exists anymore because they don't/can't see it. They thinks its just people of color with a chip on their shoulder. Thank you.

  5. Wow.

    This is the first time I've ever read your blog, but I'm hooked. I love the perspective you show here. What I feel is missing is the part that parents play in the fostering and breeding of racism and hate. It isn't always just from friends, and isn't always just from parents, but a combination of both can result in a lifetime of tunnel vision.

    Personally, I am multi-racial. My mother is white, my father was Native American and Latino. I say "was" because he died when I was very young. Given that I look much more ethnic than my blond-haired, blue-eyed mother, I was subject to tons of racism in my youth...even in the "melting pot" that is called New York. I was teased and taunted for being "adopted", being black (even though I'm not), being "Indian" (some people would make the "pow-wow" noise with their hand over their mouth when I walked by), and overall just being DIFFERENT. If you look closely at the NY metropolitan area, you will find it is severely segregated. I guess "birds of a feather" and all of that, but the neighborhood that I live in now, in South Carolina, is more integrated than the one I grew up in on Long Island. Of course, I see many Confederate flags and GOP supporters down here, but I digress...

    I don't know WHY people choose to believe they are superior to another human being, for any reason. Your post gave me great insight to the HOW part of racial propaganda, but I have yet to discover the motivation behind such beliefs. What I've experienced is, again, something passed down through generations. If you try to drill down into answering the "WHY" part, all I've ever found was "because it's always been that way". What is it about people that makes them so afraid to break the mold and think for themselves? Sure, many people do, but oftentimes it seems that opinions and affiliations are an inherent part of society. "Those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it" rings true in my opinion.

    I'm glad you wrote this, and glad that this is the post that introduced me to your world. I think we'll have many things in common, which is very cool and very much what moves me to follow other bloggers as well. Those who choose to live life for the good of the human race are the people I want defending our planet. Thank you for your incredible message.

    P.S. Hi, my name is Jill and my blog is hardly ever updated, but I'm on twitter!

  6. I'm really glad you wrote this blog. I believe that talking about race is the simplest step to better understanding it. It made me really happy to hear you talk about the subtle racism that is still prevalent today. Many ppl do not feel that is the case, but it is something I see and experience often.

    I've also always believed being colorblind is not the answer, I believe everyone should be seen and appreciated for the beautiful differences in their race. Everyone should be seen as a person who's environment, culture, and experiences make them wonderfully unique and valuable.

    Thank you for being thoughtful and honest.

  7. @elevendreams: I absolutely agree about the parents' role. One of the boneheads that I had the "privilege" of knowing had been raised to hate. It was so sad because you could tell, at the age of 15 that he could have turned out to be a great guy. But by the age of 17 he was just a big rock hard ball of hate.

    Hate, of any kind, is toxic. Teaching it to your kids is soul killing.

  8. I am impressed with your whole post, but your comment,"Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender." really was brilliant (and sorry for bad grammar in quoting). It articulates a truth that so many of us (white) people are struggling to grasp and own. I had never quite thought of it that way, thank you. (And I'm about as liberal as you can get, and have multi-cultural family, but can't quite get over unease when acknowledging and talking about this.) BTW, I will be following you now, and thanks to Jenny for linking to you...

  9. Thanks for the blog post.

    My comments:
    - I was raised in the 70s to ignore race by my poor, white parents.
    - In the 80s and 90s, I read daily about race relations in the Washington post. There were constant reminders about race. My mom was right in her heart but wrong in practice: It is impossible to remain oblivious of race. I would have liked to long ago have done so, but I am constantly reminded how I am a racist just because of my existence (something that the phrase "white male privilege" suggests).
    - The phrase "people of colour," used in this blog post, is itself a racist term that suggest white people have nothing to offer to the color spectrum. Please refrain from using it if you wish to help race relations.

    The sad reality: The more we focus on race, the more we foster racism.

  10. The phrase "white male privilege" does not suggest that you are racist, it states clearly that you benefit from the privilege of belonging to the group that wields the most power. Having privilege isn't what makes you racist, denying that you have privilege is.

    I use the term "people of colour" because there is no other term that is less problematic which includes all people who are not white and therefore do not benefit from white privilege. I also use it because most of the politically active people of colour I know use it themselves and because it is their concerns, and not those of a white man plagued with white guilt, that are important in this matter.

    Finally, not talking about race and racism is exactly what allows racism to continue. No one who deals daily with the reality of racism can ignore the role of race in how our society works. Choosing to ignore it is a privilege white people have which serves to perpetuate the erasure of the very real experiences of people of colour.

  11. And for more readings on privilege see the below:

    White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

    Understanding Prejudice

    On Privilege and Responsibility

    White Noise: White adults raising white children to resist white supremacy

  12. Wow! My brilliant kickass daughter strikes again!

  13. Disclaimer: I have several questions, and these are GENUINE, HONEST QUESTIONS. Nothing I write here is intended as an attack on what you have written, a support of racism, or anything like that. I am coming from a position of ignorance and I am seeking understanding.

