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Redefining Racism

Redefining Racism

October 2016

Summary: I expand the definition of racism to include not only acts of discrimination, but also the tolerance of these acts, the nonchalance towards the realities and suffering of those being discriminated against, and the dismissal of anti-racism activity as "political" or "special interest".


Certain events in the last few weeks have left me in a state of internal fury. I feel deceived, betrayed, dumbfounded in observing a misattribution of concern and responsibility in the very contexts where I had hoped to encounter a somewhat greater capacity for compassion. I see apathy masquarading as solidarity. My intention here is not to rant but to put these examples in the same place so that they can be thought of as part of the same problem.

(Apathy masquarading as solidarity.)

I think about the demonstration against rape culture from last week. While attending, I was in the presence of over a thousand people. The issue clearly seemed important to everyone there; I saw tremendous passion and solidarity. I was troubled by the fact that the crowd was mostly white and that I recognized only a handful of people from previous social justice events/contexts. My impression was that I had not and would not encounter this same crowd at anti-racism events. In fact, when I attended a vigil for victims of police brutality earlier in the month, there were maybe a few dozen people in total who attended. I got the feeling that if rape culture only affected Black women, a mere fraction of these same people would show up to denounce it.

I think about an incident that I observed in the activism community where one activist group transgressed upon a community of racialized people, failed to acknowledge the wrongdoing or the fact it occured at all, and then wore t-shirts in solidarity with the group they had oppressed. In confronting this oblivious inconsiderateness, I received a self-absorbed defence that attributed the behaviour to circumstance and individual shortcomings, with no talk of the suffering of the transgressed or ways to make the situation right. It would not have bothered me if someone had failed and their intention had been to do the right thing; the issue here is that there was and is no such intention. Solidarity is not about wearing a t-shirt or liking things on Facebook: it's about sacrifice. (For example, Black Lives Matter organizers visiting Standing Rock.) But being considerate transcends age, experience, culture, gender, schedules; everyone should be able to pass a basic human decency test. This group however has normalized being insensitive while pleading ignorance.

I think about the way the American Republican establishment finally began to come out in more meaningful numbers only a few weeks ago, releasing statements condemning their racist/misogynist/fascist presidential nominee after the release of a tape that documented obscene "locker room talk" advocating sexual assault. Their statements sang the same tune: "I have a mother, I have a sister, I have a wife, etc…". Numerous political representatives used their platform to perpetuate the erroneous belief that sexual assault should be of concern mainly because of relationships and societal roles that involve women, and not because the well-being of women in our society is reason enough to denounce rape culture. These same people, after witnessing many incidences of racial slurs from the same source, did not feel it necessary to use their same (albeit misguided) reflex to say "I have Mexican co-workers, my neighbour is Muslim, some of my closest friends are Black". There was no need to call out violence and discrimination experienced by minorities at Trump rallies. America's Republican establishment draws a moral line at white women, and even this is only a public facade devoid of real concern.

I think about how the population of Québec gathered more signatures against the ban on pit-bulls than for a commission to investigate systemic racism, when both petitions took place during the same time period.

An indigenous activist named Kelly Hayes talks about misattribution of concern in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock:

Yes, everyone should be talking about climate change, but you should also be talking about the fact that Native communities deserve to survive, because our lives are worth defending in their own right — not simply because "this affects us all." […] people shouldn’t simply engage with or retweet such stories when they see a concrete connection to their own issues — or a jumping off point to discuss their own issues. Our friends, allies and accomplices should be fighting alongside us because they value our humanity and right to live, in addition to whatever else they believe in.

(Disclaimer.)

So what of all this? Well let's first go over what I'm not saying by clarifying some things.

