This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics:
A white friend and I recently had an argument about racism in Australia. We were in a restaurant, and it started off with us talking about whether Barack Obama is black or white or both. One thing led to another, and I was soon trying to explain how subtle racism works.
She and her other white friend of course thought racism was only limited to a select few idiots. I tried to suggest that it was widespread and systemic, but I didn’t have the right vocab. She and her white friend were offended, and she started pulling out all the derailment tactics you can think of. (My mouth fell wide open the first time I read Derailing for Dummies.) She started pushing my buttons real bad. When I tried to describe various racist incidents, she bombarded me with questions like: “Maybe it was about gender? Maybe they had a bad day? How do you know it wasn’t you? Maybe they’re just jerks.” Etc , etc, etc.
This went on till things got quite . . . very tense. I was visibly upset (or so I thought). The ultimate point was when she said, ‘I like your skin. Your skin is beautiful. Look at mine, it’s ugly.’
I was furious when she said this. ‘I KNOW MY SKIN IS NICE! I DON’T NEED YOU TO TELL ME!’
I was almost yelling. I nearly stood up to go, but then I realized that I had to drive them home. I don’t remember ever being so angry with a friend.
The next day, I visited her as I usually do on the weekends. I was desperate to talk over what happened the night before. I felt like there was a knot in my heart and in our friendship, and I wanted to unknot it. We began talking about our earlier discussion, and with the help of her poc husband, she soon managed to ‘tame’ me. She then tried to convince me that 'perhaps I was perceiving things wrongly’.
It didn’t matter how many times I asked (at times with tears visibly rolling down my cheeks), ‘So are you saying that I’m imagining racism?’ She would respond, ‘No, I’m just saying that the way you’re perceiving things might be wrong.’
She tried to make it about ‘perception’. To this day I really can’t see the difference between ‘imagining racism’ and ‘perceiving things wrongly’.
Several times we argued about various issues and examples. At one point she tried to suggest that I was racist towards aboriginal Australians because I didn’t have any Aboriginal friends (note: Aboriginal people make up about 2.5% of the population, hint, hint), and the time I refused to watch an aboriginal Australian ritual dance that was being dished out as a performance dance for tourists. I said to her, “I have yet to even cross paths with an Aboriginal person.” (i.e., I have seen some pass me by on the streets on rare occasions, but I have not met any Aboriginal person. Not surprising when they are only 2.5% of the population.)
She responded, “But why don’t you have any Aboriginal friends?”
What, did she not hear me? I reiterated, “I said I have not crossed paths with any.”
She said, “But, why don’t you have an Aboriginal friends?”
Uh, what? I don’t get it. How the hell am I supposed to be friends with people I’ve never met??? Why does she not understand that? I said, “Well, I once passed by a small group of Aboriginal students outside the Aboriginal Studies department at the university having a barbeque, and yeah, I suppose I could have approached them, but. . . ”
Luckily, her husband butted in and said, “But wouldn’t it be weird if you wanted to be their friend simply because they’re Aboriginal?”
“Uh, yeah,” I responded.
As for the dance, the reason I showed a lack of interest in watching it was mainly because I didn’t like the way what seemed like a ritual dance had been turned into a performance catering for tourists. Most members of the audience were white. I looked at the audience and felt as though many were watching this aboriginal performance in order to feel unracist and more tolerant. I hated this exoticization and essentializing of the Other, and how the exoticization and essentializing was being used as a badge to 'prove' their open-mindedness.
The other reason I didn’t enjoy it is because I don’t enjoy any kind of traditional dances, period. I don’t care even if they’re from ‘my own country,’ I still find them boring for the most part. But obviously, instead of asking me why I didn’t want to watch it, my friend just assumed that she knew what was going on inside my head, and that I didn’t want to watch it because I was prejudiced towards Aboriginal Australians. Nice going.
There are more examples, but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, since reading swpd, I’ve been simply amazed at how this one incident contained so many of what the posts here describe. The most recent is making amateur psychological diagnoses.
So back to that day -- for every issue that we talked about, whenever I’d try to explain things, she would never let me finish. She’d just keep cutting me off. Her husband is more softspoken, so he managed to play the broker and calm things down. At the end of the discussion (and this was what I thought might be helpful here, but I kinda felt like telling all the other parts of the story first, for context), she pulled out a bunch of papers from her bag.
She said, ‘Please don’t be shocked by how extreme the list might seem. Just take it to mean that we all have some of this, to a degree. And can you just go through the list and see how many of those apply to you, and how strongly, you know? But be honest. Just go by your first reaction.’
She handed me the paper. It was a psychological questionnaire that she got from her ‘counselor’. A list of stuff relating to pretty hardcore insecurities. And sure, I’ve experienced some of them to a degree in the past, but for the most part, I’ve dealt with them already. I don’t think she believed me when I said so. More importantly, I could not see how this had anything to do with my experience of racism. I told her so.
She suggested several more times that I should go see a counselor (i.e., psychiatrist). I disagreed. But she had me ‘tamed’ by the time she said this. So I didn’t really argue much. I thanked her and her husband for the discussion, and went home. I thought I was ‘cool’ about it all. As I drove home, I thought I ‘felt better’.
But the minute I entered my home, suddenly the rage just all came out. I was so very, extremely angry that she had tried to ‘tame’ me, by trying to make me see things from a more ‘rational’ point of view. Basically, she was suggesting that I was imagining things, and that if I did experience racism, it was because I had some sort of psychological issue. Her diagnosis was very, deeply hurtful.
I tried to tell her so in an email the following day. She hadn’t shown any willingness to listen when I spoke to her in person.
That said, I think I’ve done the same things myself with other people, though I’ve of course never done so in the context of racism. Recent posts and discussions on swpd reminded me of that incident, and made me realize that I really shouldn’t do it to others either.