It’s fucked up how much and how often I talk and think about everyday racism, but when I actually encounter it have no nicely thought-out action ready. Whether it’s directed at me or at others, I act like a deer in the headlights: freeze. Silently will the other person(s) to become distracted by something else. Wonder if I should physically remove myself from the situation. Try and fail to think of words. Definitely fail (not even try) to say something.
So yeah, concrete situation: today I wanted to sit on a bench by the river but all the benches were occupied. One only had one person sitting there, so I politely asked if the space was still free. He said yes, and moved over to make space. He told me not to ask next time and just sit down. I said oh, I didn’t know, maybe he was saving the seat for someone else, I didn’t want to be impolite. He kind of shrugged off the idea of having to be polite, but then kind of conceded that asking was okay, too. And then the punch to the gut – he added, yeah, maybe asking was good, some people don’t ask, mainly Arabs.
In my head I was thinking where the hell did that just come from. But I had no idea what to say. Nothing. The second I heard his comment I found it racist, and I was disturbed that he could make such sweeping generalisations, but I didn’t know what to say. Something about other members of other ethnic groups also sometimes not asking before sitting down??? But who the fuck has the stats on that? Any variation on “Not all Arabs…” or “Not only Arabs…” seemed and still seems unhelpful at best. “How did you know they were Arabs?” would’ve easily invited more racist remarks.
I think maybe I could’ve and should’ve ignored the content of his statement and addressed the racism directly: “Isn’t it racist to make general claims about one group of people?” But what if he’d responded by saying that he has personally experienced situations where specifically Arabs don’t ask before sitting down? I can’t prove that he’s wrong. But maybe that’s beside the point. The point is that I should’ve said something, but I didn’t, and now yet another person said something hurtful today without realising it because the other person (me) didn’t point it out to them.
This is, seriously, no joke, exactly how racism and xenophobia persist: when good men and women say and do nothing. Yes I know, racism is structural, racism is laws, policies, institutions, racism is procedures and processes, racism is entire sectors and industries, racism is not people and their words or actions. But people and their words or actions can still be racIST (adjective).
And of course my (non-Arab?) privilege is that the only damage done to me personally by his words is simply that they put me in an awkward situation, I responded poorly (by not responding), it bummed me out.