“I’m not racist”

June 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

I hear this line of defense so often when I challenge white people on racist behaviours. I had the privilege of listening to a recording in which Tracey Bunda, speaking on a panel “Women of the First Nation” that opened the Feminist Futures conference, broke down how it is that white people exercise privilege in saying these words.

How is feminism relevant to Aboriginal people’s lives? Whose purpose and for what purpose is being served when Aboriginal people come into this space? In crossing over into a feminist space what risks are hidden that we may have to come face to face with? And we usually do that alone as Aboriginal woman. And in raising this matter I think how permanent a fixture being raced, moving into racialised spaces and how race takes a very different shape to say, the time in which my mum grew up which was 1920’s and even the time in which I grew up in the 19 – I’m not telling you.. (laughter). But it’s still very insidious within Australian society and it takes a very different shape.

You know, it’s easy to look at somebody like, what’s-his-face, an Andrew Bolt, but it’s those very insidious forms of racism that have become very sophisticated, and they are framed within politically correct, ‘colour-blindness’, and it’s those sorts of racisms that Aboriginal people deal with, and non-Indigenous people deal with, and part of the privilege is to be able to say “No, I’m not racist”.

(later, during question time, in response to audience member asking Tracey to expand on ‘the privilege of being able to say “I’m not racist”’…)

When we challenge a person on their behaviour and that person responds back to us by saying “I’m not racist”, it’s an exercise of power to shut down the conversation. Right? Because, the person who is saying that, and it’s usually a white person, wants to hold, wants to be centred and dominate virtue. And so that behaviour of goodness is always then attributed to whiteness. And then in challenging white people by saying “That behaviour is racist. What you have just said is racist”, there’s this retreat to virtue and a retreat to goodness to dominate that particular space. And so, in dominating that space; “No, I’m not a racist”, what becomes unspoken is that “You’re not virtuous because you are not engaging in polite conversation with me. You’re actually wanting to disclaim my virtue. You’re bad”. And blackness is associated with bad.

– Tracey Bunda, a Ngugi Wakka Wakka woman and Associate Professor of the Yunggorendi Centre at Flinders University, speaking on panel “Women of the First Nation” which opened the Feminist Futures conference that was held end of May in Melbourne. Notated with her permission.


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§ 10 Responses to “I’m not racist”

  • amsocialist says:

    People of color around the world should read this post.

    • harshbrowns says:

      I’d like to think many people of colour already sense the dynamic Tracey speaks of, having experienced it so often, as I did before hearing her words. I think its white people who need to educate themselves and consciously and consistently break down their privilege. For me, hearing Tracey break this down so concisely is affirming of my frustrations, but the change in oppressive attitudes is the responsibility of those with privilege.

  • joey says:

    Wow yeah, she really does break it down. The idea of virtue, of reputation… it’s such a powerful force to recenter things around the person being criticised, and oh, such a good silencing technique.
    I like in White People, Fourteen Ways Your Racism is Showing when they say:
    “How could you not be racist? You cannot simply decide that racism is “bad” and therefore you are no longer racist. This is not unlearning racism. Black people could not afford to be this naive.”
    Argh, it’s so gross to claim anti-racist as an identity.

  • Ginny says:

    I was so lucky to actually attend this panel and felt really privileged to hear the three Women from the First Nation speak – Tracey Bunda, Paola Balla & Rebecca Gerrett-Magee. They were strong, uncompromising and direct, and I thank them for creating a space in which I was reminded of the privileges I enjoy on a day to day basis because I happen to have white skin. I think it’s important for people to remember that people of colour (and especially, women of colour, who experience an intersecting oppression) have more than enough to deal with on a day to day basis and it’s actually not their jobs to remind white people of the stratas of oppression in society. So when someone generously does take the time to do that, I recognise that they are going out of their way, and I thank them for that.

    I also want to agree with the last comment. We are all racist. We live in a system that constantly reinforces the rightness of being white. You can’t simply not be racist. What you can do is acknowledge your racism and ignorance. I know that I am blind to much of the opression that people of colour face because I’m white! I’ve never experienced it. I can blindly walk down the street not seeing opression because it doesn’t affect me! I have the luxury of not thinking about racism sometimes, because it doesn’t affect me! I understand the immediate defensiveness whiteys feel when they get called racist, cause I’ve felt it myself. I’m a NICE person – how could I be racist?! The best and most respectful thing we can do is own that defensiveness, step away from it, and admit that we actually don’t know what we’re talking about. We can try and recognise our racism and change it. It’s a slow, hard process and you won’t get it right all the time because our default position is racism! I’ll say it again – white people need to accept this – our default position is racist. Because we are white and live in a world which priviliges us for being so. We can, slowly, painfully, step outside that default position, but it is hard and it involves unlearning, being wrong, and being open to being told we are wrong. I know I feel confronted, I feel self-righteous, I feel slighted if someone pulls me up on my attitude. But really, I should be thankful that they think I’m worth the bother – it would be so easy for that person to just walk away and ignore me because they hear it all the time. If they are actually taking the time to pull me up on something, that’s bloody generous of them.

  • Maxine says:

    Great post. But Ginny, of course racism does impact on you, even if indirectly, in the way that it completely devalues what it is to be human.

  • Maxine says:

    Hi T – OH! NOW I remember. And I had such a crush on you for writing this:) Damn the baby brain. Thanks for coming to support today & hope the Think Tank meeting went well. Hopefully we’ll cross paths again soon.

    • harshbrowns says:

      Thanks Maxine (though Tracey Bunda deserves all the credit for this one). You were inspiring yesterday, I look forward to more tales for POC children in both our futures! x

  • michelle says:

    it is very hard to read the grey on the black, is there any way you could, make the text lighter….

  • Tonie Owens says:

    Great Blog!! Definitley needed this to reaffirm that I’m not just being negative and playing the victim by wanting to discuss this perspective and create dialogue around it. Thanks!

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