Last night I came across a review of the "Transformers" film by a guest blogger at The Angry Black Woman blog. I'm going to post some separate thoughts about that film later; for now I'm more interested in some general principles.
In one comment, the site owner (the eponymous "angry black woman") says:
here on this blog, we like to have level 2 and 3 conversations about racism and race relations. Not Level 1 conversations.
What makes a level 1 discussion? one in which the presence of racism in America and American media is questioned. So here’s a clue to catch those of you still on level 1 up: Racism exists. How do I know? i experience it. I see it. I hear about it. From who? Minorities. White people. Intelligent folks who live in the world. Who regularly tells me that racism doesn’t exist or that X thing isn’t racist? Ignorant, clueless white people. Guess what, white people? the only people who get to declare racism over are those to whom racism happens. That would mean not you.
If you are white and someone non-white says “hey, that’s racist” the correct response is not NO IT ISN’T BECAUSE I HAVE A BLACK FRIEND WHO LIKES IT or some other lame reason. the correct response is “why do you feel that way?” and then, when they tell you, to go off somewhere and think instead of talking.
I've never been to America, but I think it's fair to say that the same principle applies in England.
Looking at the Required Reading page on that blog, I haven't read all of the linked articles, but there are a couple of quotes that did strike me as significant.
In How to Suppress Discussions of Racism, point 4 says "Deflect attention away from the specific criticism." Two specific examples of this are:
"I'm [a member of an oppressed group] and I'm not offended."
"My friend is [a member of an oppressed group] and he/she is not offended."
In this context, I assume that the oppressed group is the one that the original criticism referred to, e.g. if one person is complaining about the portrayal of a black character in a film and then someone else says "I'm black, and I'm not offended."
Moving to a completely different source, in the book Wasting Police Time (based on The Policeman's Blog), the author describes a situation when he stopped someone for questioning:
In the meantime, my fond hope is that, one day, I may be able to do my job without being called a Nazi. Today I went to a fight. A description was passed over the air along the following lines: 'Offender is an Asian male, twenties, yellow T-shirt, 5ft 5in, medium build, injuries to back of head.'
So I go and have a look and... blimey! There he is!
I stopped him and spoke to him.
'Would you mind just waiting there a second, sir? Only we've had a report of an assault and, well... control, can you repeat the description of the offender, please?'
I made sure the youth was listening in. After it had been read out (and I mean he matched the description to the letter) he said (and I quote), 'This is racism, man. Why aren't you stopping any of those English people?'
The author is writing under a pseudonym ("David Copperfield"), so it's possible that he isn't even a real policeman. On the other hand, I could say the same thing about any random people on the internet, so I think it's reasonable to consider this as a plausible hypothetical scenario.
Personally, I don't think that this incident counts as racism. However, I'm white, so according to the Angry Black Woman this isn't my call to make. I could ask an Asian friend/colleague for their opinion, but apparently that also doesn't count. It would also be impractical to hold a referendum for an entire community each time there's an accusation of racism. So, how should one handle a situation like this?
In How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People), the summary says: "Don’t make it a whacking huge deal if you say something racist, or something others perceive as racist. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking, if need be."
Apologies are a tricky issue; I think they should be sincere, so you should only apologise if you're genuinely sorry for what you said or did. One approach is to say something like "I'm sorry that you feel that way", but lots of people think that a weasel apology like that is worse than not saying anything at all. (I don't have a citation for that to hand, but I can find one on request.)
I think that the most important thing is to learn from the experience, so that if you have inadvertently said something racist then you can avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. So, how do you decide when that's the case?
If someone from group X complains that they've experienced racism, when is this criticism valid?
What proportion of group X should be polled?
Can the person who was criticised ever conclude that the criticism was invalid without needing a second opinion?