On Friendly Racism

I remember in Korea, when I went to karaoke (or, noraebang) with my colleagues, they often instructed me to “do rap.” At one other point, they were genuinely curious about the lyrics to “Empire State of Mind” and had me go over every reference in the song.

At other times, here in the States, I’ve had friends make jokes about race that, had we not been friends, would have absolutely been classified as hateful. And I don’t claim to be immune to doing this myself, because it’s ultimate a part of the American language, the burning desire to push boundaries on social topics.

What does this mean, though, this sort of “friendly racism?” None of the people I’m speaking about wanted harm to come to me, and I doubt any of them even voted for the current President. I think if I pointed this out to them, they’d be horrified and apologetic (which is its own topic, but still).

It’s easy to avoid people who clearly do not see you as in possession of full humanity. But what of the people who want to connect with you in some ways yet make use of this language?

I think the issue is a very sad one. For most people, most who haven’t really sat with the realities of race and racism, these sort of “jokes,” this type of “edgy” humor, is, at its heart, an attempt to release the tension they feel around the topic of race. But instead of learning what is correct to say, they create distance by being disrespectful (they’d call it “funny,” but no).

It’s too simple to just say “screw these people,” because that won’t address the issue in any way. Sure, distance yourself, call them out, but what makes it so that people who do actually care feel the impulse to debase themselves in such a way?

Ultimately, I think, especially for white people, this comes from a lack of deep racial identity, a mindset where, since they do indeed lack active antipathy for people of color, they feel guilt and confusion and discomfort, and this sort of humor is easy and comforting. I get it. For me, at least, I see how this happens on other axes of privilege that I have (gender, class, ability). I don’t make these sort of “jokes” anymore, but surely so when I was younger and less mature. In a way, I lacked the language to connect with people in marginalized groups without resorting to negative behavior. And I think this is common.

This doesn’t make it okay. But the real culprit here is a society and an educational system that doesn’t force us to consider our identities as oppressors. I didn’t say “feel guilty about,” because we’re pretty good at that. But truly considering our oppression – instead of learning about oppression in the abstract or as a history lesson – and understand how we need to evolve to counteract the oppression within us and around us is a vital task for all of us, especially those of us who are in education.

When I think about my colleagues in Korea, for example, they would have no reason to follow these patterns if we exporters of the English Language did not promote a framework in which asking marginalized people to perform their race was acceptable.

In some ways, I find that the “friendly” racism is the most challenging to defeat, because they could do so much better. But until then, people will just keep making themselves comfortable at the expense of those who’ve already suffered far too much.