The Aggressive Fragility of ‘I’m Not Racist’ and ‘Not All White People’
Dear Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan, and Becky from ‘The Real World Homecoming’: Please. Stop.
People can be so exhausting. Correction: Some people can be so exhausting. Although exceptions are generally implied when we generalize, for some people, nothing can be left to implication — especially if the subject is racism.
I see evidence of this in the comments section of nearly every article I read or write about race. There are always a few in the audience, usually White, who take offense because they presume that when Black people write about the racism White people inflict on them, unless “White people” is qualified with “some,” they are being lumped in with the main offenders. Apparently, for them, the true horror of racism isn’t racism itself but being accused of it due to association.
I understand the frustration, even if I think it’s kind of pathetic. For many Whites, merely implying they might be racist can be as triggering as being called the N word is for blacks. Although the latter is accompanied by centuries of brutal history and a system that continues to undervalue us, the R word is a label most White people, even ones who are openly racist, don’t want to wear. KKK members and White nationalists deny they are racist all the time.
“I’m not racist” and “Not all White people are racist” are two common and thoroughly unnecessary White protestations. When White people use them to avoid being lumped together with “real” racists, they aren’t telling Black people anything we haven’t heard. It’s a racist trope, and by constantly repeating it, they’re shoving themselves into that unsavory box. It’s one step up from “Some of my best friends are Black.”
My advice to Whites who protest too much: Stop making racism all about you and your hurt feelings. When Black people talk and write about the way racism damages our lives and our psyches and how deep the wounds cut, defensively pointing out that you are a model White person is a terrible look. The deflection diminishes the pain of what we are talking about by making it all about something else: you.
When you start shouting at a Black person for not acknowledging that you are one of the good White people, you immediately become one of the White people that Black people complain about.
The best way to prove you’re an ally is to simply listen. Instead of rushing to defend yourself against the big bad R, dig deeper. Racism isn’t just about hurling the N word and joining an alt-right organization. Ask yourself: Are there ways you contribute to the cycle of racist microaggressions without realizing it? Have you actually done anything to help Blacks who are hurting? Does thinking you aren’t racist absolve you of responsibility to do better?
My husband is White and so are many of my friends. When we talk about race, rather than challenging me and pointing out how woke they are (or that they’re raising their kids not to see color), they listen and support me. My best friend is White, and she is constantly engaging in honest self-examination to explore the ways she might unknowingly be perpetuating cycles of racism.
If I talk about racism and exclude “some” when I refer to White people, my husband and my White friends don’t get defensive. They don’t try to correct me or gripe about how unfairly Black people treat White people. They ask how they can do better. They recognize that White privilege isn’t about economics alone. They don’t see racism as someone else’s problem just because they don’t actively or consciously consider Whites to be superior to Blacks.
It’s amazing what a lot of soul searching can do. That usually requires shutting up and checking your arrogance at the door. This is something Becky Blasband on The Real World Homecoming: New York still hasn’t learned to do. In the second episode of the reunion reboot of the 1992 first season of MTV’s The Real World, she and her ex-reality TV roomie Kevin Powell picked up right where their 1992 argument about race left off.
The most surprising thing about the reunion isn’t how much the cast has changed but how much I have. Back then, Kevin was characterized as the angry Black man, and I didn’t disagree. I was apolitical in my youth, more concerned with furthering my career and having fun than talking about the harsh everyday reality of systemic racism.
I wasn’t comfortable bringing it up with White friends, acquaintances, colleagues, or strangers. I was the “good” Black, the people pleaser who wanted to make everyone in my presence, even White people — especially White people — comfortable.
Leaving the U.S. in 2006 and living abroad for 13 years transformed me. Racism is a global pandemic, and the strains of it shift from country to country. Putting physical distance between myself and American racism and living with different racial dynamics in South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe gave me a deeper understanding of the racism I’d been shoving aside for decades, especially when I returned to an America in 2019 that was far more racially divided than it had been in 2006.
My experience with racism overseas and relating it back to the racism I’d known all my life in the U.S. turned me into the political animal and activist I am today, someone who can revisit Kevin in 1992 and see how prescient he was. He was right then, and he is right in 2021. Unfortunately, Becky, like so many of the White people who comment on my articles and the articles other Black people write, still doesn’t get it.
Instead of listening to Kevin talk about something that affects his life more than it ever will affect hers, she kept interrupting him to make her point: She needed everyone, especially Kevin, to value her supposed enlightenment and acknowledge that she was not a part of the “White system” Kevin called out because she wasn’t raised to be racist and doesn’t think she’s better than anyone else. As the episode ended, she was still going on and on in circles, determined to keep making her point until she got Kevin’s Black approval.
It was painful to see her grovel so aggressively for a gold star. Who cares? It’s not all about you, darling. When you start shouting at a Black person for not acknowledging that you are one of the good White people, you immediately become one of the White people that Black people complain about.
That’s what Sharon Osbourne did when she was blinded by her determination not to be seen as racist over defending Piers Morgan in the aftermath of his misguided comments about Meghan Markle following her and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. As soon as Osbourne attacked her Black cohost Sheryl Underwood on air on The Talk for diplomatically trying to set her straight, she sounded a lot like what she kept insisting she wasn’t.
Osbourne later posted a statement on social media apologizing for overreacting, which read, in part, “To anyone of color that I offended and/or to anyone that feels confused or let down by what I said, I am truly sorry. I panicked, felt blindsided, got defensive & allowed my fear & horror of being accused of being racist take over.” She’s still hedging, as celebrities tend to do when they “apologize.”
The problem with people like pontificating Becky on The Real World and ranting Osbourne and Morgan is that they are too in love with the sound of their own voice to simply shut up and listen when it’s in their best interest. I wonder how Becky would feel if she were a survivor of rape talking about how her experience made her feel about men, and a tone deaf guy kept chiming in to remind her that not all men are rapists.
Racism isn’t rape, but they are both traumas that some of us spend our lives learning how to navigate. It’s complicated. Those who haven’t had to deal with the trauma of racism firsthand should stop telling those of us who have how to talk about it.
If they expended as much energy fighting for us as they do defending themselves from the dreaded R word, maybe we all could be on our way to finally changing the subject.