"I'm Not Racist" Isn't An Excuse

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I cannot count on my fingers and toes how many times I have heard a white person say, “I’m not racist.” It’s normally a declaration expressed in my presence, following a questionable, potentially racist statement. While there are dictionary definitions of racism, I think a missing group in the classification of inferior and superior are the liberal, pseudo-racists; people with the values of racism that while not overt, is so embedded in their DNA, that they can’t recognize when they are offending minority cultures.

This fact has always been extremely problematic for me. I grew up as the Black kid, surrounded by white schoolmates. There have been instances where I felt I had no voice or power to challenge that statement, simply because I did not know how to respond. And these were my friends, after all. I was torn between my loyalty to them and to myself. Meanwhile, they would tell me that I was supposed to be understanding and know that they were joking.

I attended predominately white private schools for most of my education and I got used to being the only Black kid in a class. Elementary through middle school, no one really pointed out the fact I or my other few classmates were Black because it didn’t matter. We had all been at the same school for years, were all on equal footing academically, and we could all afford private schooling. Race was not a huge factor until high school.

I went to a very liberal high school where the arts were heavily emphasized and embracing your individuality was highly encouraged. With all of this, I still felt that my blackness was stifled. There were a few Black teachers and students and when all of us got together, we would play music, laugh loudly and just let our hair down. In those moments, I would forget that I went to a mostly white school; I could let my Black guard down. But it was in high school that I developed a higher sense of self and started noticing the pseudo-racist nuances.

The first occasion where I found myself deciding whether to being an angry Black kid or a silent one, was when my white male friend casually sang the n-word. It was after school one day, and we were riding a shuttle bus from the residential location of our school buildings to a nearby train station. I was unfamiliar with the song he was singing but when the n-word came on and he said it, that was all I needed to hear.

I was paralyzed with shock. Wide-eyed white classmates within earshot fell silent and looked to me for a response as my friend asked, “What? What? I was just singing a song! Precious, I'm not racist!” Yes, he was singing a song and no, I wouldn't consider him racist. However, in the process of singing those lyrics, he made the conscious decision to say the n-word, without caring that I, his Black friend, was sitting next to him and would be offended by it.

I decided to turn what could have been a hostile and confrontational moment into a teachable one. I explained how hearing him say that word, while not directed towards me or anyone else, was hurtful and offensive to me. I told him that no matter the context, whether song lyric or otherwise, it was not okay for him to say that word because of its history. And because he respected our friendship and me, I believe the situation made him consider how his actions could affect others, particularly good friends.

Since then, I've witnessed similar and worse incidents occur; covert and overt racism is especially prevalent at predominately white colleges. It still irks me hearing white people say the n-word while singing along to rap songs. No, I don’t think that all white people are racist, but I don't think they are without responsibility. I think it's imperative that we don't accept the simple excuse of "I'm not racist, but...", and instead encourage informative, meaningful conversations with our white friends and counterparts about the implications of their privilege.

Has someone ever told you, "I'm not racist"? How did it make you feel?

Precious J. is a 20-something, aspiring culture writer and music enthusiast located in DC. For more on her contemplations about Blackness, culture and music, email her at: Precious@ForHarriet.com

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