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[CASE STUDY] Why saying ‘I’m not a racist’ makes you more of a racist

Abstract: This is a case study of white South Africans suffering from ‘I’m not a racist’ - a syndrome of the broader condition known as racism. ‘I’m not a racist’ is one of the most common mental features in Caucasian South Africans who are often unable to recognise this symptomatic feature, or the undesirable situation it creates. One result of the syndrome is that the individuals who engage in discourse about race with people of colour falsely believe that their guilt is absolved based on the fact that they have uttered the four words. It has not. For many sufferers, the psychological and verbal reactions that follow ‘I’m not a racist’ are quite severe: fragility, gaslighting and aggressive defensive behaviour are a few. Through a process of discovery, it has been found that ‘I’m not a racist’ is a result of many white individuals believing that they have nothing to do with systemic and structural racism. Historical experiences have caused these people to neglect their complicity in racism and the trauma has caused resistance in the form of ‘I’m not a racist’.

Case Presentation: Many people of colour grapple with trying to navigate different forms of healthy relationships with white people in South Africa. These are hard to maintain because of innate demographic and political differences as it is. But for some reason, the onus of maintaining a healthy relationship falls on the person of colour. But, people of colour are becoming more and more conscious of the fact that different forms of whiteness need to be dealt with in different ways, especially when the whiteness displays itself in the form of micro-aggressions like ‘I am not a racist’. In these situations, a more in-depth and contextual understanding of the racist system needs to explored in order to navigate these relationships – whether they are with colleagues, friends, or partners. The problem can only be treated if it is recognised. And in order to recognise it, a certain degree of awareness is necessary.

Patients who present with ‘I am not a racist’ are often not aware of micro-aggressions like these, and so a conversation is often needed to highlight the fact that all white people, whether they like it or not, are complicit in racism and have benefitted from it; and in many still participate in it. Not all white people are bad people, but all white people are complicit in racism. Saying ‘I’m not a racist’ as a white person just commits white people to the notion that they have nothing to do with racism and leads to a failure to understand how systemic racism is a function from which they benefit and perpetuate whether this happens consciously or unconsciously. ‘I’m not a racist’ makes having these conversations unproductive, and it often reinforces the same racism that it’s trying to be defensive about.

Saying ‘I am not a racist’, whether it is independently or as a reaction to something or someone who is engaging in a conversation, is just another way for a white person to state their defensiveness of racism, instead of acknowledging its problem and their role in it. It is better to ask a question in situations like these, rather than refocus the race conversation on you as a white individual, to focus it on the problem of the experience of racism and race itself.

A defensive disposition often needs to be quelled before any real conversation about race can happen. This chore often falls in the mouths of people of colour. For example, I, as a person of colour, first have to acknowledge that you (a white person) are a good person, before we can have any serious sort of conversation about why people like me get treated differently on a daily basis, compared to people like you. A degree of defensiveness is reasonable, no individual wants to hear that they are participating in something as offensive and atrocious as racism. But good white people, simply do not present with ‘I am not a racist’ syndrome.

Management: Management of ‘I’m not a racist’ syndrome requires facing the ‘whites so fragile’ truth - and this can be done through a process of self-regulation for optimum results.

White fragility is a phrase coined by author Dr Robin DiAngelo. It is defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”. This state takes into consideration that most white people “live in a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress” due to their privilege. While white people are used to being infrequently challenged, this is changing. And their intolerance for stress as a result of race or race-based topics can cause them to become hostile, guilty, defensive, or fearful when confronted.

White fragility disrupts important conversations about race, because it shifts the focus of the exchange from racism to what it’s like to be white. When an individual is a sufferer of ‘I’m not a racist’, they must constantly check themselves against white fragility. Emotions like defensiveness, denial, and aggression need to be accounted for and controlled. Individuals should also be sure that they are not using humour to deflect or depersonalise someone else’s pain.

Conclusion: Being confronted about race and racism and confronting it is uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be. White fragility must be managed. In order to be part of a society that listens, learns, has empathy, accountability and helps, white individuals need to accept that discomfort and stop saying ‘I’m not racist’.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.

If you would like to submit a column in response to this piece you can mail it to editor@ewn.co.za for consideration.

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