Sh*t white people say

by Eric Ginsburg

I am regularly amazed by the things white people say to me when we’re alone, things they often admit they wouldn’t say in front of people of color but that they defiantly claim aren’t racist. Sometimes it’s coated in less-than-amusing humor, or comes out as an unnecessary detail in a story.

Friends will note the race or nationality of non-white people in their stories, either because it’s “exotic” or fulfills a stereotype, somehow more relevant than if the character was white (whiteness is almost never mentioned unless to differentiate between people when someone isn’t white).

Sometimes it’s argued away by claims of being descriptive. But we both know you said the big scary dude walking towards you was black to emphasize your point that he was scary, relying on racism to get your point across.

Several summers ago I was visiting home, catching up with one of my best friends and telling him about the person I was dating. After telling him how we met and what I liked about her, he said we should pull her up on Facebook so he could check her out.

“Ohhhhhh, you didn’t tell me she was Asian!” he said, then remarked about how attractive she was.

While my girlfriend’s heritage was an important part of her identity, it wasn’t the reason we met or why I liked her. It’s not that I would idiotically claim to be “colorblind,” it just wasn’t relevant. The implication of my friend’s reaction and subsequent justification was that her darker skin was interesting and her ethnicity more “exotic” than if she was just one of the white girls I had dated before her.

White people often refer to international cuisine as “ethnic,” as if white people don’t have ethnicities, otherizing everything that isn’t “American.” But even this term furthers racism — obviously the United States isn’t a white nation, and America technically refers to two continents, where most of the inhabit-ants are people of color.

Sometimes people are so aware that what they’re saying is offensive that they preface their remarks. It’s like when somebody starts by saying, “Not to be rude but…” and follows with something obnoxious. I was talking to someone a few months ago who told me, “Not to be racist, but I really wanted to rent the house to a white family.”

He went on to defend himself when I questioned his motives by saying the neighbors were racist and he merely wanted to shield a tenant, adding that a black woman was actually going to be renting it from him and then telling me how cool her “baby daddy” was. He added that they bonded, trying to rack up antiracist cool points for being tight with this black man.

I’m not automatically anti-racist because I have a black roommate or have dated someone of Southeast Asian descent. I’m not cooler because I got along with a black coworker, because I’ve been to Central America, was obsessed with Michael Jordan or find Michelle Rodriguez attractive. Oh if only it worked that way. I deal with internalized racism too, and it’s because I’m a white person socialized in a racist society.

Plenty of my white readers are probably rolling their eyes right now, thinking that they are sick of hearing about slavery and racism and that they’ve heard all this before. Maybe they need to hear it again because we have a lot left to do, starting with recognizing the ways that our whiteness benefits us in society.

Often the racism of our society is subtle — I watched reporters flock to the few white women who were the victims of a recent scandal, largely ignoring the crowd of black male victims nearby. Other times it’s more blatant as in who is filling the jails, who is profiled for deportation or in the upswing of activity from the Klan based in Eden.

One of the most important things to realize is that it’s part of a larger problem, beyond the comments of friends, beyond racism. I’ve lost count of how many times people have said homophobic slurs in front of me — partly because they assume I’m heterosexual — or the misogynistic remarks men make, especially when women aren’t around.

It often catches me off guard, and I deeply regret all the times I haven’t been quick enough to react. When I don’t, it affirms the oppressive behavior of those around me, creating a safe space for their attitudes.

It’s not just about privileged people standing up for our friends or “marginalized people,” but about affirming our own dignity. Nobody can truly be free until we all are, and if we aren’t actively challenging each other and confronting our own privileges to try and be better, less oppressive people, we’re diminishing our own self worth too.

Let’s decolonize everything, including ourselves.