"But I'm Not Racist!" – Why Being Just 'Not Racist' Is Never Enough

"The heartbeat of racism is denial and the sound of the heartbeat is always 'I'm not racist'."

Cover image via Speedhome

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I was 12 years old when my aunt howled "Pig eaters!" at a man who almost hit our car

My very impressionable young brain couldn't comprehend or grasp the situation. He was an individual. A separate entity. Yet, he became the whole of his community at that moment.

But my aunt is one of the most loving people I know. She loves her grandson to bits and makes us tea every time we visit her. She loves pineapple tarts and is now grieving over losing her sisters. 

She tells me she's scared, that it feels like she's slowly losing everyone she loves due to old age.

How can she ever be a 'racist'? Isn't racism always targeted at us by 'other' racist people?

I was 21 when I travelled to Kuala Lumpur alone for the first time to visit my college friends.

And the moment I spotted a Bangladeshi man in the MRT, my guard went up.

Image for representation purposes only.

Image via MRT Corp

I became more vigilant than I initially was. As if this person would harm me as soon as he had an opportunity, but he was just minding his own business.

He wasn't exhibiting any suspicious behaviour. Yet, the fact that he looked a certain way automatically made me feel threatened.

But I'm not 'racist'.

Or maybe at that point in time, it never occurred to me that I was being racist. Or rather, I did not want to admit I was being racist.

Maybe it is because the term 'racist' reduces all that I am into nothing. Maybe it reduces us all into horrible human beings with not a single ounce of kindness within. Maybe it takes away all the good you've done and labels you as just that, a 'racist'. 

Maybe that's why we refuse to admit it, that we are all a bunch of racist people.

So, how do we acknowledge something that we're all in denial about? The key lies in how we view what it really means to be racist.

Image via Bernama

I happened to watch political advocate Roshinee Mookaiah's video on Instagram on Acknowledging Racism. In her video, she introduces us to a concept by Professor Ibram X Kendi from his book How To Be Anti-Racist. Professor Ibram shares how the heartbeat of racism is denial and the sound of the heartbeat is always 'I'm not racist'.

To be racist is to deny we are racist.

Professor Ibram also urges us to start perceiving the word "racist" as a descriptive term that describes what someone is saying or doing at any given moment. For example, my aunt said something racist when that man almost hit her car. I had a racist thought when I felt "unsafe" only in the presence of a Bangladeshi person.

The heartbeat of anti-racism, he says, "is confession, is admission, is acknowledgement, is the willingness to be vulnerable, is the willingness to identify the times in which we are being racist, is to be willing to diagnose ourselves and our country and our ideas and our policies".

When we frame the usage of the term 'racist' as descriptive, we acknowledge that we are all capable of exhibiting racist tendencies in our thoughts, words, and actions. To be anti-racist is to admit when we express racist ideas. This way, instead of being reduced to a 'racist' person, we are acknowledging our shortcomings and weaknesses as human beings.

However, when all of us are trying to be 'not racist' instead of anti-racist, we are more likely to become defensive when our racist tendencies are pointed out

Maybe that is why the disapproving and judgmental "India kaki mabuk" statement is commonly justified with "I'm not racist. I am just stating the obvious".

Roshinee draws a parallel to her own experiences of being outspoken about the racism Malaysian Indians are subjected to. Her content on racial discrimination of Malaysian Indians in the education system and the employment sector was always met with defensive comments from non-Malaysian Indians and some Malaysian Indians alike.

"They immediately invalidate by saying 'Where got like this?', 'Eh this person or organisation is not racist, okay. They're good people' or 'You are being racist. You menggugat keharmonian negara! We're all Malaysians first. Why would you bring race into this?'".

However, Roshinee reminds everybody that not everyone is privileged or has the luxury to be only Malaysian and forget about their ethnicity.

When our racist tendencies are pointed out to us and we gloss over it with 'Bangsa Malaysia' or with "the social contract", we are preventing ourselves from being accountable for the harm we inflict on others, regardless of it being intentional or not

We refuse to take a moment to listen or give people the space to express their lived experiences because the moment we do, we are acknowledging the racial discrimination that they are subjected to is very real and we are likely afraid to face the fact that we're all 'racist' individuals.

Maybe it's time we start perceiving what it means to be a racist, differently. It's not an identity. It's not something we can be reduced to.

It is part of our shortcomings and weaknesses as human beings due to social conditioning. We learn it from our families and the people around us. We were not born racist.

We are constantly taught that there is a hierarchy of citizenship based on one's race, that some are better than others. We need to move forward by really listening and holding spaces for those who need to be heard while collectively unlearning "being racist".

We need to have more and healthier conversations on being "anti-racist" with the focus on how we can educate ourselves and act better. And the starting point is for all of us as individuals to see things as they are; that we're all capable of perpetuating racism instead of seeking comfort in denial.

Again, the heartbeat of racism is always 'I'm not racist'.

If you're interested to learn more about race relations, human rights, and the importance of international conventions for Malaysia from a historical-social perspective, check out #TanpaPerkauman, an amazing publication by Imagine Malaysia in collaboration with IDEAS Malaysia.

This story is a personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the position of SAYS.

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