In a post called “The Racists We Love,” Jay Kirell documents the help he’s had in his life – a family member who got him a job, a manager who gave him a raise, fellow army members who saved his life – from people who hold and communicate racist views:
“At no point in time did I ever want to call out racist views. I wanted to survive a war. I wanted to keep my job. I want to not make it awkward every time I see family. The racists were more often than not in a position of power over me. That doesn’t excuse my lack of courage as much as it explains it.
“So I smiled and nodded. Laughed weakly along with jokes I didn’t find funny.
“And the racists went along believing their views were fine and normal, because a ‘normal’ person like me was laughing and smiling and nodding along.”
That’s stuck with me because it rings true to my own experience. I’ve not encountered racism as explicit as some of what Kirell talks about, but I’ve certainly heard it filed off casually here and there, especially towards First Nations, but to other races, too. And casual sexism, as well. And rather than challenging it, I just sort of let it pass. Why?
“Because while standing up against bigotry and racism is all well and good when we’re communicating on social media or when we’re amongst like-minded individuals; when we’re among those we know, those we grew up with or those we’re forced to be around, activism takes a backseat to just wanting to make it through the encounter.”
Exactly. I’m full of all these equal ideals, but when it comes to actually encountering real-life bigotry, even the casual, borderline, “is that really racist?” sort, I’ve been a whole lot more likely to just look the other way rather than try to engage.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, this notion of opting out of difficult conversations. I’ve been thinking about it when hashtags like #YesAllWomen and #AmINext and #BlackLivesMatter started on Twitter and the people using them were confronted by angry people trying to minimize their message. I thought about my ability to stay out of it.
What I’ve started to realize is “staying out of it” is a very specific option. Sure, women encounter sexual harassment, but I’m not a woman. And First Nations women (and men) go missing and are murdered at higher rates than the rest of the population, but that’s not me, either. I can visit the United States and not worry about whether black men are targeted by police, because guess what? I’m not black. I’m fine.
If someone holds a casual unchallenged viewpoint that First Nations don’t work hard or women are too emotional for positions of power, I’m fine. In fact, I benefit because I don’t fall into those categories. So I can be like “ah, well, I don’t really want to get into that discussion” and move on. Not everyone has that option. Not the First Nations person looking for a job or the woman looking to get elected. They can opt out of the conversation, but they continue to be harmed by the attitudes.
So that’s what I’ve been thinking about when my gut reaction is to “not make waves” or “don’t feed the trolls.” How much of it is just offloading the responsibility for social justice onto someone else because it doesn’t affect me?
Not confronting discrimination is a heck of a lot easier when you’re not on the receiving end of it.
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