Saying the R-word

For people of colour, racism is an everyday phenomenon which has structural roots and unseen consequences., but too often we only discuss racism when it’s visible. Over the past few weeks, racist taunts towards black football players, worrying statistics around racism in schools, and a Guardian investigation into racial bias have served to remind us of our society’s ongoing race problem. But Mélina Valdelièvre says racism isn’t just a shameful act that ‘bad people’ do and positive thinking won’t make it go away. She says we should confront our own fragility around the ‘r-word’ this festive season…

If only I could count the number of times I've had to brace myself when saying the r-word, expecting at any time a white person, face flushed or tears running down their face, to turn against me and express how ‘deeply offending’ it is to associate them with that word. Of course, by the r-word I mean ‘racism’ and its variants – ‘race’, ‘racial’ and, the most explosive of them all, ‘racist’. So many of us shy away from the word for fear of offence - it's a taboo topic in too many circles.

It does of course feature in conversations and headlines, but often only in a very detached and simplistic way that makes white people feel comfortable and confident that they themselves have nothing to do with it. Such conversations and headlines are often dumbed down to: “Look how terrible so-and-so has been for pronouncing racial slurs/acting in an obviously racist way”. When the r-word is used in such contexts, it's associated with job losses and ruined reputations (although that of course doesn't apply to some of the most powerful people in western society – look at Donald Trump). As a result, it isn't surprising the r-word has become so feared and avoided in personal conversation. Racism is portrayed as rare and abnormal – something awful only bad people do. If you're racist, you're inherently evil.

This places too much emphasis on people's intentions rather than the harms they cause and the structures, histories and ideologies that allow racism to spread in the first place. It simplified racism to an individual act and ignores the complex systems of oppression which uphold it. If anything, the r-word is frequently used to demonise white working class people who are seen to be unduly influenced by tabloids and therefore fair game to be blamed for their lack of education and open-mindedness. Such classist notions assume the sophisticated, well-educated and well-intentioned among us can't be racist.

Racism is so much more – it's normal, endemic and deeply ingrained in our society. Go back just a century and assumptions of white supremacy are written all over the empires and their involvements in slavery and colonisation. If you look closely enough at foreign policy, immigration legislation and counter-terrorism strategies, racism is still there, albeit in a covert form. Regardless of your racial identity, if you're brought up in the white Western world it's almost impossible to have not absorbed racist ideas, prejudices and biases from the myriad pictures, stories, movies and whitewashed history lessons you grow up with.

Racism is learned through a process of social conditioning and you can't escape it unless you were brought in a cave, with no books, TV or internet (or western languages for that matter). From blackmail, black sheep, blacklisted to the minstrel-like abuse of the black woman in Tom and Jerry, the blackface on a French Banania drink (below) and the Dutch Zwarte Piet. Whether you have good intentions or not, it's inevitable you will have learned racial prejudice and developed unconscious racial biases. At this point, it hasn’t been uncommon for me to be told to stop talking so much about race. Stop being so negative – it’s the festive season and positive thinking is the way forward! I'm assured if I simply stop focusing so much on the negativity of racism, it will disappear. If you simply stop seeing race, racism will end.

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It never ceases to surprise me how such trivial attempts to simplify race are accepted by so many. Only those who do not have to face the brunt of racism have the luxury of ‘just ignoring it’. True, race isn't a biological reality, but that doesn’t make its effects non-existent, especially for people of colour. The colour-blind approach ignores the fact humans do see colour, we see difference, and our biases can work unconsciously regardless of intentions. Not seeing race is an impossibility in our society. Race is a social construct that took a long time to build. Not only will it take a long time to dismantle, it will also take a lot more than ‘just ignoring it’. In fact, research has shown trying to ignore race can reinforce prejudice, while having more conversations about race, especially with people of different racial identities, can improve our ability to dispel stereotypes and to empathise with others (see Wing Sue's Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race).

So how can we use the r-word more regularly in a more productive manner? A white friend once told me it was too scary to observe themselves with a racial lens because notions of slavery and the Holocaust always jump to their mind. They then suggested if we want to talk about racism in a nuanced, more personal way, we should invent a new word so people don’t feel so threatened. While I appreciate the logic behind such an argument, I can't agree with it.

Racial genocides didn't mysteriously happen overnight – they were a result of widely accepted hierarchies that endorsed the dehumanisation of certain groups of people, reinforced by institutional power and individuals’ thoughts and behaviours. To this day, racism in all its forms – be it institutional, interpersonal, or internalised – continues to dehumanise to some extent. If we acknowledge racism works on a spectrum that can range from extreme violence (genocide) to lighter, somewhat ‘unconscious’ harms (micro-aggressions), why is it still so frightening to explore racism on a more personal level?

The thoughts and fears my white friend described embody white fragility. So do the reactions I mentioned bracing myself for every time I use the r-word. Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to describe the defensive moves white people make when challenged racially, often characterised by emotions of anger, anxiety, or guilt, and by behaviours such as argumentation and silence. White fragility prevents meaningful racial dialogue and it works to preserve the illusion of a post-racial society, whereby racism continues to permeate in an insidious, disguised manner. White fragility ensures racism is always reduced to ‘something awful that bad people do’. If we accommodate white fragility, as my white friend was suggesting, we're allowing racism to thrive and we're silencing those who suffer from it.

If we're to have more productive conversations about race, we should start by acknowledging the obstacles that make these discussions challenging, such as white fragility. As a person of colour, I have to admit I'm equally complicit in avoiding saying the r-word to white people because I fear the consequences of white fragility. Once we realise the emotional labour required for racial dialogue, it becomes easier to pick the right moments and create the right conditions for such discussions. Instead of pointing the finger and calling people out for being ‘bad’, we should invite people to have a conversation in a more compassionate way, accept we don’t all have the same understandings or experiences of racism, and be ready to question and unlearn our own biases. Seek out multiple perspectives and different racial identities for a better discussion – be it in person, online or in books.

Having spent time in the USA researching racial dialogue, I was told by many experts that leaning into discomfort should be a priority for better communication. By all means, pay close attention to your tolerance limits for such tasks and give yourself space, but do not give up on saying the r-word altogether. Saying the r-word is a skill that needs to be developed – expect to make mistakes, but don’t give up. And remember that without practice, we can’t improve.