Being Nice To People Of Color Doesn't Mean You're Anti-Racist

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Being Nice To People Of Color Doesn't Mean You're Anti-Racist
Scary Mommy and Oxford Languages

In the past few weeks, we’ve learned the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Two of their murders were videoed. Since then, I’ve seen many people’s true colors. They get keyboard courage, posting responses to deaths, protests, and riots including: all lives matter, we’re all one race (the human race), and that they’re colorblind. They love everyone, no matter if they’re Black, white, purple, or pink with polka dots. Their attempts at neutrality infuriate me. They don’t see that they are active participants in racism. Instead, they believe that being cordial makes them “good.”

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Why? Because they consider themselves to be nice people. They aren’t using racial slurs. They are raising their kids and grandkids to be kind and inclusive of everyone, regardless of race. They don’t laugh at their great uncle’s racist joke told at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Their college roommate was an international student from Ghana. While their sentiments are warm and fuzzy, they are superficial and lean heavily on white privilege. Let me be clear: Being nice or complimentary to people of color doesn’t make a person not-racist.

Racism will not magically dissipate with hugs, high-fives, compliments, and other niceties. Bidding a Black woman “good morning,” holding the door open for a Latino man, or complimenting an Asian kid on their new sneakers is hardly anti-racist work. Now you might be wondering what anti-racism is. That’s a fair inquiry. Allow me to enlighten you.

Activist Angela Davis first introduced the idea of anti-racism, famously sharing, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Ibram X. Kendi, a contemporary anti-racism author, has stated in his book How to Be Antiracist, that “not racist” isn’t even a thing. One is either racist or anti-racist.

Being a decent human being, one who has good manners, doesn’t mean you’re anti-racist. There are plenty of “nice” racists walking around the grocery store, pushing their kids on swings at the park, and working in cubicles in office buildings. They hold governmental positions, manage stores, and teach in classrooms.

They might compliment my tweens on their cornrows, smile at my son’s imaginative conversations, and dote on my preschooler who clamors for any and all attention. Racists can sponsor children in African countries. Racists can have “one Black friend.” Racists can quote Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no test they have to pass to gain the right to do any of these things.

Davis also shared, “In a society that privileges white people and whiteness, racist ideas are considered normal throughout our media, culture, social systems, and institutions.” Read that again. Whiteness and racism are normal in our society. Therefore, they are often unrecognized and unchecked. Racism is an American tradition, one that has been mindlessly accepted and perpetuated by many, including “nice” white people.

Anti-racist work is uncomfortable, time-consuming, inside-out work. Anti-racism doesn’t happen outside-in. You can’t fake it until you make it. Having a token Asian friend doesn’t get you any people-of-color points.

Becoming anti-racist means acknowledging that you have white privilege. That is, you have certain rights and opportunities in your life because you are white. It’s not something you’ve earned or can reject. Rather, you were given this privilege the day you were born because of the color of your skin. What you do with this reality is up to you.

In doing so, you also learn the privileges melanin-rich people do not have. When you realize this, you begin to be enlightened to why the Black Lives Matter movement is so critically important and necessary. You understand why there are protests and riots. You cease to clapback with “black on black crime” and “the race card,” because you realize these are lies that deflect from the real issues at hand.

Anti-racists know that our work is never done. We read books about how to be white allies to our friends of color. We carefully examine our relationships, our words, our social media posts. We intentionally spend our money to support certain businesses over others. We don’t think twice about telling a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor that something they said or did was racist, and we don’t throw in a “I know you didn’t mean it but…” or “I hope this doesn’t rub you the wrong way…”

Yes, this isn’t what you’re used to. That’s because white privilege has taught those of us who are white that we are always right, safe, and believed. We can do the same things we’ve always done, and everything will be OK. Becoming anti-racist, instead of just relying on niceness, is difficult work. It takes a brave person to admit they’ve been wrong and vow to do better by doing inside-out work.

If you truly care about people of color, including Black people being murdered and some willing to risk their lives in the midst of a global pandemic to protest, then it is time to make changes. Merely tipping your hat to the next person of color you pass by isn’t anti-racism—it’s complacency. The change happens when you see the other person as you see yourself: human.

When our family is in public, we see plenty of nice white people. However, I believe the same message applies to them as it does to what I’ve taught my kids about stranger danger. Racists might use friendliness and lures to appear to be something they’re not—even unknowingly. We have to be cautious, avoiding trickery. Racists are unsafe—and it doesn’t matter if they are members of a white supremacy group or wear a blue lives matter tee. No matter how polite and gentle they appear to be, their underlying beliefs are dangerous for Black lives. If and until we know a white person well, they have to work to earn our trust.

I truly hope that all of the white people who see themselves as nice now will make a commitment to anti-racism. Otherwise, they will continue to be the nice white people who remain complainant and comfortable with white supremacy.

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