What is polite racism, and how do we stop it?

Above: Sara Ahmed, feminist scholar and author of  Living a Feminist Life  (2016).

Above: Sara Ahmed, feminist scholar and author of Living a Feminist Life (2016).

The scholar Sara Ahmed was born to a Pakistani father and an English mother. She grew up in Australia, often fielding the intrusive question, “Where are you from?”

Sometimes men stopped her on the street to ask about her ethnicity, insisting she tell them "where she was really from, originally," and only stopping when she mentioned Pakistan. At times, the question had dangerous implications. In her 2016 book Living a Feminist Life, she shares the story of being flagged down at age 14 by two policemen on her walk home. One asks her, “Are you aboriginal?” He's looking for a burglar who ‘fits the description.’ When she says no, one policeman turns to the other and jokes, “Maybe it’s just a suntan.” Ahmed reflects:

“Although given as a quip it was a hostile address, and it was an unsettling experience at the time. It was an experience of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognized as out of place, as the one who does not belong, whose proximity is registered as crime or threat.”

In her case, she was strolling through the upper middle class neighborhood where she lived. Her experience of being let go by the officers constitutes a kind of "passing," which she describes as the assumption of a less threatening identity: “In order to pass through (a street, a neighborhood, an organization), you have to pass as something you are assumed not to be.” In order to walk around her neighborhood without drawing police suspicion, she had to pass as a white woman with a suntan.

I’m embarrassed to say that it reminded me of something I asked my mom once, as a kid. We had seen a play at a local theatre, starring Leslie Uggams. When we saw her walking in the parking lot after the show, I turned to my mom and whispered, “Wow! She’s so tan!” My mom laughed at me, and once we were in the car, she said, “Honey, she’s African-American.” I was about 11 years old and so unused to seeing black people in our whitewashed area of Connecticut, that my default interpretation of a person of color was “white with a suntan.” The idea that Uggams was black hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Ahmed considers the tendency to fit race into the white color spectrum as a guard against racial discomfort. In her words:

“Color becomes something that has to be explained or explained away… A tan explains color as domesticated color. A tanned woman would be a woman who acquires her color in the way other Australians do: her color is not a stain on her being; her color is not foreign; her color is even an expression of national character, of what we do in our leisure time.”

And this is where the polite racism lies, embedded in the tendency to create an assumption of whiteness where none should exist:

"Polite racism works to create presumed whiteness. It is deemed more polite to assume you are white. Qualify: it is more polite to assume you are white unless you look black. Racial ambiguity becomes treated as promissory: presumed whiteness assumes the desirability of distance from blackness.”

Polite racism is related to the idea of “colorblindness.” As a white girl, I had often been told that colorblindness was a good thing: you’re not supposed to see race. Fortunately, reading feminist scholars like Sara Ahmed clued me into the insidious mechanics of being “colorblind.” She writes:

“Such comments thus also imply: I don’t see you as brown, but tanned like me, which usually means, I don’t see you. When people claim they don’t see race, it often means they don’t see those who are assumed to bring race with them (white: not of color; race: of color). “I don’t see race” thus translates as: I don’t see those who are not white as not white, which translates as: I don’t see not white. In order not to disappear, you have to make your brownness into a willful assertion."

The underlying logic of polite racism is that race is unseemly to mention, and much better to ignore. But of course, this erases people's identities, and implies that their race is easier to eliminate than to accept. The impulse to sweep race under the rug reminds me of Kellie Wagner’s post from December. She remembers her friends saying to her off-hand, as though it were a compliment, "I don’t even think of you as black," dismissing her identity in one fell swoop. 

The solution here is simple: recognize people for who they are without demanding to know what they are (e.g. where they’re from), acknowledge race exists, and don't plot people's colors by their proximity to whiteness. 




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