The cost of racism

I often think that one way racism does serious damage to white people is by stripping them of their empathy.  Privilege has long taught them that white is right.  White people are given constant, regular reinforcement that their opinions are superior.  They receive validation for their viewpoints.  And they typically live in environments in which they do not have to pay any attention to people of color.

Subsequently, when people of color talk about racism, white people are quick to issue denials.  Not only do they deny that the opinions or feelings of other people are valid, but they deny even the right to have those opinions.  Look at some of the comments people made after Miley Cyrus’ racist “slant-eye” gesture.  Remember the one about the rabbits

What about kids who hold up their fingers and do bunny ears in photos? Should rabbits start holding town meetings to cry racism??

Translation: Asian Americans complaining about racism is as ridiculous as if rabbits began to talk. In other words, Asian Americans are not fully equal. They are being equated with rabbits. And who would imagine that rabbits might dare to bring up racism?

So the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Japanese American Citizens League might issue statements decrying the open acceptance of racism in Miley Cyrus’ actions and the public reaction. But civil rights organizations don’t know anything about racism. Neither do Asian Americans.

They’re whiners. They’re complainers. They see racism in everything. Because white is right.

If you don’t even see the Asian American viewpoint as being fully equal, maybe it’s because you don’t view Asian Americans as being equal.  And that is the probably the single biggest example of loss of empathy.

One of the exercises I have done in the past involves asking people to think about something that hurt them deeply. They are not required to share it. They are just asked to keep it firmly in mind and then to imagine that they have told somebody about it in great detail.

Here is the response, “Why are you being so oversensitive?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“I don’t find that offensive at all.”

Any of these responses sound vaguely familiar?

In addition, the original hurt is replicated by other people.  Over and over again.  And they don’t seem to understand why it bothers you.  Nobody understands how you feel.  They tell you to get a thicker skin.  To stop walking around with a chip on your shoulder.  To let it roll off your back.

In reality, this exercise can’t replicate what people of color experience.  Because racism is not only about these types of actions and denial of your reality, it’s about a system that is fed by these actions.  And the system responds by saying that you’re inferior.  You’re not equal.  Your treatment often reflects the belief that you are lesser-than.

Racism harms white people by stripping them of their ability to feel.  Instead of hearing the hurt, the pain and the anger expressed by those who suffer from racism, they choose instead to deny the humanity of others.  In so doing, they deny the humanity of themselves.

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12 thoughts on “The cost of racism

  1. First I read this I wanted to say “hey, but how many people are REALLY like that. Heck, most of the white people I know would never…”

    Then I cut myself off, and read it again. Then I’m thinking:

    “…yeah but what about what whatshisname said? Oh, and all those other guys. Oops, forgot about half my siblings, most of the adoptive parents I’ve ever met…”

    Now, the first time I read some of your articles it took THREE reads to say, yep, makes a good point there.

    At least I’m down to two! :)

  2. I absolutely agree with this. You are so right! I am a white person and I went to a workshop called Dialogue:Racism, and one of the biggest message from that workshop was that all people are hurt by racism, that “Hurt people, hurt people.”

    When I was beginning my anti-racism work and working on myself and my own racist attitudes (which is of course an ongoing process), one of the hardest things was to get over that “Well I don’t do this to people, so I don’t see why I should be treated badly because of what my ancestors did” “Well I wouldn’t be offended by that so I don’t see what the big deal is.” Ya know, the typical conditioned responses.

    It all does stem from a lack of empathy and not listening to the voices of POCs. Most white people are convinced that people of color “play the race card” or “cry racism.” It seems the only acceptable compliant is when someone uses the n-word. Even then that depends on the circumstances. The hardest thing is getting white folks to understand YOU DON’T GET TO DECIDE WHAT IS RACIST BECAUSE YOU DO NOT EXPERIENCE IT.

    It’s frustrating, but I try to remember I was once like them, and I have changed for the better. That means they can too.

    Thank you also for the exercise. I am definitely going to use it. At least it’s a starting point.

