Girls holding hands / Anna Shvets / Pexels
Have you ever heard something so absurd that you can only blink?
“I understand actually. My husband is Samoan, so talofa,” said Judith Collins when asked about her proposed steps to tackle students dropping out of schools to work.
You blink, and then you look around (metaphorically) to see if anyone had the same reaction.
Thankfully for me, my digital looking-around revealed that Collins’ weirdly off-topic preface to her answer was noticed by many, many people who tuned into the Leaders Debate.
It’s important to note that this article is not to hash out whether Judith Collins is racist or not. It’s to address the way people of colour are used by the other people in their lives to a) boost their authority on certain topics and b) immunise themselves from allegations of racism. Obviously, there are legitimate and attainable ways to do both of those things. Using our relationships (which say zilch about ourselves) is not one of them.
It’s similar to the token black friend trope that we see recurring in TV, film, media and politics. TV shows and films can’t possibly be racist if they’ve sprinkled a healthy smattering of people of colour around their white protagonists. Politicians can’t possibly be racist if they’ve formed close bonds with people of colour. After all, they wouldn’t invite people of colour into their homes and lives if they secretly hated them.
Here’s the thing.
Racism is often — though not always — not about hate. In some utterly hateful individuals, racism can absolutely manifest as violence and devastation. But racism can also be about ignorance and fear. Stereotypes and narratives — such as those about immigrants, or indigenous communities — that we subconsciously take on board can affect the way we treat and move among others. And when strangers become familiar to us, all those preconceptions and microaggressions might fall away when we think of them. They’re different. They’re an exception.
Racism can also be about apathy. I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. While I don’t necessarily agree, I do believe that apathy can cause harm just like hate can. Being apathetic or indifferent to movements for racial equality might mean dismissing those tough conversations and internal reflections that everyone ought to be having.
There are so many ways that internalised racism can manifest in our relationships with people of colour. Hateful racism can lead to hate crimes, using slurs and terrorism. Fearful racism might mean having plenty of immigrant friends while simultaneously being unsympathetic to the plights of refugees coming to New Zealand. Ignorant racism could entail sustaining harmful sexual fetishes for certain ethnicities. Apathetic racism might mean refusing to talk about racism with your loved ones because you’re ‘colour blind’.
Fear, ignorance and apathy towards communities of colour are not incompatible with love for an individual. Very often we have both — not one or the other. It’s totally possible to love a person of colour and still be a racist. It’s also totally possible to be a person of colour and love a racist.
Our relationships with others, even outside the category of race, are complicated. (Understatement, I know.) That’s why a person’s social proximity to people of colour — to me, at least — means next to nothing. The best proof that we are anti-racist is not the people we know, but the things we are doing.
Information is widely accessible in this day and age. Most people are well within their means to educate themselves and give their attention to leaders of racial equality movements that can guide them. And, at the end of the day, it’s okay to admit that we still need to do more work to understand and dismantle systemic racism.
Better than sheltering behind those we love at least.Support Villainesse