No, I will not be “civil”
It’s the start of a new year, and people everywhere have been reflecting on 2018 and what we as people can do better this year. After reading several opinion pieces and comments online, I get the feeling there is a lot of agreement on what should be number one on this list for 2019; we should all listen more to others and respect the views of people we do not agree with.
Well, I was planning to do more of the opposite.
In November last year, I was visiting an old friend over the weekend. Saturday night we had some drinks, and some other friends of his that I have never met before came over as well. My friend is a Person of Colour born in a European country, and at one point during the evening he and his white male friend from work started talking about the time they first met.
My friend reminded his colleague about one of the first questions he had asked when they met — the all so common “where are you from?” When my friend answered with the name of the European city where he is born and raised, the colleague did not fully accept it. My friend then, being used to this question and the reaction to the answer (unfortunately), pretended that he did not get what the colleague was getting at and enjoyed the confused (and somewhat uncomfortable) look on his face.
Being reminded of this at the party, the colleague laughed a little and said that he still did not see anything wrong with this question. He asked because he was curious and interested. He didn’t mean anything bad with it, so if my friend or others didn’t like it, it was their problem. Some people even said it was racist — how crazy!
“Well, the idea that to be European you have to be white is racist”, I said. “He (my friend) is born and raised here just like you and I — so why won't you accept his answer as you would mine? Who gave you the right to define ‘who he is’ for him?”
“Ahh, you are being overdramatic! I am not racist.”
I have heard that so many times before. As white people we love to make it about “racist or not racist”, “bad or good” — but it’s so much more complicated than that. We need to ask ourselves if our thoughts, words, and actions contribute to the upholding and reproduction of the racist social structures already in place in our society.
So sitting there on the couch I was trying to think fast, and asked if instead of centering himself and his “good” intentions, would it not be more useful to focus on the outcome of his questions, statements, and actions? What about actually listening to the people who experience racism?
Well, this question only led the guy to bring up “reversed racism”, or so-called “racism against white people”. Then he started to talk about the racism he had experienced in South Africa… Where to even begin?
The conversation went on and I tried to explain to him what racism actually is (and that he for sure has never experienced it). But he wasn’t interested in understanding anything. I was getting angrier and angrier, the guy was getting more and more entertained, and the people around us were getting more and more uncomfortable. I knew they wanted us to put the conversation to an end, their looks felt like physical pokes on my skin.
And I succumbed. I did. The guy gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder and said “let’s just agree to disagree”. The people around us nodded with relief and refilled their glasses — it’s all about respecting each other's opinions, after all.
I don’t think I would have been able to change this guy’s behavior or the way he understands racism during this one talk, even if it had gone on for longer, so that is not where my regrets lie. I regret leaving him with the idea that it was ok for us to agree to disagree, that his opinion was valid and that I should be ok with, and even respect (!), the things he said.
Furthermore, this is just one example of many. I have plenty more examples involving friends, colleagues, and family members. Examples where one person says something racist, and the rest of us let it pass with minimal objection for the sake of keeping the peace. It’s what we have been taught is the right thing to do, and it’s hard to unlearn.
But I am not writing this looking for people to tell me “yes, it's hard and sometimes it’s ok to step back”. Because I know it is not. It’s not ok, because I am white.
No matter how hard I find it, it is a million times harder for PoC to fight this fight. And they don’t have the same choice to step down — they are living this fight every day. As a white person, it is my job to talk to other white people about racism, it is my job to let them know when they say and do things that are not ok. It is my job to make it crystal clear it won't be accepted. And if you are white it is your job too.
So let’s make it our goal to not be “civil” and not to listen to people saying, doing, and reinforcing racist shit. Let’s make it our goal to get angry, kill the mood, and shut down the party if we have to!