Racism: A Definition


In the late 1980s American performance artist Adrian Piper produced a series of small, racially tinged note cards she handed out in situations of racial insensitivity. Piper, a light-skinned black woman who can pass as white, noticed that white people would regularly make racist comments in front of her without realizing she was black, reflecting a broader phenomenon where people of one cultural group make snide comments about other cultural groups as if, on the one hand, everyone will agree, and on the other assuming that no one from the punchline of the joke is in the house.

Dear Friend,

I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.

I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me. — ADRIAN PIPER

The thrust of Piper’s simple idea is that there is a secret life of racism, that racism isn’t always visible and most of the time doesn’t even present itself in a form we recognize. Everyone is cordial and politically correct when they need to be, but as soon as we are behind closed doors — and being in a group of white people or like people or otherwise on a dating website or app is closed-door enough — then people show how they really think.

Racism, to be sure, is not really a “thing” but a set of systemic cultural-economic processes — laws, attitudes, behaviors, targeting, preconceived stereotypes, sexual preferences and beauty standards — that always privilege white people and the white experience.

We are so used to thinking about racial prejudice in terms of whether or not we can see it — police brutality, “white only” signs, images of the Ku Klux Klan, proud displays of Confederate flags — when in reality racism is slippery because we sometimes can’t see it. Try calling a white person racist and watch them blow up in flames and scream at you about how racist they are not. They’re angry because they only know racism as visible, harmful racial prejudice when more often than not racism is sneakier, quieter and doesn’t always pronounce itself.

One Saturday night I was standing in line to see techno artist Ben Klock perform at The Village Underground, an underground bunker “rave” type of tea in Shoreditch, and these white British folks in front of me pointed and said, “You look just like Mario Balotelli!,” the Afro-Italian soccer star. I had no idea who he was because soccer is not really a thing in the U.S. so I quickly looked him up on my phone and when I saw his photo my eyes rolled so hard they almost fell out of my skull. “We actually don’t look anything alike. You just said that because we’re both black and have a funny haircut,” I said to them.

I tried to tell a friend about this incident and he insisted it wasn’t racist. I didn’t argue with him, but what I learned was that instead of insisting on when something isn’t racist, wouldn’t it be better for people to be aware of and sensitive to racism in any way it might pop up?

Just as racism is not always visible it can also make brown bodies feel in-visible. I just got back to London from two weeks in Los Angeles and like a lot of gay men who travel I turned to “the apps” (Grindr, Jack’d etc.) to see what was going on with my fellow gay dudes in the area. Over the 14 days I was in town I did not receive a single response to any of the messages I sent. Not one. I’d hate to judge an entire city based on how some people communicate on social media apps, but in a lot of ways sexual racism is one of the most straightforward forms in the genre.

image – Shutterstock