I’m not a racist, but…

By Jacob Doherty

How often is this phrase the preface to some ridiculously racist generalization or joke about people of color? As if clarifying that the speaker is not in fact a racist, before making such a statement, makes it ok? What’s interesting about this phrase is the implicit recognition that what is about to be said is actually inappropriate, but that somehow the speaker can get away with saying it because he or she is “not a racist.”

A weird idea underlies the concept of racism in much public debate – that it is something inherent to individuals. Racism is seen as something that defines us. We either “are” or “aren’t” racists, in the same way that we either are or aren’t a particular race. The problem with this way of thinking is that it ignores the fact that everyone participates in racism every day: structurally, institutionally, or personally. So to say that other people “are” racist misses the point that racism is a social process that is constituted in actions.

Essentializing racism as a property of individuals is strongly linked to the myth of the possibility of ending racism by ignoring it. Race-blindness is built around this idea: “I am not a racist, I don’t think in terms of race, and if everyone else were like me there would be no more racism.” But just as race itself is socially constituted, racism is social, not individual. Rather than talking about racist people, it would be more instructive to see the actions, thoughts, and processes that people take part in as racist. In this way, we can acknowledge own participation in the racism of our society.

Analyzing our* own roles in the actions that constitute racism, as well as identifying racist ideas latent in our thought, can do much more to challenge and deconstruct racist ideologies than simply pointing fingers at essentialized racists. Recognizing our own positions in a racist system is thus imperative to any viable anti-racism. This recognition is a crucial step in understanding how racism works and how anti-racism can exist.

Race has a fascinating and revealing history, about which hundreds of volumes have been written; as such, I can only treat it schematically here and have no pretense of being comprehensive. The contemporary discourse on race emerged alongside European conquest. It found scientific expression in the ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism that came to prominence in the wake of European and American imperialism as a justification for colonial domination. Race was the scientific rationale for the slave trade and subsequent colonial project. The white man’s burden in this evolutionist paradigm was to bring civilization to the lesser races in order to help them become more like Europeans. The eugenics movement and early anthropology sought to prove racial differences, making broad claims about the aptitudes or savagery of colonized people.

In this history, the relationship between knowledge and power is integral to the articulation of difference. In creating knowledge about others, colonial authorities, and scientists writing at the time, exerted their power to define the boundaries of colonial societies; this knowledge was both a product of, and means of, justifying the power relations of imperialism. Racial knowledge was an exertion of the dominant group’s power to create stereotypes of their subjects. In this discourse, physical differences were exaggerated and made into the definitive characteristics of essentialist categories with clear-cut, fixed, and dangerous boundaries. In colonial societies, these boundaries were highly policed by a wide range of social and cultural taboos, not to mention violence. In the United States, they were literally policed, being the basis of legalized discrimination through the 1960s. This history reveals that racism cannot be conceptually severed from race.

Despite the major strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, it would be misleading to think that racism ended with changes in the law. The recurring debates about affirmative action and immigration, as well as the racialization of poverty, violence, and incarceration, indicate that race and racism continue to be major issues in the United States. Racism is part of the lived reality of all residents of the US. We live it when we watch local news, when we buy certain products, when we attend homogeneous universities, and when we think with stereotypes. Socialization teaches everyone the racist thought patterns that shape our everyday actions and interactions. It teaches us to think about people in terms of race, a concept that is itself a product of a particular racist history of power and domination.

But the answer to these problems is not to say deny them, saying, “I don’t think in terms of race” and thus separate oneself from a racist social order. Socialization makes it impossible to live in the US and not be profoundly affected by racist ideologies. Race-blindness, then, is simply turning a blind eye to social problems and inequalities. Ignoring the problems will not make them go away. To really tackle racism, we need to think critically about our actions, ourselves, and our communities. Their needs to be more discussion about racism that takes its omnipresence into account, openly acknowledging the pervasiveness of racist ideologies that inform us, as well as the institutionalized racism that perpetuates inequalities. It is time for self-reflective hand-raising to replace accusatory finger-pointing in debates about racism.

We can’t think that at some point in the future there will be a fair world in which no racism exists, resigning ourselves to the fact that we don’t live in such a world. All of our actions and thoughts are the constitutive building blocks of the (actually existing) world. We rebuild the status quo daily. Alternatively, we could use our actions to build something radically new. Anti-racism isn’t just about having a goal, it’s about living in such a way as to make that goal a reality. It’s about process. Of course the racism that informs everything in our society also informs that process and our attempts to build anti-racist community, but if we recognize this influence (instead of pretending that racism doesn’t exist by saying that we aren’t racist) it is possible to minimize it and actively take steps toward deconstructing it.

Perhaps it is time to reclaim the phrase, “I’m not a racist but…” and absorb it into the process of anti-racism: “I’m not a racist, but racism informs my worldview and shaped the society I live in. I’m not a racist, but I benefit from racism everyday. I’m not a racist, but…”

* On the first person plural: I often ask, when reading texts that that employ the we/us formation, who exactly is included? The answer, in this case, is anyone who feels an affinity for the sentiment expressed in this essay.

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Jacob Doherty is an MA student in Anthropology – the hand wringingest of disciplines – interested in life and times in the post-colony.