An excerpt (pre-final edit) from Bruce’s upcoming book, “But I don’t see you as Asian”: Curating Conversations About Race.
Any comment that begin with “I don’t mean to be . . .” is probably not going to end well. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but…” signals that you are about to say something jerky; “I don’t mean to be rude, but . . .” signals that you are about to be rude, and “I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .”signals that they next few words probably will be in fact . . . racist.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a great twitter account @yesyoureracist that calls out people who preface a tweet with something like “I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .
Here are just a few examples. I chose not to publicly call out these folks to the extent that I would include direct links and Twitter names. My intent is not to bring down the hammer on any one person, but only to point out that issues of race are still in need of addressing in today’s society. And yes, I have let stand all misspellings and grammatical creativity.
○ Tweet – “i swear to god i am not racist but i am very thankful that my new neighbours are not Indian”
○ Tweet – “Not a racist but Chinese folks – please stay away from getting behind the wheels. Your driving sucks BIG TIME!”
○ Tweet – “Im friends with plenty of blacks. Just because i dont want my sister to date one does not mean i am racist”
○ Tweet – “I’m not racist but if we didn’t have a non-white president, foodstamps wouldn’t be record high because they’d have jobs!”
○ Tweet – “Not being racist but u know the incidents @ #bostonmarathon are by those filthy disgusting raghead bastards.
If you were to scroll through people’s response to @yesyoureracist you will see that many people respond with something to effect of, “I can’t be racist, I have Black friends,” will claim that it is unfair to call them out because they have free speech and or try and justify their words in some other way.
Am I saying that people should now no longer be allowed to express what we they are really feeling, even when it is based on the color of another person’s skin? Certainly not. I am one that thinks that folks must always be allowed to express themselves, no matter how much I may disagree with or disdain what they say. At the same time, I also think that that should have the integrity to recognize that some of those thoughts, no matter how much they want them not to be, are indeed racist. And most importantly, when thinking about the freedom of speech that we are privileged to have here in the United States, this freedom does not mean that our words can be spoken and are immune from the repercussions and accountability that may arise from ramifications of those words.
Ultimately, the problem with this, “I’m not racist, but . . .” thinking creates the illusion that one can think use this as some kind of disclaimer and there are no ramifications for what is being said – or that there is no justification for people to be upset by those words – because the person who said the words also said he/she is not racist.
Free speech does not protect people from the consequences of those words, nor does merely claiming a reality make that reality true. When we use this phrase or hold this attitude, through our words and actions we participate in the widening of personal racial division, as well as justify systematic and structural discrimination that are built on racial stereotypes and assumptions.
In terms of reframing this perspective and thinking, I wish it were as easy as, “Just stop saying it.” This is not really a comment that screams, “I want to be in community,” but for those who hold these ideas and seek to change, there must be a commitment to take a deep look into their own prejudices: why do they exist, why do we justify them and is this something that we want to perpetuate and pass along.
And for those who have heard it, this is also a great opportunity to speak on behalf of targeted communities, not only to bring light upon those who should know better, but to model to larger spheres of influence that this attitude is not acceptable.
Bruce Reyes-Chow is the author of The Definitive-ish Guide for Using Social Media in the Church as well as the soon-to-be-released, “But I don’t see you as Asian”: Curating Conversations about Race. He can be found online on twitter at @breyeschow, on facebook at @breyeschowpage and/or on his blog at www.reyes-chow.com.