“Oh my God, Sir! That is so racist” is a sentence that has always put me in some ungodly rage against the one who had just accused me of being what I have been fighting against all my life. I always see the faces of my students turning white when I don’t shout – I never do – but rather go ballistic on them. These are the only times I threaten to have anyone expelled by the end of the day for smearing. They suddenly understand that they have crossed a line. A line way more important than swearing, by calling me a racist.
The problem I have today with these words (racist, sexist, homophobic…) is that it is misused and abused by everyone left, right and centre. The Right always pretends not to be any of these but “to simply be stating the truth”, the Left is terrified of being misunderstood and sounding intolerant when they are not and in the centre are all the people who suffer from some kind of intolerance, amongst whom, many will see the oppression in the simple mention of their differences.
I am always shocked by how quick people are to call everyone else a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe or a homophobe. ‘Racist’ is now a word the young people are using for everything. Do anything, mention anything about another culture or skin colour and you are “a racist”. My American friend got told she was being racist because they went a lesbian club with a slightly Asian-sounding name and then she asked the others “What did you think of the Asian club?” That was racist of her, apparently. Another friend was called a racist because we were talking about Jay-Z and she suddenly realised that she had never been really sexually attracted to any black man “so far”. The third person was outraged but what was she supposed to do? Pretend she slept with someone of each colour, religion, language, culture, country so she doesn’t sound racism. I guess not to say anything would be the answer but she was not trying to undermine anyone. It’s not like she said something like “I am not sleeping with black men because they are all rapists”. Black men don’t get her going, what’s the big deal? And she clearly said “so far” so she is clearly open to being with a black man but the other person was lost already. For her, she was a racist.
So we hear that all the time. “That’s so racist!” and for me it proves people don’t know what racism is.
What is actual racism?
I always teach my students the definition because I tell them that calling someone a racist when they are not is an insult as bad as using the N word when talking to a black person. You have to be careful and think with a cool head whether the person is just pointing out a difference or is using it against you to justify their so-called superiority, to justify intolerance and unfairness.
I tell them that factual differences between people must never mean different treatment in the face of the law. As I said many times when talking about feminism: boys and girls are biologically different but they must be equal when it comes to the whole of the society. The same is true for skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, language, waist-size… Any kind of rhetoric that advertise otherwise are indeed racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic…
The topic is difficult because victims are the ones who call out on what others are saying or doing and the danger is to get it wrong. Once I was called a racist by some parents because a girl I was teaching, and whose family was coming from the Philippines, asked what the Spanish word for “slanting” eyes was. We were describing ourselves physically and they were outraged that I taught her how to describe her physical difference in a foreign language. For the mother, it was “bad enough that people pointed it out in English”, there was no need for me to “add insult to the injury”. And she turned to the headteacher who genuinely asked her what the problem was and the mother told her that mentioning somebody’s difference was an act of racism in itself. It meant something more otherwise, I “would not have noticed”.
What? So the fact that I saw she had slanting eyes makes me a racist because normal people are blind to that? That’s the new thinking behind people who like to say they don’t see that black people are black when they just want to say that it is irrelevant to them. Adichie talks brilliantly about these “colour-blind” people in Americanah.
Being a victim of casual racism, like I am of everyday homophobia, she has probably interiorised what racism is looking to do: to link what you are with who you are. To do what Linnaeus and others did in the 18th century and they called determinism. If you are white therefore you will be that kind of person but if you are black, you are a different kind of person entirely, just because your skin puts you in a “different race”. This is what Europeans used to justify their colonising the world, enslaving and killing the “inferior races” they came “to tame and teach civilisation to”. They were something else so they were also somebody else, somebody less than “the white, civilised man.”
As a victim she has accepted the racist idea that…well, first of all, that races themselves exist as such, but mainly that we have to erase the difference between the What you are and the Who you are. Not for the same purpose, of course.
This is a counter-racism movement slowly but surely coming in Europe from America where you act at the opposite of racism: instead of using the differences to justify unfairness, domination and exclusion (all the way to genocide and ethnic cleansing) through the creation and spreading of prejudices attached to these very differences, you deny the fact that people are factually different in hope that if you don’t mention the differences, all the prejudices will also not be mentioned and eventually become irrelevant.
