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  • Writer's pictureBeth Pandolpho

Why It’s Okay If Someone Calls You a Racist

For my birthday, my kids bought me Ijeoma’s Oluo’s book, So You Want to Talk About Race.

In the past, I’ve told them not to buy me any birthday gifts unless they could give me something thoughtful. Sadly, this guidance generally left them flummoxed (and resulted in no gifts for me).

This year, I delivered the same instructions, and apparently they’re not just getting older, but they’ve been paying attention. Oluo’s book is exactly the kind of book that would be on my reading list.

Yet, if my kids hadn't bought it for me, it is very likely that I might have overlooked it, as she covers many topics that I felt I already knew a great deal about. I'm grateful that my kids put it in my hands because Oluo beautifully (and sometimes irreverently) adds nuance to many familiar concepts that helped me deepen my understandings.

So, before I put Oluo’s book back on my bookshelf, I want to consolidate the lessons I learned from her book- both to share them, and with the hope that it will help me remember:

1. When you respond to individual racist remarks, tie them to larger systems of oppression.

I've noticed that oftentimes, when people speak up in the face of racist comments, the aggressor will dismiss their remarks as insignificant or accuse the other person of being “too sensitive”. (I get this response a lot.)

Oluo outlines how you can embolden your response by illuminating why these comments matter, and explain how they exacerbate oppression. She writes,“If you hear someone at the water cooler say, ‘black people are always late,” you can definitely say, ‘Hey, that’s racist’ but you can also add, ‘and it contributes to false beliefs about black workers that keeps them from even being interviewed for jobs, while white workers can be late or on time, but will always be judged individually with no risk of damaging job prospects for other white people. . . .Tying racism to its systemic causes and effects will help others see the important difference between systemic racism, and anti-white bigotry. In addition, the more practice you have at tying individual racism to the system that gives it power, the more you will be able to see all the ways in which you can make a difference. “ (p. 35)

Although, I am still working on how to speak up more consistently, I like knowing that I am more likely to make an impact if I can contextualize why the racist remarks are even more harmful than people realize.

2. We are all racist.

Oluo writes, “You are racist because you were born and bred in a racist, white supremacist society. White Supremacy is, as I’ve said earlier, insidious by design.” The racism required to uphold White Supremacy is woven into every area of our lives. There is no way you can inherit white privilege from birth, learn racist white supremacist history in schools, consume racist and white supremacist movies and films, work in a racist and white supremacist work force, and vote for racist and white supremacist governments and not be racist. This does not mean that you have hate in your heart. You may intend to treat everyone equally. But it does mean that you have absorbed some fucked-up shit regarding race, and it will show itself in some fucked-up ways.” (p 218)

Perhaps Oluo’s clarification can release us from the fear of being called a racist because we can begin to accept that we just are. I certainly don’t welcome the moment when someone calls me a racist, but I’d rather be told that I’m saying or doing something racist, than continue to move through the world repeatedly causing harm. Like Brené Brown says, we should be more concerned with “doing right” rather than “being right”.

3. The Limitations of Allyship

In our work as allies, it is important to remember that the burden of the work does not fall on all of us equally. Author and educator Lorean Escoto Germán clarifies the definition of “the work”: “The Work = straining yourself to be anti-racist; growing in understanding anti-bias; . . . question, question, question; learn and read and listen and grow; act locally and strive for change. There will always be backlash. Each time. Don’t stop.”

As an ally, it is good to remember that although you may feel uncomfortable at times, your discomfort does not equal the pain of those who are marginalized. Oluo explains, “When you talk about oppression with oppressed people, you're are talking with hurt, scared, angry, and grieving people” (p. 207).

This lesson particularly resonates with me because recently I was involved in “the work” alongside an oppressed person. I was singularly focused on changing people's hearts and minds, and she dismissed me and insisted that she’s way past worrying about how people think or feel, she just wants to see policies changed - and she wants them changed now.

It was hard for me to understand at the time because I do understand that policies need to change, but I am also convinced that people need to change. Oluo's book helped me understand more profoundly the urgency of policy change. People are dying - and that means we can’t wait for the changing of minds and hearts. I need to remember that I have blindspots which can compromise my allyship.

4. You don’t have to like everyone in order to unite in justice work.

Oluo writes, “If you believe in justice and equality, we are in this together, whether you like me or not”(p. 211).

Activist Loretta J. Ross offers a definition that helps remind us that we can work alongside people as long as we are philosophically aligned regardless of our differences. She says, "a movement is many different people [who] think many different thoughts and . . . moving in the same direction”. As long as we are united in our mission, people don’t need to be less militant, less angry, or speak in a more agreeable tone in order for us to work together.

The lessons I’ve learned from Oluo’s book have already helped me re-envision my work as an ally. But what I am most grateful for is that she has reduced the likelihood that I will burden others who are “hurt, scared, angry, and grieving” in my well-intentioned desire to be an ally.

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