Ask pretty much anyone if they are racist and they will tell you they are not. The vast majority of people share a universal repugnance of racism. Even people who hold racist views tend to shy away from the title of racist. The well known “I’m not racist but…” (usually followed swiftly by a racist comment) illustrates this point beautifully.
Racism is offensive to most people. At the simplest level, racism is offensive because it plays on stereotypes that deny a person’s individuality. Human beings are not products of type. People who share a skin colour do not all think and behave in the same way and it is offensive to suggest that they do. Racism strips a person of their identity, their achievements and their uniqueness. A racist views their victim as less than who they are and less than what they are worth.
So most of us agree that racism is offensive but we do not all agree on what constitutes racism.
The core of the debate is whether offence is something which is taken or something that is given and there are academics arguing the point on both sides. Is a comment racist only if it is made with racist intent or can a comment made in innocence be racist? Is it possible to be accidentally racist?
I’d like to go through some scenarios to illustrate the widely subjective nature of how we perceive racism.
If I go up to a Black person I do not know on the street and call them the N word I am being racist. Unequivocally racist. There is no ambiguity. That is a racist act committed with racist intent.
If I go to a supermarket, buy a bag of bananas, wait for a Black person to walk by and hand them a banana I am being racist. Again that is an intentional (and despicable) racist act.
But let’s say instead that I’m on a market stall selling bananas and I’m offering them at a pound a bunch to everyone who walks by. And a Black person happens to walk by. So I offer him a bunch. Does the context change the act from being racist to being socially acceptable?
Is it the act or the context of the act that makes something racist?
Does the fact that I am offering everyone who walks past irrespective of their colour a bunch of bananas mean that the act of giving a banana to a Black man is now no longer racist?
How about if I offer my bananas to everyone who walks by but then I see a Black person and choose not to treat him the same as all the other passing potential customers because I am worried he will think I am being racist. Is singling him out and marking him as different a racist act in itself?
Then we have to consider the attitude of the recipient of the banana. Does his reaction and interpretation of the event make a difference as to how the act is perceived? If he is shocked and hurt and feels he has been racially abused does that make it a racist act?
If he wrongly believes I am making a joke and laughs does that make it a racist act?
If he wrongly believes I am making a joke and gets offended does that make it a more racist act?
If he appreciates I am offering my bananas indiscriminately and understands that I am focused on selling my wares instead of trying to be offensive does that make it a less racist act?
If the Black person I offer the bananas to believes I am being racist when I am genuinely not being racist does that mean I have committed a racist act?
Is it the act or the perception of the act by the person it is directed to that defines it as racist?
If I did happen to think it amusing to offer a Black person a banana and did so intending racism but the Black person mistakenly thought I was just doing my job as a sales person so took no offence mean I have not committed a racial act?
Now let’s put a third person into the equation, an observer. I hand my bananas to the Black person with no racist intent and he accepts them with no offence taken. But the observer sees this and says it is racist. Is the act racist because it has been perceived as racist by a third party? Does the act that was not racist become racist if it is pointed out to be so?
Does the skin colour of the observer have any relevance? Is a Black person better placed to make a judgement on this than a white person would be?
How about if there are two observers and one says it is racist and one doesn’t? Or 100 observers and 99 say it is not offensive but one doesn’t? Does the fact that a small minority have taken offence make it racist even if a clear majority are fine with it?
Is it the act or the perception of the act by an observer that makes it racist?
Then we have my mate on the market stall. She happens to be black. How about if she gives a passing Black person the bananas while making a jokey comment that he looks like somebody who would enjoy a banana. A white person saying that that would definitely be racist. But is it less racist if she does it because she shares his skin colour?
Is it the act or the skin colour of the person performing the act that makes it racist?
Does my knowledge of whether a banana is or is not a racist trope have any relevance? If I have no idea bananas have ever been linked with racism, offer a bunch to a Black person and they take offence am I being racist? Can I be unwittingly racist?
Is it the act or the intention behind the act that makes it racist?
There are no objective definitive answers to these questions. Opinions will vary on most of them.
For some people racism is all about intent and they believe that without intent there can be no racism. In this view it is not the act but the person choosing to commit the act that makes something racist.
Others hold the opposite view and believe that it is how a person interprets an act that makes it racist or not. So even if an individual does not intend to be racist, if the person on the receiving end of the act feels it is racist then they would class it as racist.
My own views on the scenarios presented here are irrelevant. I’m no more or less qualified than anyone else to judge what is or is not racist and that is pretty much the point I’m making. There is no oracle on racism. There is no book or learned scholar we can consult for the answers. All we can do is reach our own subjective conclusions and negotiate the minefield in unity.
Or, the shorter answer to the title question – Who gets to decide what is racist? We all do.