Why I’m not ‘non-racist’

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I have a piece titled ‘Love and the Other’ in the new edition (#26) of The Lifted Brow, reviewing the film Lilting and the questions it raises around the ethics of being the White partner in a gay relationship with an Asian man. From the piece:

The film opens in the aftermath of Kai’s death. As it plays out, we see that scene three times, differently inflected each time. We meet Kai in Richard’s memory as well, and it becomes apparent these are not simple flashbacks: there is imagination and longing in the mix.

Knowing that Junn speaks no English and learning she has a suitor, Richard organises to visit with an interpreter, “To help them understand each other.” In so doing, he reveals himself to Junn’s questions – why are you here? – and must decide how much to tell her about his relationship with her only son.

In the piece I review my own history of relationships with Asian men, and why I identify as a racist person with anti-racist political commitments:

Thinking back to the poor little arsehole that was my late teen self, I had bought into the Hollywood notion that a non-white partner could help me ‘get in touch’ with all the things white people believe they have lost since the Industrial Revolution, including: sex, embodiment, eating and cooking food, rhythm, dancing, style, spirituality, emotionality, family, community, and connection with the land.

It would be a lie to say I learned over time how to be non-racist; it would be more accurate to say that, as I learned over the years how to better manage my ego and emotions, my espoused anti-racism became less bullshit.

The Brow has only been out a few days and I’ve already been asked about the point I’m making here.

I’ve had various barnies on twitter with people who asserted non-racist identity while at the same time espousing either racist views or support for policies that assert and reproduce value hierarchies based on race.

Reflecting on my absolute confidence as a young gay man that I was ‘one of the good ones’, I have come to acknowledge that I was brought up racist, I was educated racist, I live in a racist society, I am a white person from a colonial heritage (Dutch) and, with all that in mind, it would be ridiculous to claim that I am not racist.

I see that acknowledgment as consistent with my anti-racist politics: it’s a necessary first step towards identifying the unconscious attitudes and thoughtless practices that, via my own behaviour, reproduce racism.

And I’ve seen anti-racist organisations where all their non-white staff are casuals, where non-white staff are discouraged from applying for management roles because ‘your English isn’t good enough’, where white staff with anti-racist politics spoke louder and more slowly to non-white staff who spoke English as a first language.

If we weren’t so desperate to other racists as bad, ignorant people, we’d be in a better place to reflect on our own contribution to racist structures in our personal relationships and workplace life.  Without this, our efforts to change the behaviour of those other people are inherently unconvincing.

Notes

  1. If you do happen to get a copy of the Brow #26 — it’s a lovely edition! — you may find my contribution reads a bit disjointedly.  There were originally rows of asterisks indicating the section breaks, but they have disappeared.  Feel free to imagine them wherever it would help my writing to make sense.  Or you could be like my flatmate, recalling Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, and imagine them as rows of little arseholes.  This would be thematically consistent.
  2. My thinking around this issue owes a debt to Australian and New Zealand writers and thinkers on Indigenous health and cultural safety, particularly Prof Linda Tuhiwai Smith, A/Prof Dennis McDermott, Siv Parker, Luke Pearson, and Peter Waples-Crowe, as well as non-Indigenous teachers like Dave Sjoberg.
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2 thoughts on “Why I’m not ‘non-racist’

  1. I loved this. “If we weren’t so desperate to other racists as bad, ignorant people, we’d be in a better place to reflect on our own contribution to racist structures in our personal relationships and workplace life.” I’ve seen another version of this played out in the White Ribbon movement, where men pillory those who are violent against women, angry that they could ‘do that’ to women, unable to see it as part of a spectrum of behaviour they sit upon. Othering the bad bits is so much easier.

  2. Yep, this all really resonates with me. Thanks for putting it so succinctly. In my experience many white people are very reluctant to acknowledge the racism we inevitably carry. Also strongly agree about the othering of those ‘bad, ignorant’ racists – usually it’s just classism playing out & helps no-one.

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