Thursday, June 3, 2010

seek reassurance from non-white people that they're not racists

Here's a clarifying cartoon by Barry Deutsch about a common white tendency. I think it speaks for itself.

(for a larger version, click here)

My thanks to Barry Deutsch, who's got me thinking now about the times that I've been this white person (because I'm sure I have), and just what forms my asking for such reassurance have taken.

Have you encountered this common white tendency, either in yourself or in others? The more I think about it, the more I think it's very common, so I'd bet that you have encountered it. Or, if you're white, that you've enacted it, in some way or ways . . .

Other excellent cartoons on racism by Barry Deutsch appear here. Scroll down, for instance, to the one on "White Lies."


  1. There's also the common "make me feel better for my previous racist sins because I've apologized in some way".

    I know that probably sounds vague... But I've seen this thing where people in a privileged position apologize in such a way as to make it about someone reassuring them that it's okay and they can stop feeling bad, rather than a real apology. Almost like they're saying "I can't really be *that* bad, because I'm apologizing, right? Make me feel okay about this!"

    Let's feel bad on our own time!

  2. People ask me this all the time. Especially on my blog, I get many e-mails asking me whether "All Indians smell like pig shit?" or "Is being Brown hard for you?" and then follow it up with, "I'm not being racist. Just curious".

    I guess, declaring that zie isn't being consciously racist absolves them of all the prejudice stomped in the subtexts.

  3. why the reassurance?...they know the TRUTH deep in their hearts!..if you are or not...YOU KNOW!

  4. If someone really isn't racist, they wouldn't need to be reassured about their non-racism.

  5. This happens so regularly, white people don't always feel like they need to actually ask the question.

    A white person makes an offensive joke and glances at the black guy in the room to see if he reacts. That's a passive way to seek reassurance. This happens even when the joke isn't about race or black people. If it's maybe offensive, the black people need to sign off on it.

  6. This happened to me recently on a job.
    I was working as an assistant on a film project and was told that I needed to go pick up a foot soaking bath thing for a pedicure. It was a gag that would happen later on...the gag just happened to be for an Asian American actress in the film. I voiced my discomfort to one of the producers and both the directors happened to hear me. As a Korean American woman, I knew I'd regret not saying anything and allowing a stereotype continue to be promoted. So the directors listen and mention that the clients were also concerned about the gag, which should've been a red flag anyway. One of them tried to defend it by saying that if comedy offends everyone, then it's ok. I looked him in the eye and said, "No. No it's not." I went on about how their idea is offensive and they hashed out what they'd do instead.
    I went outside to finish a prop task and the stereotype defending director comes out for a smoke. He goes on for the length of the cigarette about how he is usually the one who is the first to point out something offensive and that he hates hurting people and yada yada yada. I can't remember if he specifically said the words, "And I'm not a racist," but his entire diatribe was all about that sentiment.
    Maybe it was the long work week doubled with the stress, but I didn't say much in response to his little speech. I couldn't have care less about his own offensiveness radar; I just wanted to see some action to rectify the mistake. His words were not for anyone but for himself.
    They did change the gag to something else, which made more sense with the previous actions of the character, but it still wasn't that great.

  7. @Kraas re: "If someone really isn't racist, they wouldn't need to be reassured about their non-racism."

    Yes, but I don't really buy the racist/not racist dichotomy as a reflection of reality to begin with. And I would add that anyone who thinks of their own non-racism as some kind of goal or accomplishment is missing the point. If WP's concern is whether they are racist and not how they are, then they are pretty well useless in terms of making change happen.

  8. Like "A. Smith" said, it's a common thing, when there is a joke or just a reference to anything concerning black or white people, they always look at the poc in the room seeking reassurance.

    That is happening in a recurring basis to me, since affirmative action on college admission has been a hot topic in my country right now. I, as a black girl in a relatively wealthy private school, always get caught up in those discussions.

  9. This particular post seems to imply that WP care if they are or come off as racist; with my experiences I can assure you, many do not.

  10. Oh my God, I have done this. I'm sure of it. I mean, I didn't use the exact words...but I know I must be making that impression, because that's exactly what I'm thinking. "Please don't say I'm racist."

    I need to work on that.

  11. I'm white, and when I need to ask a question like that I ask my white friend. I feel like listing the reasons why she is qualified to answer such a question would look like me trying to prove that she is "not racist", but the point is more that she is, and she acknowledges that and tries to get better. Just like I do, but she is better at it than I am, so I feel asking her is the best I can do.

    I have privilege, sometimes I forget that and commit a race-fail. But going to a non-white person asking for forgiveness is just further race-fail.

  12. bloglogger said, "If WP's concern is whether they are racist and not how they are, then they are pretty well useless in terms of making change happen."


