If no one had called me out, I wouldn't have learned
I write about race a lot, quite sanctimoniously. Then last month someone called me racist. The gall.
I was writing about racism against Asians, and Herlene Tyson said I was being racist.
But I’m brown, I fight racism, I can’t be racist. Right?
As you can see, despite being a critic, I’m terrible at taking criticism. My first response (in my head) was a bunch of excuses amounting to basically ‘fuck you I don’t wanna’. I just closed the window and tried to move on.
But it stuck with me. I tried thinking of witty comebacks, but nothing was funny because nothing was true.
Dammit, she was right.
I had totally missed much of the world in my article about white people missing the world. How embarrassing.
I did some reading, amended the article, and apologized to Herlene. I said:
Good point. I’ve updated with some African and Caribbean examples. Sorry for the omission.
This obviously edited out a lot of child-like rage. Then I sat down and read a lot more. And then I was like
Wow, I really missed a lot.
I went from ‘shut up Herlene’ to ‘thank you Herlene!’ quite fast.
Herlene mentioned Trinidad & Tobago, so I started there. Then I looked back at the COVID-19 numbers as if I was an alien, as if the country names meant nothing to me. Mongolia stood out so I went there (online), and wow. Their response was so good that they had zero local transmissions at all. Then Ghana, which had some crazy 10x testing innovations. There were stories all over, and these were good stories.
Together, this series on COVID Underdogs has been read over 500,000 times. It is, by far, the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and I never would have known if Herlene hadn’t called me a racist.
You’re probably racist too
Look, everybody’s a bit racist. It’s OK.
If you live in a society, someone’s at the bottom of it, and that person is likely racialized. And that person’s probably a dick too, in some other direction. Being awful is just something humans do, but it doesn’t have to be what we are.
If you’re living in history, you’re not at the end of it, and you’re surely getting something wrong. This is OK. We just have to keep trying to get better, and part of that is listening when people try — often in rude and obnoxious ways — to help.
I think the difference between being a racist and being racist is just the ability to listen. Everybody’s a bit racist, but if you stop listening then you’re suddenly a lot. Wherever we are, I think we have to consciously try to listen down, because that can really lift us up.
The call to listen
That more than anything is the call of Black Lives Matter. To just listen. What does that phrase mean? What are these people saying? People are quick to say ‘all lives matter’ or mount convoluted defenses about timing and tone, but that’s no different than me being like ‘fuck you, I don’t wanna’.
The first thing is to just listen. To be like, ‘OK, you’re having a problem. I’m sorry. How can I help?’
It’s annoying, but we can’t excuse ourselves from this task. We can’t be like,
“Oh, you’re looking for someone else, I’m not racist.”
Guess what, you are racist, just like me. If you live in a structure, you’re part of structural violence. If you know any history, guess what, you’re still in it. We’re all standing on somebody’s neck, and in every society, someone is saying ‘I can’t breathe’. By our support or our silence, we’re all a part of the violence.
We have to keep learning. We have to keep moving. We have to listen. Besides the prophets, we can never get it right, but God knows we can get better.
But not to racists
‘Racist’, however, is not a magic word. Tellingly, actual racists will sling it at you for even talking about race. I get that all the time in Sri Lanka, if you talk about problems Muslims or Tamils face you get scolded for ‘stirring racism up’. It’s disingenuous.
Here, on Medium, I get called racist by white people on the daily, for writing about white power. But reverse racism is not a thing. Having your feelings hurt is not discrimination.
White power and white people have to be named and shamed because that’s the only way to learn. That’s the only way I learned. If it feels uncomfortable, if it feels too angry, then good. White people should feel uncomfortable. After centuries of slavery, colonialism, and discrimination people have every right to be angry. We’re lucky that the oppressed only want equality and not revenge.
So the least white people can do is listen, without being snowflakes, talking about ‘not all white people’ or ‘you won’t get anywhere with that tone’. That’s just being defensive. I know because I’m the same way. At some point, we have to just grow up.
“Oh but being woke,” people say, “It sounds exhausting. There’s always someone to offend, then there’s all those pronouns, I can’t even make jokes anymore.”
When we’re called racist the easiest thing is to just deny it, laugh at it, ignore it and move on. The easiest self-improvement is just doing nothing. It also feels good, for a minute, and you can get back to cat videos or whatever.
Honestly, it seems like the amount of new people and identities is never-ending, because it is. Our circle of compassion keeps getting wider. Our extension of humanity must keep going, beyond even humans. The greatest delusion of every era is that we’re somehow the end of history, or at least some respectable part, and not just some assholes from the past.
Don’t be that asshole.
It’s better on the other side
Let’s take my experience. Herlene’s comment made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. I just wanted it to go away. I wanted to delete that comment and go back to being right about everything.
But, I didn’t. And then I learned so much more, from across the world. I learned how Ghanaian shirts contain secret messages, or how Mongolians give sheep in times of distress. More to the point, I learned about life-saving leadership from across the world, and was able to write about this vital story. And my own readership increased 10x.
So yes, it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. All I had to do was suck it up for 10 minutes and I got the world. I’ll still resist my next lesson as well because being wrong sucks, but it can be done. As I tell my kids, their favorite teacher should be Miss Take. That’s how we learn.
Right now, this is a time for all of us to listen. To listen down, and punch up. It might seem annoying or even humiliating at first but trust me, it’s better on the other side.
So if you’re ever called racist or asked to check your privilege, maybe sit with that for a minute. People can be disingenuous, people can be mean, but sometimes they’re right. It’s hard to tell, but you have to be open to that opportunity. Walk away for a bit and just think about it.
Remember that being racist doesn’t have to be something you are, it can just be something you do. Remember that it’s easily forgiven, and that compassion is paid back, with interest. Remember that what seems like an insult may actually be an invitation.
So let me start the process for you.
What can you learn?