‘Don’t Call Me Racist!’: When the Accusation is Considered Worse than the Crime
By Rachel Elgy
We are not short of headlines and Twitter trends talking about the latest argument about racism. The stories are often similar: a white person in a position of power and/or privilege gets called out for their actions or words which had a racist impact and responds by denying racism and doubling down on their actions or words.
We’ve seen it with the President of the United States, when, after claiming that four American Congresswomen, all women of colour, should ‘go back where they came from,’ also claimed that there’s not a ‘racist bone’ in his body.
We’ve seen it more recently with Eamonn Holmes responding to a tweet calling out This Morning for its biased coverage of Meghan Markle, responding by calling his accuser a ‘stupid bigoted arse’ and threatening to take her to court.
We’ve seen it with our own Prime Minister, who, when writing Islamophobic articles about women in niqabs looking like ‘bank robbers’ or ‘letter boxes’ was found to be fostering ‘respect and tolerance’ rather than Islamophobia.
And it is not just an issue with racist incidents, but across the board when it comes to prejudice. Protesters in Birmingham arguing against LGBT+ inclusive education are holding up placards which state ‘We are not homophobic.’ A man accused of sexual harassment and assault is suing his accusers for defamation.
So how has it become the case that accusations of prejudice are considered worse than the prejudice itself?
Invalidating peoples lived experience is not a new phenomenon in discussions of prejudice. It plays a central role in systemic racism and we see it time and again when white commentators take an incident of racism and turn it in to a question of whether racism even occurred, demanding people of colour to argue their own experience against absolute denial.
Denial and defensiveness are also common responses when someone’s unconscious bias and privilege are called out. When I highlighted unconscious bias within the Independent Press Standards Organisation on considering complaints of Islamophobia I was told angrily by the Chair that the Complaints Committee members are ‘influenced by nothing but their own minds!’
A new addition to these long-established responses of invalidation, denial and defensiveness, is the global reach of social media. Eamonn Holmes can send his angry response and immediately garner support, building an army of tweeters to band together and provide solidarity to him and further abuse to his accuser, whether or not they have seen the original actions in question.
Conversations on racism and prejudice require nuance, openness and reflection, which are not well suited to 280 characters typed in an angry defensive reply. Everything on social media is instant, current, spur of the moment, so it doesn’t allow that crucial time for someone to consider what they’re going to say before they say it.
Prejudice is also currently being validated and rewarded rather than punished, as we see people in the public eye let ‘off the hook’ for their damaging actions or comments, or even see them claim positions of greater power, such as Prime Minister of the UK.
There is a lack of understanding about racism and prejudice more generally, where they are understood only as individual, violent, targeted outbursts, rather than as attitudes, structures and barriers threaded throughout society.
Dismantling systems of oppression will not happen overnight. And even understanding how these systems work takes time. It would be unfair to expect Eamonn Holmes to respond to his accusation by immediately unpicking the implicit bias he’s surrounded by and campaigning against it (although that would be fantastic!)
How could he have responded to his accuser?
‘I didn’t intend any racism, and didn’t see it in this way, but perhaps I’ll watch it back to try and understand your point of view.’
‘I don’t understand how my words would be understood as racist, but am open to learning as I don’t want to come across in that way again’
Unlikely perhaps, but even saying nothing rather than angrily threatening to sue would have been better.
Because, and this is the crux of the matter, the impact of racism and discrimination is real, tangible, and huge, and is much much worse than a bruised ego or sense of righteousness.
Evidence shows that social inequality, alienation and discrimination are risk factors when it comes to mental health. Seemingly small incidents are known as ‘micro-aggressions’ which accumulate and can have a devastating impact on a person’s self-esteem, self-worth and can leave people living in fear of abuse. Invalidating someone’s lived experience does not excuse the discrimination, it adds to and amplifies it.
These responses of invalidation, denial and defensiveness are not good enough, and are holding us back from making real progress when it comes to equality. We need people in positions of power to lead by example, reflecting on how their actions and words serve to uphold systems of oppression, and learning from people with different experiences.
Until our leaders show us the way, we’ll have to do this work ourselves:
- Take time to learn about unconscious bias and reflect on your own views. We all have our own preconceived ideas, prejudices and assumptions, and it is our responsibility to take note of these, question and challenge them.
- Be open to conversations around privilege. It can feel uncomfortable to recognise how society implicitly benefits you over others, but remember it is possible to be privileged in one area of life and not in another, and that in recognising your own privilege you can then use it positively to be an ally and help remove barriers for others.
- Be honest about mistakes. We will all make mistakes, and the natural response is to be defensive. Be honest with yourself and apologise when you need to.
- Sit with your discomfort. Any discomfort you feel about your own prejudice, privilege, or the mistakes you’ve made will not be close to the discomfort experienced by targets of discrimination. Sit with it, acknowledge it, and then work out how you can turn your discomfort into positive action.
- Think twice before joining a twitter army: what are you defending? What are the facts? Are there several perspectives to consider in this discussion? Will my contribution add some nuance to the debate? Is this even a topic for debate, or is someone’s experience being belittled and invalidated?
EqualiTeach have written about overcoming denial to be an ally in anti-racism and understanding privilege. We also deliver training on unconscious bias, effectively challenging prejudice, and recognising and responding to prejudice-related incidents. Get in touch for more information.