how should i respond to everyday racism?

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.

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4 thoughts on “how should i respond to everyday racism?

  1. Dear Fiona,
    Im in the train, travelling to Kassel and I “jumped” into your post.
    It is interesting how you describe, comment and reflect on what happened. I am usually really reluctant when it comes to use such “popular” words like racism. The question is: to what extent do u think the man sitting there is a racist, or precisely did he racism on other people, saying those sentences??
    Look, we should try to analyse and explain rather than “labeling”…. even if it is a hard work!
    In my opinion, it has to do with stereotypes and prejudices, which are mostly based on media, or as u said generalizations, based on just one single experience.
    Have a look at this ted talk
    “The danger of a single story”.
    Take care!

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Donatella.

      Here are my two general starting points:

      First, the structures and institutions we all live in are racist; as a result, although we are not born racist, we become so, thus the need to actively and consciously counter and ‘unlearn’ prejudices that we have learned.

      Second, racism, racial bias and discrimination, and racial micro-aggressions are not called out often enough. Overt racism is relative easy to identify and denounce; casual racism or everyday racism, on the other hand, can be hard to spot and even harder to fight. This is perhaps why I make a conscious effort to label it thus when I see it. I am tired of giving people the benefit of the doubt, just as I am tired of hearing well-intentioned, ‘progressive’/’liberal’/’left-wing’ (etc.) people defend such incidents with statements like “He was just trying to be friendly…” “just trying to be nice..” “..didn’t mean it that way…” etc.

      Something doesn’t have to be intended as racist for it to be racist. And I think when it is, it is important to label it that way so that we see it for what it is, so that we can try to analyse it more clearly.

      I confessthat I didn’t put very much time or thought into this blog post. However, as I noted on Facebook, it wasn’t meant as an analysis but merely a description of the problem, namely that I heard this comment, it upset me, I should’ve said something, but didn’t.

      Thanks for the TED talk recommendation – I’ll take a look later!

  2. I think that the problem is that generalization is easier, in that sense less mentally straining, than making the effort to differentiate. That said, it is as much a generalization to call the guy on the bench racist without having reflected or spoken (to him) about his thoughts and intentions. He might just as well be inexperienced, or driven by external “opinions”, rather than by his own encounters. I, sometimes, notice this behavior in myself, and when I do I reflect on it. Other times, I don’t notice, and am happy if somebody points my shortcomings out to be able to reflect on them. You are somebody who did that for me, and I think you should do that non-judgmentally with strangers/others. Small steps towards a more open minded world.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jens. I want to clarify something, because both comments here suggest that I’m calling the man racist. I never did – I called his comment racist. I’m not even judging him per se, I’m rather judging my response to his comment.

      That being said, we’re all racist because we live in a world of racist structures and we absorb it as we grow up, and therefore we have a responsibility to consciously fight it every day. Things and people can be racist without intending to be. Intention is not a necessary criterion, so it’s possible to say or do something racist without intending to be mean. I don’t judge people for having prejudices, because we all have prejudices. I judge them and myself if they/I don’t make an effort to counter those prejudices.

      It is, as you said, absolutely mentally straining. If it were easy there’d be no need for this conversation :) We could move on to addressing overt, malicious racism, which is easier to identify, name, and fight.

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