“I’m not racist, but…”

By Jaina Kelly, Contributor

Union Square, NYC, April 2015

Union Square, NYC, April 2015

We’ve all heard it: that pre-racist-comment disclaimer meant to absolve the speaker of their prejudices because what they’re about to say is, just like, so true! Unfortunately, these types of meaningless disclaimers do not absolve anyone of circulating damaging stereotypes. Eliminating these harmful commentaries is an integral responsibility we need to take on as University students. Though we all share different backgrounds, I think we have all encountered casual racism: racism perpetuated through daily, interpersonal interactions.

Growing up in Orillia, I was surrounded by people who refused to accept any visible differences in ethnicity and culture. Racist jokes and opinions were commonplace in my high school. Regretfully, these opinions are not limited to the confines of grade school. They exist in most avenues of life. Our generation has the information and capacity to shape a more inclusive, compassionate world. This starts with recognizing the ways we are hindering social progress through reinforcing stereotypes.

It first occurred to me in high school, when a classmate openly made a derogatory comment about First Nations people (without any reprimand from my teacher), that the education system had failed to provide us with the adequate stories of oppression in Canada. Without reference to these stories, we remain unaware of racial privilege. From my school experience, we were barely instructed on the genocide in our country’s past, let alone given insight into the current systemic social structures of racism. We were not informed of how racial inequality pervades government, politics, employment, and health. Without being introduced to these problems, those born into white families like mine have the luxury to overlook them. This is called white privilege. If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘white privilege,’ it refers to the multitude of societal advantages of being born white: being widely represented in media, preferred treatment from law enforcement, being allowed access in most spaces without suspicion, wearing a hood freely without being feared a ‘gangster’…the list goes on.

Though nobody wants to admit they may have racial biases, it is essential to become conscious of the ways we discuss race and culture. Otherwise, in subtle forms we continue repeating inequality. You don’t need to be a card-carrying Nazi to be upholding oppressive stereotypes. Orillia is a predominantly white town, so it’s hard to imagine being pitched in the center of Ferguson having our storefronts smashed. It’s hard to imagine living tormented by the mystery of a loved one, whose death was brushed under the rug for possessing First Nations status. Many of us are living without worry of persecution due to our ethnicity, so why not use our privileges to help shatter the dialogue that oppresses our neighbours? Combatting types of oppression requires educating ourselves on the context of the world, recognizing stereotypes and refusing to accept comments that allow discrimination to continue. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s needed. Oh, and don’t try to avoid it by claiming you straight up “don’t even see race.” This notion of being ‘colourblind’ is only further ignoring and trivializing the experiences of marginalized groups by labeling them, in a way, invisible to you. Take the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for example. There’s been a retaliation called #AllLivesMatter, which plainly highlighted a common desire to eliminate oppression by suggesting that life is a fair playing field for all. It expresses an ignorant eagerness to sweep away any acknowledgment of race in order to avoid the truth: race is a defining factor in cases of poverty, inequality and injustice. By turning a blind eye, the space for discrimination only grows.

The topic is touchy and loaded, but that still doesn’t justify avoiding it. Helping break down barriers can be as simple as questioning a friend’s racial jokes or beliefs which stereotype an entire ethnicity. Those unaffected by marginalization are often blind to the depth of its consequences and need someone to point it out. As a white person, my goal has been to listen to the voices of those who are oppressed, because we do not have the right to dictate experiences of victims. Listening creates understanding; understanding fosters solidarity. The words we say each day form our realities, which is why we must stop allowing for casual racism in any situation. On campus, by moving forward with awareness of social inequalities, we can bring about a more inclusive and respectful world.