I am not suggesting that engaging with these issues is simple or that the issues themselves are simple. I am not suggesting that we do nothing instead, or that if someone's concern is misplaced that it would be better if they said nothing. I am not trying to belittle the contributions of anyone who genuinely works to make the world a better place. I am not seeking to create divisions between the different struggles; on the contrary, my wish is to bring them together. I am not suggesting that we segregate from people that don't show up for racial justice, or that there aren't legitimate reasons for not being available at a given moment. I acknowledge also that spreading the word about initiatives is non-trivial, and that if not done effectively it can impede a shared awareness of how we can make progress collectively, but I also believe that the apathy described in the examples above is systemic and a far greater force than any roadblock in our communications.

I *am* suggesting that we set the bar higher, that we stop creating space for people to be comfortable with their own nonchalance towards the suffering of others, that we protect ourselves, our time, and our energy, from this indifference, and find simple language to recognize this for the racism that it is, because this apathy ultimately contributes to our demise.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

— Desmond Tutu

Today, there seems to be this space in between "racist" and "working to dismantle systemic racism" where many people float around as "not racist, but not doing anything to end systemic discrimination either". To normalize this space in between is to characterize anti-racism as a hobby to be done in our spare time, along with knitting and Netflix. I am proposing that we actively de-legitimize and eliminate this space because anti-racism should not be optional.

(Simpler language.)

In thinking about how to name this lack of concern, I had previously come up with the acronym "Leftist Invisible for Anti-Racism (LIAR)", but I realize now that no special words are necessary: if someone discriminates against us, we can call a spade a spade, call it racism.

Consider this phrase: "The purpose of freedom is to free someone else." For me, this highlights a generic imperative to continuously find ways of using one's privilege and resources to support an effort towards progress that may or may not impact oneself directly; we can always empathize, show solidarity, do our part, use our platform, contribute what we can, be part of the solution.

If it is true that we can always do something, then it should be worth redefining racism so that it simplifies this down to a binary: Racism is an unwillingness to engage in anti-racism. This simplification leaves no room for false representations of compassion. You are either with us or against us. There is no in between. You might be nice, outgoing, friendly, intelligent, open-minded, artistic, liberal, leftist, anti-capitalist, organic, locally sourcing, creative, interesting, funny, conscious, aware, in touch with your energies, but if your actions draw a line at acknowledging the suffering of others and resisting against it in ways that are accessible to you, then your actions are racist. I do not need to help you feel good about yourself for this, or make you comfortable with this inaction. I do not need to legitimize this perspective in the name of Personal Choice, Diversity, Freedom of Expression, "Detached Objectivity" or Neutrality, etc… I do not need to lighten up because you find this to be "heavy" material.

People cozying up in this space are the equivalent of the "good white people" that Malcolm X refers to in his autobiography:

But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren't really considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never really did see me.

This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their "liberal" white friends, these so-called "good white people"—most of them anyway. I don't care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind. He may stand with you through thin, but not thick; when the chips are down, you'll find that as fixed in him as his bone structure is his sometimes subconscious conviction that he's better than anybody black.

Simpler language around what constitutes racism leaves no room for mistaking whether someone is going to stand with us "through the thick"; it helps us make better decisions about the role of apathetic people in our lives.

(What this means.)

As a result of this redefinition, it becomes clear that everyone has racism internalized within them to some degree. If you are reading this (or hell, writing this), you are probably privileged and contributing to some system of oppression and discrimination without making the effort to engage in the yang to that yin in a way that's appropriate for you. Each person needs to take responsibility for harmoniously resolving this within themselves, and the first step is to identify problematic behaviour. In light of its new definition, here are some things I identify as racist:

I am sure there are more examples to be thought of. Maybe it could even be a fun pastime to do with friends, for when you're not in the mood for knitting or Netflix.

An important part of taking responsibility is to educate oneself, so I have included, at the end, resources on racism that have been significant for me and that are unlikely to discovered in traditional publishing environments. We can always learn something new. We can always listen more deeply. We can always find ways to be a part of the solution.

Let's make it clear that the people we associate with can either choose to engage in anti-racism or not. And if their choice changes our relationship, it's not merely about politics.

Let's stop making room for apathy masquarading as solidarity.

Let's devote less energy to the fragility of privileged people and more towards breaking some glass.

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Racism Resources

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