Racism is using the What to reduce, enclose and undermine the Who. The new anti-racist movement wants to make the What irrelevant to being with. And this is what I find, after racism itself, to be one of the biggest threats to humanity: the denying of our differences.
For me, denying that we are all different is going to bring nothing but an industry-like standardisation of humanity as a colour-less, genderless, sexless, bland, emotionally empty, blind and mute entity. “We are all human”, yes! I agree with that, we are all on the same level. That’s why I don’t believe in “races”. We are the human race, the one and only. “So we are the same”, no! We are all different and we have to nurture these differences because they bring out the worst and the best of us, they make us move forward. They make us human.
What we have to do to fight is not to level down everybody to fit one mould but to teach people about the unknown, to allow them to see the other, the stranger, the foreigner, the different What so they can see for themselves that laziness is not some kind of black people’s monopoly, for instance or that the 65 million people born or living in France are not all rude and chain-smoking.
If children can’t experience for themselves what all city dwellers are living everyday next to people from all horizons, we then have to explain to children that there is no automatic correlation between What you are, the boxes you tick on the census, and Who you are. We have to show them that personality-wise, you will be closer to someone who lives across the Earth with a different skin colour, religion, language, culture and even gender than you are to your twin brother. If What and Who were linked, identical twins would indeed be the same people.
Declaring that black people should not be called “black” anymore because “it’s so racist” or pretending we don’t see the colour of their skin is not going to make any race-related problems disappear. We see it in America at the moment and where mentioning someone’s colour will automatically brand you a racist. Even saying that the sky is really black will get a “That’s so racist!”.
To my point of view, it is poisoning the debate because we have to talk about something we can’t mention. It is just going to add that extra layer of resentment, guilt, confusion and uneasiness when it comes to talking about the issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia or anti-Semitism We have to keep the debate open, clear and objective.
Saying that I am white with a darker skin tone that most people from Europe is not racist. It’s a fact.
Saying that I am French is not xenophobic, it’s a fact.
Saying that I am fat is not “fatism”, it’s a fact – uncalled for, but a fact.
Saying that I am gay is not homophobia, it’s a fact.
Saying that my mother is a woman is not sexist, it’s a fact.
Saying that my best-friends has Polish ancestry is not racism, it’s a fact.
Saying that one of my closest friend is black is not racism, it’s a fact.
Saying that my friend from Japan is Asian and has slant eyes is not racism, it’s a fact.
These facts are not the problem, they are not the intolerance, judgment and exclusion. They are not prejudices, they are not meant to undermine anyone. The following statements, however, are:
Saying that I am French therefore I am rude is not a fact, it is xenophobic.
Saying that I am fat therefore I have no will power and will make a worse employee is not a fact, it is fatism.
Saying that I am gay therefore I am unfaithful and should not be allowed to get married is not a fact, it is homophobia.
Saying that my Japanese friend is submissive because she is Asian is not a fact, it is racism.
Saying that my friend likes bananas and dancing because she is black is not a fact, it is racism.
Saying that a man is more employable than a woman because he’s man so he is career-driven whereas she is a woman so she is family-driven is not a fact, it is sexism. In both ways.
All the examples are reducing the real Who of millions of people to their What, which of course, always turns out to be less than others’ just because they are different. The factual differences are used as a weapon against the people. There is the intention to hurt, to drag down, to justify someone else’s betterness by showing some supposedly predisposed flaws in someone else.
That’s racism and there, you can call the person a racist, a sexist, or a homophobic philistine. That’s what we have to teach the children: not to be ashamed or to hide their differences but to understand that they mean nothing when it comes to define who they are, they are just facts.
PS: As for using tongue-in-cheek sexism, racism and xenophobia used as form of humour, I do it sometimes when the kids are telling I am rude and I say “Of course, I am French! What do you expect?”. I also love Reginald D. Hunter who is using a lot of that material but it is important to understand that humour needs to be understood as a second degree by both parties, and more crucially it needs to make both parties laugh or it’s just offensive. I used to do that French-rude joke with all classes until I realised my younger classes took it seriously so now I keep it for my older students.