Sign at Black Lives Matter rally in Calgary on June 1. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Why being not racist’ is racist

When you do nothing, you are complicit.

Racism. Ugh. I bet you’re tired of reading about it. Well, I’m tired of writing about it. And talking about it. And living it. And feeling angry and sad and hurt by it.

And while my Chinese-Canadian experience doesn’t even compare to the injustices against Black Americans—and Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples—I can’t just shut up.

We can no longer pretend that racism isn’t real or that it’s not happening in Canada or that we’ve made so much progress. More frequently than not, racism isn’t overt and making headline news. Most of it is hidden and small, sometimes barely detectable so that it’s all too often dismissed.

This barrage of tiny digs (known as microaggressions)—a look here, a “you people” there, a subtle sidestep of Asian people during this time of COVID-19—serve to uphold racism as much as the violent acts that have caught our collective attention at the moment.

The murder of George Floyd has not only sounded the alarm for how deep racism runs, but it’s also amplified the complexities of how we respond to racism.

Many people who say they are not racist are upset by the protests, condemning Black people for increased violence. But why are they more concerned about damage to buildings than to human lives—specifically Black lives?

Racism is not limited to individual actions; it is institutionalized within a society.

Just prior to the protests in the U.S., I crowdsourced for questions about race and/or racism or experiences relating to how to better handle racism. As I parsed through the racist experiences people shared—either as targets or bystanders, it became clear there isn’t a consensus on what racism is.

Several white people shared overt racist incidents while Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) mostly discussed how there’s a perpetual and taxing uncertainty about whether things happen because of their skin colour. Some also asked practical questions like, what skin colour emojis should I use and is it ever okay to describe someone by their skin colour?

All of this is relevant to racism, but highlights the greater need to address what racism actually is. Until we’re all on the same page, it’s hard to have constructive dialogue about it.

So what does constitute racism? How do we know if something is racist? And what can we do about it? There are no easy answers. Racism is complex. And so too are solutions against it.

Racism exists on a number of levels from systemic to interpersonal, and intersects with gender and language.

Breaking down racism

Racism, in simple terms, means treating someone differently—usually badly—because of their race. By this definition, racism is based on individual actions—so if you don’t do this, you are not racist.

The problem with this understanding (or more accurately, with having only this understanding) is that, in reality, racism is not limited to individual actions; it is institutionalized within a society.

The opposite of racist’ isn’t not racist.’ It is antiracist.’

Ibram X. Kendi,

Author of How to Be an Antiracist

If you exist within North American society, you are part of a system built to perpetuate racism, based on a colonial history. And that system is still in place today.

Canadian society began with white Europeans taking over the land and its resources, and relegating Indigenous peoples to reserves. Our institutions—schools, banks, courthouses, churches—were built by white people to keep white people in charge. This was especially critical as more immigrants arrived in Canada.

Racism in North America is about white power. And this is why reverse racism isn’t possible.

Of course, BIPOC can be hatefully prejudiced against white people, but the difference is, they have no real systemic power to cause harm against white people, save for hurt feelings.

Because BIPOC are systematically oppressed, white people hold an advantage. This is white privilege. But white privilege doesn’t mean white people don’t suffer hardships; it means that the colour of their skin isn’t one of those hardships.

I know that most white people don’t believe themselves to be of a superior race. But the reality is, simply existing as a white person means you benefit from the system whether you know it or not.

That means it’s impossible to be “not racist.”

Ibram X. Kendi explains this in his book, How to Be an Antiracist:

What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’… One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.

Acknowledging your privilege is the first step to being antiracist.

When you do nothing, you are complicit in racism. And having the option to do nothing is privilege. Acknowledging your privilege is the first step to being antiracist. As research professor Brené Brown said after the Charlottesville protests in 2017:

“Our collective story in the United States is a story of white supremacy. And we have not owned it. And so, it owns us because we have not had the courage to step up and say, ‘This is the truth about where we come from and what we’ve done’… the pain and discomfort of owning that story is tiny compared to the pain and suffering of living out that story.”

It’s not an easy thing to “own” your privilege, especially if you genuinely can’t see how being white has benefited you.

Even trying to talk about racism with my white husband and close friends is emotionally gruelling. The first instinct for many white people is to become defensive at the very mention of white privilege. No one wants to be called racist.

But understand, we don’t want your guilt; we want your awareness.

White as 'normal'

White is the standard by which we all live. White people are disproportionately represented on TV and films, in top jobs of government and corporations, and in positions of wealth and power.

People tend to think of white first so that it’s normalized, and everyone else is “not normal” or “other.” So calling white people “white” is considered an affront, while BIPOC are nearly always identified by their race.

You don’t have to understand; you just have to listen.

Growing up in Calgary in the 1980s, my family was one of three Chinese families in our neighbourhood. We were known as “the Chinese people.” It wasn’t said in a derogatory way (at least not generally), but it was how we were identified.

My race has been my most common identifier. Even now as an adult, I feel like I have to say I’m Asian to be seen. And yet, not once has a white person ever described themselves to me as white—and I’ll bet they never thought to.

I’m proud to be a Chinese Canadian. But I am offended when it’s the first or only thing people see about me.

So what’s a white person to do?

If you genuinely care about other people, and believe in a just and equitable society, regardless of skin colour, you will do the antiracist work to address your own biases and those of others.

This work means truly educating yourself—reading and watching the works of BIPOC creators. That means having uncomfortable conversations and truly listening to what BIPOC tell you. It means calling others out on their racist actions (and not just strangers you’ll never see again, but also friends and family) and supporting BIPOC in those experiences. It means not telling BIPOC that their protests are wrong.

The end result of racism is to cause harm to BIPOC. When you wonder if something is racist, ask yourself: Does it diminish BIPOC? Does it threaten their safety, their livelihood, their health (mental and physical), their access to all of the things that white people have?

By doing this exhausting and painful antiracist work, you make it possible to hear and, more importantly, believe the experiences of BIPOC.

At the end of the day, dear white people, we need you to be more than “not racist.” You don’t have to understand; you just have to listen. The power is still in your hands.

Colleen Seto is a writer and editor born and raised in Calgary. Her work has appeared in Avenue Calgary, WestJet Magazine, Today's Parent and National Geographic Books.

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