“I’m Sure He’s Not Racist” — Why Not?

not racist

I swore I would stay politically neutral and as as silent as possible during the first year (maybe longer) on the tenure-track.  (Well, kinda.)  I am brazen enough to come to the job with specific plans for change, but wise enough to know that I need to learn the political climate first.  But, damn if it doesn’t seem impossible to avoid political battles despite your best efforts.

With one political landmine that I accidentally stepped on, I alluded that it was not clear that an invited speaker holds favorable views about one of several marginalized communities about which she spoke.  The only defense against that allegation I heard was 1) her work was not really about those communities (which made it worse, in my opinion) and 2) “I’m sure she’s not intolerant.”

There… that right there!  I have heard on many occasions the hopeful assertion that “I’m sure she isn’t racist” or “he probably didn’t mean it that way (i.e., sexist).  It seems our default assumption is that people are good at heart and don’t have a “racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. bone in their body.”  Someone has to be undeniably prejudiced and frequently practice discrimination in order to be beyond our threshold of acceptable bigotry.

Well, as a marginalized person, I have to say that assuming every new person I meet is not — specifically, in my case — racist and/or homophobic is dangerous.  I have been assuming the best in others all of my life, only to find I am punched in the gut by subtle bigotry because my defenses are down.  I went to graduate school unprepared for the microaggressions, assumptions, and discrimination I faced there (on and off campus).  Even with repeat offenders, I still did not (and, to some extent could not) eliminate them from my life entirely in order to protect myself.  Here I am now, starting a new job, and I am making the same mistake.

Beyond failing to protect myself, assuming others are prejudice-free and practice equality is naive in the face of empirical evidence — both published research and personal experience — that most people are bigoted to some degree.  I have few genuine, problem-free connections with other humans for that reason.  Oh, she seems pretty open on race issues, but trivializes my experiences with homophobia.  He and I feel a strong solidarity around queer issues, but bringing up male privilege is the best way to end that conversation.  Telling myself that most people aren’t bigots is lying to myself when I know in the back of my head the reality; I am naively falling for the “a few bad apples” mentality.

Focusing on who is racist and who isn’t, for example, misplaces attention to individuals within the larger social system of racism.  I call it the “racist hot potato” game, where we make futile efforts to discern who is a racist and why.  All while we leave in place the systemic marginalization of people of color and privileging of white people, and ignoring the daily microaggressions and threats of violence against racial and ethnic minorities.  “I’m sure he meant no harm” let’s both an individual who benefits from that system of oppression, and oppression itself, off of the hook.  You are then left with your doubt and now dismissed accusations — maybe even the counter-accusation that you are hypersensitive, petty, or even a bigot yourself.

So, in thinking about oppression in systemic terms, I should be less focused on individual oppressors.  People are a large part of the problem, but it is futile to focus just on individuals.  And, it is dangerous.  So, for my survival, I am no longer assuming people are not bigots.  Ideally, I will take one of the best pieces of advice I have received lately: have no expectations.  (You won’t be disappointed!)  At my most pessimistic, I can take the “prejudiced until proven innocent” approach with each new person I meet.  I just wish it had not taken nearly three decades and lots of disappointment with humanity to get to this point.

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