Last time, I acknowledged that all forms of prejudice are complex, and cannot be seen as corresponding one-to-one with each other.
However, while making these qualifications, I also took the risk of drawing an analogy between racism and sexism.
And as is well known, racism and sexism are two forms of prejudice and hatred that motivated Dylan Roof’s murder of nine innocent people in Charleston.
…Setting up such a low bar of behaviour (“at least I’m not a misogynistic swine like them!”) risks discounting the possibility that all crude or vicious prejudice may be merely the bottom end of a very vast decline (if there even is a bottom, which is questionable).
Similar things can be said of any prejudice.
And of course, racism is no exception.
“All white people in the USA or UK are complicit with racism, but it doesn’t mean we are all “bad,” that we are all horrible to people who are not white.”
Indeed. But if this is true, then we must all be individually responsible for our complicity, and not hide behind excuses, pointing out what “all the other bad guys” do.
In the quote above, I did not take the risk of attempting to provide an exhaustive list of countries where white people are complicit with racism.
Nor, indeed, did I discuss other forms of complicity with racism, such as the complicity of some ethnically Japanese people with racism against Ainu people, or of some ethnically Turkish people with racism against Kurdish people.
However, I did explicitly mention the USA itself, where Dylan Roof committed the Charleston murders. I also mentioned the UK, where I am from.
And in speaking of the UK, it is very important for me to strive to avoid making an exception of myself here.
For, even though I would be very reluctant to consider myself a racist, I am certain that at times in my life, I have spoken and written things that are racist by implication.
And anyone tempted to absolve ourselves from having done so must remember that ‘racism by implication’ is actually not as rare a phenomenon as people think.
Provided, of course, one remembers that racism and other prejudices are sometimes expressed in various relatively subtle forms.
After all, the notion that racist communication refers only to very crude and vicious forms of communication has been criticized very heavily for decades; but many people still resist it.
Or, even if we do not resist it, we are not fully consistent in acknowledging this uncomfortable notion, in our words and deeds alike, all the time.
So perhaps part of the difficulty people have in admitting we have ever said something racist is the fear of stigma. There are famous examples of people speaking out of turn in a very serious manner, who have then lost their jobs and reputations on account of making offensive and unjustifiable comments.
Like the British soccer manager Ron Atkinson, for example. See intriguing interview.
Actions have consequences, and words are actions.
However, comments of the kind I have just alluded to are often very far along a very broad spectrum indeed.
So, the prospect of admitting we have said something racist, or indeed something that is prejudiced in any manner whatsoever, should not be paralyzing.
If anything, it should be something that brings energy to us, instead of enervating us. Whoever we are, and whoever we are speaking to.
And if I am a white person living in the UK, then I am surely complicit with the dominant order in various ways.
To those who feel uncomfortable with being seen as complicit, I wish to emphasize that what I have just said does not mean that every white person in the UK is ‘bad’ or ‘evil,’ or that being white is in itself a ‘tragedy’ or ‘misfortune.’
No. It merely means that I, and every other white person in the UK, have to be ethically serious, and reflect on what we do and say.
The same can be said of the USA, and of many other contexts.
And it is also true that some white people have other aspects of our identity, that are not relatively dominant. There are many possibilities.
But none of these possibilities, in themselves, should be seen as contrary to a serious and rigorous ethic of accountability.
Another key consideration is that having one or more aspect of one’s identity that is relatively dominant is actually an ambivalent situation, and not inevitably ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ in every respect. Inequality is a great evil, but how one responds to the power dynamics is very important.
On the one hand, one can decide to abuse this power by domineering over others.
Or, one can decide to exert a positive influence.
Or, sad to say, there is always the last temptation, which is to do both….
To wit, becoming a paternalist who speaks for others, instead of speaking with them.
Hence, the patronizing rhetoric of “giving a voice to those who can’t speak up for themselves.”
The latter condescending sentiment is, at best, astounding naivety. At worst, it is outright cynical opportunism.
But is each one of us able to ask ourselves:
“Which one of the these three attitudes is mine?”
Ultimately, many people in the USA are mourning the lives of innocent people murdered by hatred. Murdered by a hateful individual.
And this crime has a context. A disturbing context. In every country where racism exists today (which, painful as it is to say, is every country on earth), it is high-minded defensiveness that risks perpetuating the hatred that led to the murder of the innocent people in Charleston.
To wit, the defensiveness of people who do not hate people of an ethnicity other than their own, but who still cannot bear to acknowledge the capacity of prejudice to penetrate the darkest corners of the hearts of everyone, whether of good or of disreputable character.
It has been well said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
But the generous and well-meaning sentiments of people who may not necessarily be of “bad character” is also the road to Hell…
As some of the tragically-but-culpably-defensive responses to Charleston has once more demonstrated.
What better prospects the future may hold is not yet clear.
Further reading in the US media: