22 June 2014
“That guy just said something really racist* to me.”
“Really? ...but he seems so nice!”
[*Throughout this post, you can replace the word “racist” with basically any type of prejudice or discriminatory behaviour, and everything will still be relevant.]
I've had this conversation more times than I can count, upon telling someone I'm with about the behaviour of someone else around us.
Every time I hear this response, I'm filled with utter disbelief. Do people think that racist idiots somehow look or act different to the rest of us, most of the time? That they have green horns sprouting from their heads, or walk around with a sign on their head advertising their particular form of bigotry? Or that they begin all conversations by explicitly stating their prejudices?
Let me save you some time; they don't.
In fact, most of the time these people function as a regular, perfectly pleasant human beings in society. And, if you don't happen to fall into a group against whom they discriminate, it's highly likely that you might never have witnessed their ugly behaviour. It makes sense, doesn't it? For them, you may well be exactly the right skin colour to fit within their bigoted views – so, clearly, you'll be seeing their very best side ( in effect, the person that they could be to everyone, were it not for those prejudices – isn't that sad?).
To state the very, very obvious: you are likely never going to personally experience a type of discrimination which is manifested against people who don't look/seem/act/behave like you.
But, and this is crucial, the fact you haven't personally experienced it doesn't mean it didn't happen, and it definitely doesn't mean you shouldn't believe that it did happen.
If someone is telling you about an unpleasant experience they've gone through (which is undoubtedly what happened for them to have started a conversation like the one above) – please, never question them. Listen to them.
It's already awkward and difficult to have to be the one who points out that someone at the party you're at, or in the social group you're in, actually holds ugly and offensive views. It's even more horrible to be put immediately on the defensive once you do bring yourself to tell an ally about it, let alone to have someone you thought you could depend on then actually defend the person in question, using the utterly farcical argument of:
“But they've never behaved like that towards me!”
A personal aside: every time I hear this, inside I'm screaming OF COURSE THEY HAVEN'T, YOU'RE WHITE...and outside, I explain my inner screams in the most socially appropriate way I can. Because, realistically, that's probably the most constructive and pragmatic thing I can do, right?
If you find yourself on the responding side of the situation above, anything you're going to say that starts with “but....” is a bad idea. No “but's”, just, I'm sorry that happened to you. Ask if they need anything, or if they would like that person to leave, and do what you can to support them.
It's not the responsibility of the person who has been a victim of said discrimination to “convince” you of the veracity of what they're saying; if they are telling you this, it's also likely that they trust you, and you should trust them too. And for God's sake, get over the naïve idea that bigots will somehow be anything but regular people, just like you and me.