  3. Pingback: What is the Cost of Racism? at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  4. True, true, true. Just being an olive-y shade of caucasian and being female has taught me a lot about othering, which taught me to work on being an ally to others. Racism hurts everyone because othering hurts everyone. The black, the brown, the beige, the cream, the olive, and the milky white. to varying degrees, and differently, but it hurts us all.

    What pisses me off the most is that they always get white anglo-Saxon, privileged people to talk about racism when there’s an issue of it, and they sit around throwing around a few concessions that racism exist and how terrible it is, and then unilaterally decide that whatever the incident in question was, it isn’t racist.

    Definitely a lack of empathy. I’m so surprised how they could assume the right to declare what isn’t racist. And to get really defensive when a legitimate point is brought up. Racism is seen as such a grave accusation that as soon as the R word is mentioned, people run for the hills because ‘they CAN’T’ be a racist!’.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I completely agree, especially about the original hurt being replicated by people who don’t understand why you hurt in the first place. It’s like the knife is dug in deeper… but of course, to make it not hurt, I “should get a thicker skin” according to their logic, right? I also love what you wrote about equality.

    Unfortunately I have also seen minorities show the same sort of “deal with it, quit complaining” sentiment in regards to complaints by OTHER minorities. ALL of us need to learn how to show empathy to each other, even if we don’t completely understand why someone is hurt.

    This sounds potentially ominous to some, but I don’t say it to seem threatening, just truthful: as the world changes and economic power shifts East from West, and the racial demographics of America and Europe continue to change, it’s possible that white privilege will be increasingly irrelevant. Then perhaps more empathy will follow.

  6. If you haven’t read it already, I HIGHLY recommend Derald Wing Sue’s book titled “Overcoming Our Racism,” as it taps into a lot of the complicated dynamics underlying racism that you write about here (e.g. accusations of oversensitivity or feeling invalidated). The book also addresses the impact of racism not only on People of Color (Asians included!) but also on White people.

  7. Yes. Thanks. There are a lot of interrelated reasons for why us white people lack empathy toward POC. In addition to the ones mentioned above (internalized superiority, lack of listening), there’s the whole need to deny that what our “community” has done to POC over the centuries is evil. When you are in the business of oppressing people, you can’t be empathetic towards them, or you’d stop oppressing them.

    Now, after centuries of oppression and denial, to become empathetic would require that we admit the evils of the past and present committed by our beloved ancestors, family, nations, friends, churches, institutions, and selves. It’s a leap off of a cliff of guilt that keeps getting higher and higher.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it seems to extend further than white people. Sadly, it extends to PoCs as well. I know from personal experience that different racial groups have trouble identifying with each other and can inflict racism on each other and denying that it is racism yet can recognize the same act inflicted on a member of their group by someone of another as racism.

  9. I believe it’s important to keep the word Racism in context (actual meaning of the word). Racism by definition is Prejudice plus Power. The later word being the most important. It’s entirely possible for someone to be prejudice towards another group without ever trying to impose his racist views on that particular group. It’s when you go out of your way to impose your prejudice views on another group or classification that you become a Racist. With that said, the only group of people ever to impose such a will has been the European and the Arab which happen to be almost one and the same genetically. They did this with the European and the Arab slave trade. The ramifications of which gave white’s the tradition of white supremacy. But consider this, before they perfected racism they instituted a cast system within their own territories to separate the rich from the poor and place the so called elite of their kind on high. They then convinced their people that although they may posses the lowest stations of their kind that at least they were better than the scores of mongol hoards that occupied the rest of the world. They did this all so they could be richer than they already were. I say this to say that once again we should keep the word racist in context. Racism is an invention of the white elite made possible by the mind set of the white people as a whole. Which is to distance themselves from anything they can’t relate to or to kill anything they can’t understand. Not agreeing with my definition of racism??? Well let me ask you this: What person of color or better yet what group of so called colored people (they don’t even know what to call us) has ever had the power necessary to inflict such bigoted views even if it was true that black people as a whole hate white people??? Which it isn’t.

  10. Another thing I’d like to say is that the White Elite whom instituted slavery which is the product not the cause of racism would never been able to do it without their being something fundamentally wrong with the white race as a whole. Otherwise they would have never stood for it in the first place.

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