The problem with calling out prejudice; which one is it?

20 April 2014

I recently came across Alice Bell's rather wonderful piece, “How to tell a white person they are being racist.” Despite being written, as she states clearly, “by a white person, largely aimed at white people”, I found a lot of the points mentioned very pertinent. But in practice (for me at least) calling out racism and prejudice in general is pretty tricky, and as I realised recently, one main reason is that I'm very rarely 100% certain what particular prejudice the person is displaying at the time.

Admittedly, some displays of bigotry are pretty simple to diagnose; the employee at an airport who helpfully directed me away from the EU/UK citizen queue towards the queue for foreign nationals, for example – bingo, racial profiling.

But, say, the lawyer who upon meeting me, put a 20 euro note in my hand instead of shaking it and told me to get him a coffee and an avocado sandwich “pronto”; what was it about me that made him think it was okay to do that? Was it my gender, skin colour, age, perceived inexperience, or did I happen to evoke some other type of prejudice in him?

Because if I take the decision to call out behaviour like that when it happens to me, the main trait I don't want to display is insecurity; I want to be entirely sure that what I'm saying is correct, and I want to say it with the most confidence and self-assurance I can conjure up. That alone can be difficult; so as you can imagine, a response along the lines of:

“No, I won't get you a sandwich; your behaviour is completely unsuitable, and you're being racist...or, sexist. Or maybe ageist? You're being prejudiced, in some way...”

doesn't quite have the desired kick to it. So, I don't say anything.

Being able to name exactly what it is that I find offensive about the behaviour in question also feels like it helps my case; it makes it harder to deny or to dodge, and as I've mentioned before, for me, putting a label on a type of behaviour makes it somewhat easier to discuss. Perhaps naively, I also imagine that being more specific also helps the culprit to identify the precise point within their thinking process that led to that incorrect and ignorant assumption being made.

For me, being able to suggest a concrete way that they can prevent repeats of this behaviour in the future lends a direction to the conversation, or at least my intervention: “Don't judge people by their skin colour” for example. It's a a concrete takeaway, and it's something that, ideally, they can remember upon meeting people of colour in the future.

But “don't be prejudiced”...? What good can come out of such a general accusation, apart from a similarly general denial? And, as it's normally coming at a time when I'm struggling to be taken seriously by them, I really, really want to sound as eloquent as I possibly can be in order to debunk their assumption.

And, worst of it all, within all this comes the conscious annoyance at myself that I'm even worrying about this; as Bell points out in her article, the responsibility of calling out prejudice shouldn't ever lie upon the marginalised group in question, and as she quotes battymamzelle:

“it's incredibly inappropriate to demand that a marginalized group restructure a conversation to make things more “comfortable”; for the very people they are mobilizing against. That is the very definition of flexing one's privilege.”

And yet here I am, worrying far more than I should, about how exactly that conversation could or should or might go. So maybe I should just simply call it out irrespective of my being able to identify what exactly the prejudice being displayed actually is (actually, it might even be a mixture of multiple prejudices- lucky me!) – and just say how unsuitable and offensive I find their behaviour, and walk away. And leave them to deal with how to interpret that information, and what to do about it. 

Quite simply; it’s not my problem.

But you, dear reader; it very well could be yours. Sure, the victim identifying and calling out prejudice is a good first step; but those next steps of helping the culprit through working out how and why they have that prejudice, and what to do about it, is definitely not the victim's problem.

This is where Bell's article of advice to white people on how to tell a white person they are being racist (or prejudiced, or anything like that) comes into play. Simply being conscious and self-aware that you, yourself, are not committing those same ignorant acts is not enough – for this prejudice to stop happening, you need to play an active part in the solution.

The fact that you can ignore prejudice being displayed around you is a huge part of your privilege. Consider yourselves incredibly lucky that you can do so, and if you have any desire to use that privilege to help marginalised groups around you, step up and work with those groups to identify and educate prejudiced people around you.


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