‘Don’t Call Me Racist!’: When the Accusation is Considered Worse than the Crime

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Picture: ITV

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.

7 Responses

  1. I’m in my own anti-racist journey, and been a white man I am often confused with the “enemy”. I’ve learned to accept criticism as mentioned in the article because of a deep feeling of empathy, considering that if I am not a racist because of my actions or words, I am for my inaction, “blind colored” attitudes and lack of understanding of the privileges that my color and gender gave to me for free in my birth. I just get sad that as part of my education and journey, I’ve been in some forums where I see myself as a minority, and unfortunately attacks are often and free (“what this white dude doing here?” attitude). In a live session recently about mental health during the pandemic, the psychologist that was leading the session mentioned that most of her clients were black, although she accepts white people as well, but not as her target public. One of the participants mentioned that she must charge extra whenever she treated white people for making her office filthy, unhealthy. Some others seemed to agree and laughed at it. I could not stop thinking that although I can one more time understand where they are coming from, and did not respond at all to what occurred to me as an aggression, makes me just sad to think that me and others are also been judged by the color of our skin. To have and build preconceived ideas about others is somehow part of the human nature, and must be discussed as part of any conversation about how the future looks like, as we want more diversity, equality and inclusive environments for everyone. I am now more aware, and been aware I can do my (small) share for us all to get there. I am not the enemy, the other way around, so how can I succeed been perceived a strategic ally?

    1. Thanks for your comment Nicholas. Certainly we agree that it’s not helpful to see this as an enemies and allies binary and it’s a shame that this is so often part of the conversation. Listening and reflecting is key to understanding. There is lots of reading about how to be a white ally – here’s a reading list with some suggestions we’ve put together: http://www.equaliteach.co.uk/reject-racism

  2. Whilst I fully agree with majority of this article, I do wonder if there is a small area of worry here. By taking the position that the accuser is always correct, and the accused always guilty of bigotry or prejudice (in whatever form) may potentially not do anything to help solve the issue. Apologies if I’ve misunderstood your implication!

    1. Hi Graeme, thanks for your comment. The blog post is suggesting that when someone is accused of prejudice, rather than becoming immediately defensive, doubling down, or lashing out, as are common reactions, particularly from those in the public eye, that a more appropriate response would be to pause, listen and reflect. We are all influenced in lots of ways and will have prejudices and assumptions that are often unconscious, so it’s important that we remain open to hearing alternative perspectives, listening to how our actions may have negatively impacted others (even if that wasn’t our intent), and learning. In the conversation about racism and how we as a society can challenge it, there is often too much focus on white people feeling angry at having been said to be racist, than listening to those who experience actual racism, and there lies the problem this blog is seeking to address.

  3. People are also defensive when wrongly accused. To say that being defensive is evidence of guilt is flawed logic . It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t argument. Akin with the witch trials where you were only innocent of charges if you died from drowning. There is no ‘way out’ for people accused of prejudice even when it is a wrong assumption because the keyboard warriors know nothing about the person behind the one-liner they’re referring to.Twitter is the worst place for expressing any opinion because the word length doesn’t allow for proper expression and ensures plenty of room for ambiguity.

    Yes people should examine their use of words carefully but at the same time we should also not be calling out so much that people are too afraid to say anything incase their words are being taken out of context, copied and held against them. It happens and it happens a lot. Is it worse than being on the receiving end of racism? Of course not, but that said … for some, if they lose their job, relationship, a home because of wrongful accusations then is is harmful. Very much so.

    A high profile person being called out as racist can end their career. If they are racist, justifiably so but if they are not? How does someone prove they are not racist? They can’t. Especially if they are a white male it appears.

    We need open dialogue not fear of speech.

    1. Thanks for your comment. We agree that open dialogue is essential in addressing issues of equality effectively. As the blog addresses, there is a widespread misunderstanding about racism (and other forms of prejudice), assuming that it only involves explicit acts of violence or deliberate hurtful behaviour. However, very often racism can be unintentional, can come from unconscious assumptions and biases, or be part of systems and structures that make it more hidden. When someone engages in a racist comment or action, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are intrinsically racist, but that the action or statement was harmful. The fact that it is unintentional does not remove any of the impact or harm of the incident. The blog doesn’t call for anyone to lose their jobs, but rather asks that when someone highlights a problematic incident, that the initial reaction isn’t to shut them down, be defensive, or, as Eamonn Holmes was in the example mentioned, abusive, but to open a dialogue to better understand the different perspectives of those involved and learn from the incident moving forward. We absolutely agree that Twitter is rarely an appropriate space for these discussions to take place safely.

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