    I hacen't sought reassurance from POC, and not because I'm ever-so-intuitive that I knew better than to do that, but worse - because I actually automatically assumed I couldn't be racist, totally wasn't possible in my mind. And I didn't need anyone else to tell me. Why, I'm just one of those fabulous WP who has so many very close relationships with friends and family of color, how could I be? *eye roll* I think being oblivious to one's own racism is even worse.

  13. jen said,

    >> "This particular post seems to imply that WP care if they are or come off as racist; with my experiences I can assure you, many do not."

    I agree. I think the question is aimed less at ascertaining whether the asker is racist and more at whether the particular racist thing ze has said/done has caused a drop in the askee's opinion of zir.

    I will also note that, in my experience/observation, WP tend to care much more whether other WP think we are racist than about whether our actions are actually hurting POC. :o(

  14. I agree about the passive way, A.Smith. I was in a white feminist chorus where they were doing this song by a Black composer about being Black, and they went on and on discussing their "process" for deciding to do the song (even though they knew deep down that them doing it looked silly)-- they were casting covert glances at me the whole time.

    I didn't react at all. I was just like, "Oh. I see." Which made them uncomfortable as all hell. I feel like that's the best way to react to these things. Or if they ask outright, just say, "I don't know. Do YOU think it was racist?"

  15. At a meeting some years ago discussing institutional racism on campus at the college where I teach:

    POC: There is institutional racism here. It's definitely here.

    WP: But not *here*.

    POC: At this college, yes.

    WP: But not in this room.

    POC: (after a pause) No. That's not what I mean.

    WP: Whew! (nervous laughter)

    Once the cloud has been cleared from WP personally, we feel as if something has been accomplished, but the systemic racism goes on unaffected.

  16. "A white person makes an offensive joke and glances at the black guy in the room to see if he reacts. That's a passive way to seek reassurance. This happens even when the joke isn't about race or black people. If it's maybe offensive, the black people need to sign off on it."

    I have seen this happen quite often on TV shows, too. A white host says something which is racist, and the camera goes straight to an audience member of that race and shows that person happy or laughing (or perhaps a band member on stage or a co-host). Thus, (normal-white) viewers are reassured that the host is not racist and also we are supposed to remain acritical about the joke due to this reassuring happy POC. I especially noticed this trick with the camera with jokes on black people.

  17. Theres also the "Oh don't worry I have POC friends so whatever I say isn't racist at all" reassurance.

  18. I think the snarky, "Well if you have to ask..." works well.

  19. Shoots and LaddersJune 4, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    First, I'm going to cosign on bloglogger's observation:

    "If WP's concern is whether they are racist and not how they are, then they are pretty well useless in terms of making change happen."

    A couple of weeks ago a friend said to me "I'm going to ask you this because I know you won't think I'm racist ... are black people just naturally dirtier than white people?"

    Yes, sweetheart. We sure are. Thank you for deigning to let me use your bathroom. I'll be sure to bring along Clorox wipes next time around.

  20. Oh, hell yes.

    I mean, I think within friendships/ supportive relationships it's probably fairly universal that, if I suspect or know I've been an asshole, to be all like "Hey, I know/suspect I've been an asshole" tell the story, and then be like "Uh, but please tell me I'm still a loveable person, cuz, I'm feeling like an asshole!?!"

    And really, that's fine, That's What Friends Are Fooooor. Unless, that is, the friend in question was the person you were an asshole to, or could have been, had zie been witness to said assholery.

    Privilege is asking the people you hurt or harm to be the ones responsible for making you feel better when you rightfully SHOULD be feeling like shit. But if you can get them to erase it for you, then you never have to acknowledge that you have some fuckupedness inside you. That's sooo much easier, after all.

  21. I'm with angelofdeath on this one: WP don't tend to seek my reassurance that they aren't racist. They tend to try reassure me that they're not.

    "I'm not racist -- I'm friends with you, right? -- but that joke really was kind of hilarious."

    "I'm not racist -- biracial children are adorable! -- but seriously, why are black people so greasy?"

    "I'm not racist -- I once dated a Mexican girl -- but how come all these PoC in shitty neighborhoods have satellite dishes?"

  22. If I was as good with wit, cleverness and humor as I am with my artwork, I would make cartoons and comic strips just like this one.

    As for the subject the strip is conveying, I've heard about this. What I find screwy is that whites want POC to make them feel better while at the same time with the help of the media they make POC feel worse especially with the news.

  23. Have you encountered this common white others?


  24. I know I've done that. Not in that obvious way (recently, although probably further back), but in that glancing-at-the-POC way recently. I felt guilty about it but didn't know why (it wasn't an obvious racist joke/slight/insult), and it took me several hours afterward to figure out that that sense of tingling discomfort meant I'd failed even if I didn't understand how. It took another couple days to figure out how I'd failed. I've been waiting for a chance to apologize since, although I know apologizing doesn't undo fail. Fail is fail, period.

