Let’s preface this blog with a disclaimer; I love creating villains. To create a villain is to bask in the ideology that I am right and that I have been wronged. It truly is a beautiful space where absolutely no thinking occurs, and I can spend the currency of my intellect picking dirt from under my nails. Wonderful, right? So, it’s natural that it was these villains that I was drawn to when I first started thinking and writing about race. It was the guy in the two-tone shirt flying the old South African flag in his backyard. It was friend who used the “K” word. It was the woman who could voice her hate in hushed tones to me because even though I wasn’t white, I wasn’t black either. I am drawn to these overt racists for a reason; they’re easy to spot and they’re still arrogant and ignorant enough to not think about what is socially acceptable before they speak. They are the ones we love to hate because there is nothing to debate, the burden of proof falls away and we can look at them with disgust and horror from our vantage point of superiority. These are a special bread of human, no doubt. And that we take notice of them is great, we should. They should inspire anger and conversation. But I wonder about the rest of us, the everyday racists, the ones who navigate social settings carefully, the ones who know just what to say and to who. Never the villains nor the heroes, these are the everyday racists. And they’re us, all of us. They’re harder to spot because they’re good people, they are mothers, they are friends, they are you and me. Not ready to believe me yet? Let me introduce you to one character you may recognise, the “good” guy aka the benevolent racist.
What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person?
I’ve met him. I’ve been horrified by some of the things he has said. I’ve laughed at his jokes. He’s sat across the dinner table from me. I’ve been impressed by the compassion he showed his gardener and his domestic worker. I’ve thought he was a good guy. I’ve thought he was a bad guy. I’m beginning to believe he is both. Here’s the issue we have with the “good” guy, he actually seems to be one and we like him. So, he can’t possibly be racist, right? Racists are terrible humans, they are always the villains of the story, they believe that pigmentation should serve to create masters and slaves. They are ugly, mean spirited people. But what if that wasn’t all that they were? What if that was the truth, but only a part of the truth? What if a racist could also be a good mother, a caring friend, a charitable person? What if that person you saw giving money to the beggar on the street was racist? What if the person standing next to you volunteering at the soup kitchen was racist? What if people you loved dearly, people in your family, were racist? What if you looked at yourself, examined your thoughts and actions and found bias because of race? Would you no longer be a “good” person? Would everyone stop being good people? Tough questions, I know, but it’s questions we must ask.
It’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions
I raise the point of the benevolent racist because it’s easy to hide bias behind good intentions and quite frankly, I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated because every time a benevolent racist is given benefit of the doubt, it is a missed opportunity to course correct. I’m frustrated that we’ve protected these benevolent racists in our social circles, in our families and at work. I’m also frustrated by people who tell me how “good” they are, or who try to prove that they “don’t see colour” when I call them out on their bias. It’s great that you’re putting your domestic worker’s kids through school, it really is, but sorry buddy, that does not automatically cure you of racism. I think it’s wonderful that you have a black friend, less wonderful when you use said friendship as some sort of a “get out of jail free card”, though. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that you’re a bad person, you’re probably not, but I am saying that you’re ignorant or worst still, you’re arrogant enough not to know you’re ignorant. But I guess what I am most frustrated about is the well-meaning racist, the good guy who can’t keep the condescension out of his voice, the guy who tells you that if people weren’t so lazy, they’d be able to make something of themselves. It’s also the same guy who believes he made it out of “poverty” by sheer will and determination alone. It’s easy to pick this guy out. He’s often the one giving well-meaning advice, oblivious to the anger or blank stares he’s getting in return. It’s that guy that really gets me angry. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a benevolent racist always believes he’s entitled to weigh in on a conversation that he probably understands very little about. Maybe I’m just an angry brown woman and I should learn to listen when men talk to me lest I decide to form my own opinions. Apologies for making this a male thing, be sure the “good” guy was meant to refer to both men and women alike, I guess my recent interactions with white men talking to me about race and feminism has skewed my writing a bit (read flared my temper).
If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional
As I write this I wonder if there is a cure. Is there a cure for the “good” guy or the benevolent racist? I suppose to start thinking about a cure, one first needs to start by acknowledging the problem and I guess we all have a part to play in this cure. For me the message is clear, whether you think of yourself as “good” or not, whether you have good intentions or otherwise, outcomes and consequences matter. They matter far more than what we think of ourselves or what we wanted to achieve. So, I present to you this idea that is as startling in its simplicity as it is difficult to do, when faced with a situation where you see bias, confront it. When faced with a situation when someone calls you out on your bias, listen. When I say confront it, decide for yourself what that means, even if it is an acknowledgement to yourself about your own discomfort, it’s better than ignoring it. When I say listen, I mean, don’t defend yourself, ask the person talking to say more, maybe take some time to think about your actions. If someone thinks your actions or words have something to do with race, it probably does, be sure that it’s not your job to convince them that they’re delusional. If someone says something that makes you feel guilty about your privilege that’s on you, not them. You do not get a get out of jail free card no matter who you are or what wonderful things you’re doing with your life.
I don’t believe that we are either good or bad. We are entire beings who sometimes do good things and who sometimes don’t. We are more than the sum of those actions. But, for goodness sake, if you must insist on being the “good” guy or protecting one, then at least change your definition of what that means. A real good guy is one who is able to acknowledge his or her own bias. A real good guy knows that he will mis-step. A real good guy knows that she will get it wrong sometimes and who isn’t afraid of holding up the mirror to herself. Most importantly, a real good guy isn’t willing to hide behind being the “good” guy, he knows that won’t get us anywhere.