Sympathy for the Racist

One of the things that parents, and others in the sensitivity training business, are always trying to teach is seeing things from the other side, the idea that other people’s experiences and background may lead them to different conclusions and feelings than yours. Once you get this, you can start to learn about each other and learn to stop offending each other.

Today I got to feel what it’s like to be one of those people who doesn’t know they’re being racist or homophobic, but really is.

To be clear, I don’t think I am racist. I do not judge people by the color of their skin, only by how attractive they are and whether or not they can be of service to me in some way. I also don’t go around saying stupid things like “I don’t see color” or “I know how you feel, I mean, I’m Jewish.”

I think I’m pretty well educated about the history of race relations in this country. I am aware of my white privilege but don’t walk around talking about it because the story of race in this country isn’t actually about me and my feelings.

But today I was told that I had been racist. I published a “Real Wedding” post on my wedding blog ( the writing for which I actually get paid). The wedding was interesting to me because the bridal party danced in to the wedding doing the popular “Gangnam Style” dance – that hippity horsy thing from the video by the Korean singer, Psy.

The title of the post was “Real Fall Wedding (with a Little Gangnam Style).” In case you’re wondering, when you write a title for a professional blog post you don’t actually want a cute, clever title. You want one with the key words for which people will be searching. So, here it’s Fall, Wedding, and yes, because it’s still got another 10 minutes of fame left, Gangnam Style.

Within a few hours I got an email from the photographer who submitted the wedding. His client was angry, she felt that by referring to the wedding as “Gangnam Style” I was being “really racist.”

My stomach hurt, my body tensed, my hands shook. I did the weird thing I do where I clench my teeth and turn my head like a Cocker Spaniel. I went and reread the post searching for the racism. I felt stunned and confused. What could possibly be racist about this? It’s the name of the song and the dance. Then I felt angry, really angry. How dare this woman accuse me of being racist? Did I tell her to send her bridal party down the aisle doing a stupid YouTube dance? Is she really that stupid that she can’t tell the difference between me commenting on her dance and me confusing all Koreans with one song? I didn’t even know she was Korean for Pete’s Sake!

I wanted to write her and ask her what her problem was. I wanted to either refuse to change anything or just take the whole thing down. Because seriously, how dare she. I wanted to double down. I did not want to be told that I was wrong or needed to see the error of my ways.

Then, about half an hour later, I changed the title of the post and tightened the text a little to make it clear that I was talking about the song, not her. No matter how stupid I think she’s being, no one should have their wedding photos used to make them feel like crap. I want her to feel good about being on the blog, and I hope this fixes it for her. If not, I’ll probably edit again.

I still think she was wrong. I still remember that feeling of disbelief, of anger and shock. All across the country there are people with black friends who think Obama was born in Kenya. There are people with gay friends who think marriage is between a woman and a man. There are people with Jewish friends who think Jews own the media.

These people do not consider themselves homophobic or racist or anti-semitic. Yet we wonder why, when people do things like create a Tumblr called “Hello Racist” it doesn’t help. We wonder why exhortations and arguments to think differently don’t help. It doesn’t help because as we parents (and others in the sensitivity training business) say labeling and name calling doesn’t help.

I’m not saying that I think I was racist. But now I know what it feels like to be called a racist. I know what it feels like to be told I hold beliefs and values that in my heart, I don’t believe I hold. It does not make me feel like reaching out and opening up a dialog. It does not make me feel like learning more about this person’s culture or beliefs. It does not make me want to hear what she has to say. It does make me hope that I remember the feeling, I hope I choose my own words and labels more carefully because of it.

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2 Responses to Sympathy for the Racist

  1. I’ve had this feeling before, trying to figure out if something really was racist or if someone really was being over-sensitive. It’s a very hard one to figure out. There really are people who seem to go out of their way to find offense in absolutely everything. There are times when something really isn’t racist, it’s just ignorant or maybe even just rude. But it’s always to hard to figure out when. Because ‘racist’ is very often subjective instead of objective. That is, it seems that something is racist if it offends a person of that ethnicity, but seeing as no one can possibly know or predict what *might* offend someone, it’s impossible to know based on that if something really is racist or not.

    There has to be a line – a very very fine line – where a person is offended but the thing that is offending them isn’t racist *just because* they were offended by it.

    Obviously, when the subject of the photos is the one offended, that’s an entirely different matter. As you said, no one wants their wedding photos to be the “offensive thing” and due to the personal nature of it, regardless of whether the racism accusation was justified or not, the offense is certainly real and should be considered paramount in such instances.

    But if the person who was offended was not part of the wedding, then is even the claim of being offended actually justified? It’s like I had to tell my nephew the other day: you may not like her hair, but that doesn’t mean she has to change it. He was upset because he didn’t like his niece’s hair (he’s only 8) and he wanted her mom to change it. I told him it was okay not to like it, he didn’t have to like it, but that it wasn’t his hair, so she shouldn’t have to change it just for him. It was a hard discussion to have. We sometimes feel our reaction is paramount in a situation, when really our reaction is just that: *our* reaction. It is personal, and does not trump all else in such situations. In all cases we should try to remove ourselves from the equation as much as possible and try very hard to show objectivity in otherwise subjective situations.

    I think you did the right thing by considering the client’s reaction. Wedding photos are just about as personal as you can get publicly. When a person’s own pictures are the subject, then it doesn’t matter why they’ve reacted as they have, they should get to dictate to some degree the outcome. It is always hard to be accused of racism, it creates a very instant, visceral reaction and makes it hard to be rational after that. It sort of kicks the ‘fight or flight’ response into instant overdrive!

    But I don’t think what you wrote was racist. It was misconstrued, very unfortunately so. And even more unfortunately so, the client’s reaction very well may have been a result of someone *else* being actually racist, making her more sensitive to how something else had been worded. That’s another problem is that our reactions are never born out of a vacuum. We react based on previous experience. Someone who has never experienced racism may not even notice overt racism because they don’t have a frame of reference for it. Someone who has experienced all too much of it may react negatively with feelings of racism to something very innocent.

  2. wow….even thought she might be wrong – good for you for examining the issue. I know a lot of (mostly older) people who spout racist sentiments ALL THE TIME and it drives me nuts (because some of them happen to be related to me) but their inability to look at things from other sides is what keeps them stuck in an outdated mentality. It’s to be pitied, really.

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