Are you racist? Why ‘No’ is not a good enough answer

Marlon James is author of the 2015 Man Booker prize-winning novel  Brief History of Seven Killings.

In this short video via The Guardian he makes the case that being non-racist may allow us a clear conscience about our personal conduct but it’s really not good enough. Letting things that are racist in the world just be – supporting that status quo – does nothing to make the world a better place. It starts with our personal conduct as non-racist but there’s another step we need to take to make a difference.

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It might be bitterly cold out today but this means a trip to the bookstore later. Looks like a great read.

As a follow-up – this is also worth watching also via The Guardian: Everyday Racism: What Should We Do?



  1. Thank you for continuing to bring these types of discussions forth, Josie. Both videos were interesting. I agree with the sentiment that letting things that are racist in the world just be – supporting that status quo – does nothing to make the world a better place.

    I also respect and agree with many of Akala’s thoughts regarding “every day racism”. I don’t doubt his experience with daily hostilities or that “top down propaganda” exists but I don’t think racism is limited to black people and I think that’s what I hear him saying. I’m a first generation American. My father came from Germany at the age of 18. He was required to be of good health, have a job and a home before being allowed to enter this country. While that could prompt a whole other discussion, when elementary-aged schoolmates questioned me about my father’s accent I soon learned what a “swastika” was when a drawing was left for me and what the word “Nazi” meant when that’s what they called me. I became shameful of my heritage. Small in comparison to what persists for so many today I’m sure but the feelings they provoked, I suspect are similar and certainly ones I have not forgotten. I think we get into a danger-zone when we target an entire race and it can have non-productive effects. While I may be misunderstanding some of the discussion, growing up I was far from privileged, I don’t want to feel as though I need to apologize for being “white” (if that’s what I am because of the color of my skin) and I truly believe that all lives matter.

    While there is no question in my mind that racism is an important, systemic problem that continues to exist in the world as we know it, so too does discrimination against ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual preference, for example, as well as sexism which remains deeply embedded in the media and the work place.

    I suggest we include discrimination and sexism within our discussions of racism. They are after all, undoubtedly intertwined. Their effects go hand-in-hand and feed each other’s ugliness. “What hurts one of us, hurts all of us” Mr. James says. Discrimination and sexism included. Black, white, men, women, gay or lesbian, liberal, conservative, young, old, Muslims, Christians, Jews etc, etc., none of us are immune to hatred. Tolerance and understanding are lacking on all sides of the fence. To behave with simple, fairness and kindness toward (all of) our fellow human beings it seems for some, a difficult concept to grasp let alone put into practice.

    “It starts with personal conduct…” you said. I agree! So deeply rooted in society, racism, discrimination and sexism continue to permeate even in the unconscious minds of the otherwise, seemingly “non-racist, sexist — whatever” offender who may not even be aware of how s/he perpetuates these ills and endorses these behaviors by using simple yet damaging phrases that are still “accepted” in our speech to one another at “home”; where we live, work and go to school.

    Thankfully, we do not live in the dark ages however and should acknowledge advances and the betterment on all fronts allowing them to become the fuel to forge ahead with. Yet, as evidenced in these two short videos and every news broadcast or personal daily hostility that any one of us may experience, there is much work to be done. The truth is still in fact, as Martin Luther King put it so eloquently when he quoted a slave preacher during a speech in 1964, “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we ought to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

    Our task as I see it, is to do what you are doing, “talking” and as Mr. James suggests “doing”, whatever it takes to make the world a better place which reminds me of another favorite MLK quote: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

  2. Thanks as always Karen for your thoughtful commentary.

    I’m currently reading Marlon James’s novel and his story illustrates so well the inter-connectedness of discrimination and inequity of all kinds including racism, sexism and heterosexism. So far, it’s a violent stew of one slice of the story of Jamaica.

    Your personal family story sheds light on yet another poisonous episode in our history and without a doubt ant-Semitism still too often rears its ugly head. Jews like other groups deemed unacceptable have endured the slings and arrows of a society determined to define who is “us” and who is “them” in order to justify treating the other as people who can be exploited, blamed, excluded and deprived of property, liberty and life. We need to hear all those stories of our collective past and present. Those stories all matter because – yes – we all do matter.

    As you know there is a long and tortuous history – rooted in colonialism – of using racial stereotypes of whiteness to justify barbarism. And anti-Semitism also has its very long roots. And just who gets to tell the story of history is a long tale of exclusion, limited access to power and discrimination of all kinds. Humans seem to be very talented at using “science” and imagination to prove just why one group is justified in their power and why others don’t deserve it or are inferior and in worst cases sub-human.

    Over time we have seen the amazing flexibility in how groups define who is to be included and who is not, who is to be discriminated against, labeled, demeaned, deprived and exploited. The Irish for example. Or Italians. Both groups in US history regarded as less than, discriminated against and treated with at the best tolerance and at the worst with outright bigotry and hatred. And don’t get me started on class!

    And of course all lives do matter and we do all need to work to understand this history and how it affects all of us. And yes there are so many interwoven threads of discrimination and bigotry and none of them can ever be justified and all of which must be named, understood, challenged and changed.

    When it comes to discrimination there are very few groups who have not experienced its sting. (As a white woman of considerable privilege I have quite a few painful episodes of my own to tell.) But my question would be this: How does that discrimination and prejudice affect you, me, us now? Do I have to live with it on a daily basis? Does it have an impact on me and my life and how people see me now, today, in 2016? How? How does the world judge me when they see me now? What is negative? How do I benefit? What has been the lasting impact? And what is the enduring and ongoing impact of that history that has affected so many? What about the here and now and what must I try to do to now to effect change?

    To be continued!

    And thank you again. All voices matter. All stories matter.

  3. Marla McD:

    Hello – I’m still struggling why just being a good person is not good enough. I get the arguments but would love some help from your personal perspective. I mean – my family was never against Jews and we always treated everyone the same.

  4. Katie Green:

    Thanks for posting both of these videos. From the Marlon James video I see an opportunity to move from the state of hopelessness/helplessness (“should I feel bad for being white?) to inviting us all to a state of action and participation. We all have work to do. And of course all of these discussions are intersectional. Gender, orientation, ethnicity, ability, country of origin, economic class are always present and lead us to a richer, more complete understanding of others and ourselves. Of course discrimination and bigotry express themselves with many groups of people and in all different contexts. Let that be a path to nurture empathy rather than a way to minimize the experience or oppression of others.

    Fortunately, there are so many great thinkers, writers, speakers, educators and activists out there to help us figure out how we might be brave and proceed as we work toward becoming “anti-racist.” I am learning a great deal from Tim Wise right now. He was recommended to me by another parent and wrote several books, one called, “White Like Me.” He is incisive and funny… and has some very good online videos. I also like his definition of privilege as, (I’m paraphrasing) “The luxury of being oblivious to the realities of others.” I am trying to be less oblivious.

    I also came across this piece in USA Today (of all places) today, “Let’s get personal about racism.” Here Jim Wallis argues that if we want to fix the structural problems around us, we have to turn inward first. While his Christian angle doesn’t speak directly to me, this does: “In the midst of our racial divides, perhaps one way to come together is to realize that all parents want the same things for our children – an education, a job, a family, a safe and healthy life – and that our love for those children is universal… Could that bring us together to challenge and change the “very different perspective” that still values white lives and white children more than black ones?”

    Josie thank you again for all of the work you are doing to lead and move this conversation forward.

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