    I find that this topic is making me think of TShirt Hell's Not An Accurate Representation of White People t-shirt. That also feels a lot like, "But I'm not really White(tm) like those other people! I'm not racist even though I'm saying these racist things! Because it's me, and you know I'm awesome and non-racist!"

  25. This could be especially insidious in the context of antiracism, because on the surface it might appear that the WP is deferring to the PoC's superior knowledge of racism, when really the asker is only interested in being reassured that what they said/did was not racist. If the PoC doesn't give the answer that the WP wants, said WP will likely just keep asking until they find someone who will.

  26. angelofdeath275 said...

    "Theres also the "Oh don't worry I have POC friends so whatever I say isn't racist at all" reassurance."

    This scene played out on a recent episode of Treme. Davis, a white guy, thinks that because he lives in the Treme, he can use the N word. When someone calls him out on it, he says something like, "It's OK, I'm with them" (the two black guys he's sitting with). He ends up getting punched in the nose.

  27. I never really get why WP think this is a good idea. It's like shitting all over somebody's house and then asking (demanding?) them to reassure you that you aren't a terrible person who shits all over houses.

    That said, I'm incredibly fortunate because the majority of my POC friends have no problem giving me a straight-up verbal bitchslap when I do a racefail (happens a lot less these days). Friends like that are the best of all. :)

  28. island girl in a land w/o seaJune 5, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    @ jen

    yes. in my little world, some otherwise "civil" wp make really fucked up, dehumanizing remarks about POC and don't really seem to care that they've just shown their true colors (pardon the pun).

    i like the scatalogical metaphor, too. the "but i'm not being racist, am i?" question is like someone taking a shit on the floor and then asking if it stinks.

    worse yet, *some* wp seem to think that if they say it doesn't stink, then it doesn't stink.

  29. @island girl, who said worse yet, *some* wp seem to think that if they say it doesn't stink, then it doesn't stink.: No no, we WP are smellblind. We don't smell the stink because we're above all that. If you became smellblind, you'd be fine too. Or maybe it's that you're just pretending to smell the stink even though the poop doesn't really exist, because that way you get to play the Crap Card.

    And even if the poop did exist, by bringing up the poop the PoC are creating the issue, since if we all just ignored it and didn't smell it, it would totally melt away on its own.


  30. Fuck it. Might as well.

    WHITE PERSON: (Says something stupid on SWPD)
    POC: What the fuck was that shit?
    WHITE PERSON: How could I possibly be racist? I donated money to RVCBard's project. Are you saying that doesn't mean anything? :-(
    POC: (Sputtering helplessly)
    OTHER WHITE PERSON: There, there. It's not your fault. POC is being unreasonable. It's easy to see why POC would get so emotional about it - it's a pretty sensitive topic. But just know that you have a fan in me, OK?

  31. @Robin

    I want to be smell blind, color blind, blind period, if that's how wp spend their lives. Delusion must be awesome. Where can I sign up? I'm sick of being real.


    You bring it on yourself, don't you know? If POCs stop being so damn sensitive, we can truly evolve /snark


  32. macon, if i provide a screenshot evidencing a substantial donation to rvcbard's project, will you start publishing my comments? this is a sincere offer,


  33. Hmmmmm. That's pretty tempting, Anonymous. Tell ya what -- I'll strongly consider it. I'll look at your comments even more closely. But I just can't make any promises.

  34. In my experience if one seeks reassurance, they know exactly what they are.

  35. I'm seriously hoping not to encounter anything crazy like that!

    WP-"How am I racist when I have a friend who's black?"

    *rolls eyes*

  36. Aww, man.
    That first panel— look at her face. The way she's hugging herself.

    I hate that feeling.

  37. I'm white, and I've noticed that many white people are very inconsistent on the way they quantify the opinion of one person. If one POC points out to them that they are exhibiting some ugly racism, that white person will go to great lengths to convince themselves and others that probably *other* (more *reasonable*) POC wouldn't consider their comment racist, etc. That particular person of color is just angry or humorless and 'waving their race card' around.
    However, if just one POC does NOT respond negatively to the comment, for whatever reason, the white person is disproportionately reassured and will not be troubled to get a second opinion. 'One (non-white) person wasn't personally offended by what I said! I pass the test, forever!'

  38. While I don't deny that this is a problem for some WP, I think there are some other issues that are being ignored.

    One problem is that there is a stereotype out there that all WP are racist. This creates a reason for some WP to feel the need to defend themselves & seek reassurance.

    The truth is that ALL people are racist and/or prejudiced to some degree, regardless of their color. The difference is that POC aren't labeled as racist.

  39. abc, it may or may not be a stereotype, but it is a fact. You've clearly got some catching up to do. I suggest reading this, and the Commenting Guidelines here, including some of the articles and posts linked at the bottom.

    If you don't do some catching up, chances are high that your future clueless comments won't be published here.


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