    First of all, you seem to be holding me responsible for what goes on around me. You say "If you, as a white person, don’t notice that everyone in the room/film/book is white it’s not because you’re so progressive that you’re colour blind, it’s because you’re simply blind to the ways in which people of colour are simultaneously erased and problematically defined by those representations". That sounds to me like you're ascribing intentions, assumptions, and motivations to my character when you've never met me. What if I simply assume that every actor in a movie, every character in a book is the result of a conscious decision by a thoughtful director/author? The easy answer to that question is "well then you aren't racist", and that shows that I'm not asking my question very well. I'm more interested in your motivations behind such a statement than in debating the factuality of the statement itself. (Is that a word? We'll go with it.)

    My other question is...what is "whiteness"? I'm white. I have two white parents. I know my ancestry includes Portuguese and Native Americans, but I was not really raised with any kind of cultural emphasis, at least as far as I can tell. I was taught that my life is defined by my actions, and how I react to consequences determines my worth as a person.

    If you asked me what my culture was, I'd be completely at a loss. Can I say "a technological culture"? My parents (both teachers) are both very dedicated to and immersed in technology, and I am as well. That's definitely not a "white" thing, though.

    Again, I'm asking my question very poorly. If I were to boil it down, I suppose I should say "If I'm blind to my 'whiteness', what should I be seeing?", because I have no clue what a 'white culture' is.

    Again, please take these questions in the spirit they were written, which is seeking answers and understanding, not to tear down what you have said or to devalue your beliefs or actions. I look forward to reading whatever response you decide to give me, and thank you for giving me so much to think about.

  14. Thank you so much for this post - it's incredibly honest and important. I would disagree vehemently with the commenter who suggests that the more we focus on race, the more we foster racism. No social injustices have ever been trampled by silence. It's good to tell our stories, even when they are painful.

  15. Eric,
    Any honest and sincere questions are welcome. To your first point: I'll start with a question, do you notice if you're watching a film with mostly black (or Asian or Native etc) people? There's nothing wrong with noticing, but the question then becomes, if you notice that, why don't you notice when everyone is white? This ties into the idea that whiteness is the "norm", not worth taking note of. And not noticing when everyone is white - or when the only racialized people are criminals and cabbies and maids - prevents you from recognizing exactly how these films, TV, and other media perpetuate harmful stereotypes and fail to portray the diverse experiences of such a huge chunk of the population.

    Finally, to attribute it to individual directors ignores the larger truth which is that the same kinds of casting decisions are made over and over again. For example, consider the fact that often when a book is made into a movie they choose white actors to portray characters that were clearly not white in the book.

    To your second point: You ask "what is whiteness"? One of the reasons people have difficulty defining whiteness is because we are accustomed to seeing whiteness as the backdrop against which everything else is compared. Everyone has a racial identity, but the privilege of being white is that you don't have to think about it because it is everywhere and, as such, rendered invisible as a distinct identity. That's all I have space for now but there are lots of resources online discussing whiteness and white privilege, I encourage you to do more exploring and keep asking sincere, respectful question.

  16. Thank you. While this is obviously a very complex topic that can't be solved in a few blog posts, I'm grateful to anyone who will spend the effort to give me more information. I have been met several times with hostility and apathy when I ask these questions, even on sites such as or, which are ostensibly communities whose goal is fighting oppression and social injustice. It is heartening and encouraging to meet someone who will take time out of their day to teach me about these things.

  17. Eric,
    I think what's important is that you're trying to figure it out and you want to understand.

  18. Wonderful post and thank you. Silence has never helped a problem go away, as near as I can tell. Among the many important ideas here is the point that racists of any ilk don't spring full-blown like Athena--and to refer to "them" without thinking about what went into creating "them" doesn't do any of us any favors. I'm thinking about that point a great deal these days b/c I have just moved to the Middle entire region filled with "them" (at least insofar as the majority of the US thinks about this area of the world). You know, an entire country filled with "ragheads," "terrorists" "American haters" and where everyone probably belongs to al-quaeda. So I'm thinking a LOT about the ideas you've expressed here. Thanks.

  19. Whew - great post. As a "white" guy of the grey haired generation, I find I can't even enter this conversation without sounding like an asshole. POC tend to pigeon hole me as one of "them" and that's hard to overcome. I think it's more a matter of disconnect than it is a matter of race. Do people think of the worlds richest man as "that Latino guy with the money"? No- I don't imagine they do. Is the king of Spain a "spic"? Is the ruler of Saudi Arabia known as "that raghead"? I don't know for sure but I doubt it. I think it's more about who is doing who's gardening or serving the customers at Wally world. The have's will always protect their privilege against all commers and until we reach economic equality, I doubt very much that that's going to change. The good news is that soon we'll all be in the same shit together so maybe racism will take a back seat to survival. You have great insights - Thanks for an awesome post. PS - my fathers family is Syrian and Black and my mothers is Italian and Dutch. I just 'look' white and it's cut me a lot of slack that others might not have.

  20. Here's a great post about what privilege is and is not:

  21. For lots more discussion on this topic, have a look at where I first saw this topic opened up, over at GMP

  22. @Emotional Orphan: Thanks, I have been reading that series. In fact my follow-up post was partly inspired by one of those posts.

  23. May you live a prosperous life. I enjoy people who are willing to share their opinions and beliefs. I read your post and all of the comments. I am black, not that that matters, but it was very insightful to read and try to understands another person's point of view on race/ racism.

    I think experiences are what help people understand racism. While it's true posts and articles cannot stop people from being racist, these kinds of posts and articles open people's eyes about the issue. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but my point is, your post is an eye opener and I hope more people read it.