Racism and Responsibility: Family, Friends, And You
I feel like I need to make a note about racism and responsibility that’s too long for a Facebook status update or a bunch of tweets. And if I make a sweeping statement (I will make a few), do not return how this doesn’t apply to you. If it doesn’t, you know it. You don’t have to announce it.
The Racist Uncle “Joke”
We all have racist friends. We all have racism in our family. We make excuses for them or act like they don’t exist. We think about the good times and the memories instead of the ways they hurt other people. You will one day have to decide if you are going to confront them or let them go, but you are still responsible for your history with them. You will still be responsible for tolerating their hate, present and past. There will be a time where that person might end up alone because people decided to drop them instead of talk to them, and it will be easy for them to become radical, if they are not already. They will still be in some way your responsibility.
I get that, but white people need to come collect. And when we don’t, POC pay.
— Julie S. Lalonde (@JulieSLalonde) August 15, 2017
When talking to Julie Lalonde about the white supremacist disowned by his family, she asked who was going to collect him. The thought bothered me. I have family I’ve disowned. For years. Haven’t spoken more than a sentence at a funeral with them. The idea it would be me that has to take them in when they have nowhere to go, for their personal choices, as adults, it’s near impossible for me to accept. But then I think about if my nephews said something or became radical. Would I just drop them or would I try to help them? Of course I would help them, but that’s because I love them. In the eyes of a stranger, the family I’ve disowned is still family. And not doing anything about it, they won’t care if I’ve disowned them. It’s still me turning a blind eye to family hurting people.
Her point, which I agree with, is that by washing our hands of the responsibility of our hated friends and family, we let them loose to hurt people of colour. You can never really wash the blood inside you. It’s a difficult question. We’re talking about adults who should be fixing their own hearts. But they likely won’t, and as much as we don’t want the responsibility, we look like enablers when we do nothing. These are tough questions, and it’s up to us to answer them.
Would you build a monument to your own history of racism?
There’s also the issue of the fact we are often dealing with baby boomers and Gen X on these subjects, who dealt with race and culture very differently. My dad had a teacher who immediately assumed he was stupid because of his last name (Wrotkowski is clearly Polish), and treated him differently for it. My grandfather made racist jokes to me as a kid because he didn’t see it as any different to when he was young.
Growing up, Gypsy jokes were “fair game” and it honestly wasn’t that long ago I used to always spit before saying the word due to a Second City TV sketch, because it was an accepted joke with those I was around. That was wrong, and I never recognized it when doing it. This is the reality of privilege. This is the reality of racism. I never thought I was doing anything wrong when I was spitting after saying Gypsy. It was “just a joke,” like when comedians tell stories about their “racist uncle.”
We all have racist history. We have all said and done things we regret, and they come in our minds when we try to be allies. There’s photos of me drunk getting a photo taken with guys dressed as Nazi’s. I was in my 20s and I remember regretting it almost immediately, and getting the person who took the photos to take them down. But they exist. I was a part of it. And I feel ashamed about it every time this stuff comes up.
I was using gay slurs at a young age in insult sparring with my sister. I have friends who still use slurs and racist language in private conversation as jokes, who know it’s wrong, and do it as a release of tension. I understand their reasons, but it’s still wrong. And in the moment, I rarely call them out on it. I’ve always enjoyed trying to find ways to “go too far” when with my friends, and while I don’t remember everything I’ve said, I’m sure a lot of it crosses the lines and is extremely hurtful.
My online presence in my teens and 20s isn’t clean. And you can’t run from that. You can only own it and try to be better, and when someone doesn’t trust you due to your history, you can’t attack them. You have to accept it, and help in another way.
You cannot be an armchair activist, especially in your own home.
There’s a lot of people out there who really don’t hate other people but they bristle at the idea of white privilege, of responsibility for the actions of others. White people need to do a better job talking to other white people and explaining what they are missing. Explaining what it means. Stop sitting back and having POC do the explaining. Yes they are more than capable, but they shouldn’t be wasting their time. This is your job. POC are the victims when we don’t do our job.
Off topic of racism, but too many feminist men expect women to do the explaining to men of what feminism is. They don’t want to talk for women, when there’s plenty about feminism that’s men centric they can speak on. But we rarely do. And we fail as allies every time we miss the opportunity. You can wear the t-shirt, donate to The Establishment, share a hundred articles and re-tweet a thousand tweets, but if you stand aside while a man goes on about egalitarianism over feminism, talks about unfair situations for men without criticizing the patriarchal standards that created them, or straight up hates women, thanks for the donation but your support means nothing.
And I understand it’s hard. And understand you’ll often get it wrong. And I know the feeling of thinking you’re doing the right thing and then someone tells you that you didn’t help. It sucks. It really hurts. But we’re going to make mistakes. Definitions will change. The next generation might not look at you as the progressive you think you were. Sometimes it is best to just support POC, LGTB, and women (especially support POC, LGTB and women to have the platform to speak for themselves,) and sometimes it’s best to be up front and fight. Confederate statues? That’s your fight. Nationalist rally in Toronto? That’s your fight.
So yes, celebrate the confederate statues coming down. Celebrate the Canadian Prime Minister denouncing racism. Appreciate you are on the right side of history. But none of us, and I speak to white people, men and women, have a clean closet. We all grew up with this. We might still hold racist sentiments. We might still have friends and family we accept despite their racist behaviour. We might understand “locker room talk” better than we admit. It doesn’t make you garbage until you don’t clean it up.
We can’t just remove statues in the American south. We gotta remove the statues in our backyard too.