[Note: In 2005, this piece was originally entitled “How Not To Be Insane When Accused of Racism”. I changed the title in 2011. The wording of the quote from Prometheus 6, however, isn’t mine and so I haven’t changed it. Also, the URL contains the original wording, and I don’t want to nuke all the links to this post by changing the URL. :-( My sincere apologies to disabled people who object to the wording. –Amp, 2011]
Prometheus 6 wrote something that has stuck in my head ever since:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but “racist” is the only word that makes white people as crazy as “nigger” makes Black people.
It’s true – a lot of white people, hell, most white people turn ten different shades of pissed off and shoot steam out their ears if someone suggests they’ve said something racist. And if you make a point of talking about race and racism, sooner or later someone will accuse you of being racist, fairly or unfairly.
Frankly, I think we whites – especially, we whites who think of ourselves as against racism – have to get over it. So here it is, in honor of “blog against racism day” (okay, it’s now the morning after blog against racism day, so I’m slow):
Amp’s Guide to Not Being a Doofus When Accused of Racism.
1) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don’t burn bridges. If someone has just said “I think that sounds a bit racist,” don’t mistake it for them saying “you’re Klu Klux Klan racist scum” (which is a mistake an amazing number of white people make). For the first ten or twenty seconds any response you make will probably come from your defensiveness, not from your brain, so probably you shouldn’t say whatever first comes to your mind.
2) Take the criticism seriously – do not dismiss it without thinking about it. Especially if the criticism comes from a person of color – people of color in our society tend by necessity to be more aware of racism than most Whites are, and pick up on things most Whites overlook. (On the other hand, don’t put the people of color in the room in the position of being your advocate or judge.)
3) Don’t make it about you. Usually the thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Especially if you’re in a meeting or something, resist your desire to turn the meeting into a seminar on How Against Racism You Are. The subject of the conversation is probably not “your many close Black friends, and your sincere longstanding and deep abhorrence of racism.”
Think of it as if someone points out that you need to wipe your nose because you’ve got a big glob of snot hanging out. The thing to do is say “oh, excuse me,” wipe your nose, and move on. Insisting that everyone pat you on the back and reassure you that they realize you don’t always have snot hanging from your nose, before the conversation can be allowed to move forward, is not productive.
4) Let Occasional Unfair Accusations Roll Off Your Back. Sometimes, even after you’ve given it serious thought, you’ll come to the conclusion that a criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don’t insist that everyone agree with you. Don’t enlist the people of color in the room to certify you as Officially Non-Racist. Don’t bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has forgotten about the original discussion. In other words, see point #3.
Shorter Ampersand: Don’t make it a whacking huge deal if you say something racist, or something others perceive as racist. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking, if need be.