Yes, Liberals Can Be and Are Racist

By Jessica Fuentes Vazquez and Jessica Fuentes Vazquez

Submitted by a student not in The Tam News. 

Ignorance is bliss, and the best recipe for ignorance is the type that tells you that you’re not ignorant. To be aware of overt and macro aggressions is important- there’s no reason to belittle that fact. Yet liberals, especially white liberals, tend to compromise their own liberalism because of their sense of privilege to assuage their white guilt by proudly owning the term “liberal”. By owning and labeling yourself as a “liberal”, you are announcing to society- and specifically your social groups – that you care. However by only acknowledging overt and (occasionally, maybe) even pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism, you are passive and complicit with the very real fluidity of racism and the micro aggressions that are very affecting and very, very real.

So some of you hopeful liberals are probably reassessing yourselves, wondering if maybe you could be a racist, and if not a racist, are liberally complicit. Perhaps if you speak over people of color when they try to reach out to you, you say racial slurs (those that are not directed towards you/your ethnicity/race), if you are just so proud of that person of color in your class that’s just so easy to talk to- they’re just… not like the other ones, right? They’re black but they’re not like- “haha”- not black black. Or that Mexican! They love telling Mexican jokes and they don’t make you feel uncomfortable when you laugh- because racist jokes are just jokes, “LMAO”, right? Or even if you treat certain cultures as fashion trends. Congratulations, you may be micro aggressively racist. Or just racist. Because racism is racism whether or not it’s a macro or micro aggression. And mind you, the above situations are almost direct quotes or situations that have been encountered.

There are white students here who have said that they prefer a certain black student because they’re not like the “others”. Or because they’re black but not “black black”. A black student spoke of how they have heard teachers who make jokes about lynching in class. And then they all laugh casually, as if feeling that there was some sort of undernoted racism but can’t specify what exactly, nor want to dwell on it for fear of guilt so they use humor to cover up the issue and label the situation as “not a big deal”, despite the fact that it is. Using humor in this manner is to normalize and downplay the racist statement, it makes people of color who could be offended, hurt, or uncomfortable to have to “normalize” the racism and not call it out for the sake of the status quo.

There are a myriad of reasons for students of color normalizing or simply not calling out racist remarks. There are a plethora of reasons as to why there are students of color who do not feel comfortable in discussions with white students (whether they are the majority or not in that situation). One big one that has been repeated throughout Students of Color meetings, or general conversations is the fact that students are scared of being “That Person” who ruins the “joke”. The social breakdown of that is essentially the majority making the minority feel guilty for feeling uncomfortable or offended and told that “it’s not a big deal”, “it’s just a joke,” this is a form of abuse called gaslighting. Gaslighting as a term came into use after the 1930’s movie “Gaslight”, where a husband wants to get rid of his wife and starts messing with the home environment, particularly by oh-so-slightly turning down the gaslights. When the wife would ask if the husband had turned down the lights, he would deny her and invalidate her, slowly causing the wife to go insane. It is a sophisticated form of manipulation that causes the victim to doubt their own senses and not trust themselves, it makes targets question themselves, their memories, and their own sanity. In this case, gaslighting is used to essentially force people of color to conform to white people’s standards of comfortability with racism in order to assuage their sense of white guilt by telling people of color that their point of view is wrong, it’s offensive to white people, microaggressions aren’t that big of a deal, or that they’re just “no fun”. It invalidates people of color, makes them question themselves, and effectively silences them. All for the sake of white fragility.

The not-so-unique phenomenon at Tam is what happens in just about every typical “liberal” area. All of these things mentioned above happen here at Tam. It does. Accept it. And if you don’t think the things mentioned above are racist- do some research. If being called out on your racism offends you- assess yourself. If you think being a “liberal” absolves you of being racist- assess yourself. This doesn’t mean that racists aren’t dicks, but microaggressions are not typically mal intended- unlike macroaggressions. Microaggressions are learned but not overtly racist so the perpetrator of the microaggression likely didn’t mean any harm- that’s just how they were raised (in a racist society that fears racism). And many victims of microaggressions are likely to be dismissive or maybe experience confused discomfort because they don’t realize that the microaggression is, well, racist. Once society defined racism as a character flaw and not systemic and institutionalized in the basics of institutions and society itself, racism became an insult and not a fact of learned prejudice. Throughout the survey about racism at Tam, there was an overwhelming amount of white students who completely denied the looming and underrated presence of racism here on campus, saying that it neither existed nor affected them. Both answers reveal a startling truth of the, specifically, white students at Tam. It perpetuates the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand trope of white liberals when faced with the topic of racism, but it also shows a profound uneducation, misunderstanding, and general ignorance about racism, as well as white people’s role in race issues. This, of course, doesn’t mean that people of color can’t be racist. Non-black people of color can be just as racist, and non-black communities of color have a lot of similar issues with racism, but due to Tam being 70% white, that phenomenon will be left to another article.

Now, if you’re like many other people you’ll say, “But [something that is racist] isn’t racist! The dictionary definition of racism says otherwise!”, to which I’ll reply- no shit, Sherlock. So perhaps a key question would be: What is racism? That’s a good question. Is racism simply the dictionary definition? Because the dictionary always gets things right and it’s the dictionary’s job to include a full history in the definition. Note the sarcasm.

No. Racism is not simply the dictionary definition. “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” That is definitely a form of racism, a core and fundamental part of racism, and if you want to simply define a word and move on with your life of defining 171,475 of the other words in the english language, it is a simple summary of prominent macroaggressions and simplification of a rather fluid and socially complex concept. The definition is too simple to fully encompass such a word with full context.

So maybe let’s first address what’s wrong with that definition. Then we can address why using the dictionary to define socially complex vocabulary is rather effete overall in modern culture where nuances, complexity, and intersectionality are addressed more than they used to be even in recent history.

I’ll simplify what’s wrong with the definition itself into two parts. First, the dictionary definition neglects to note that racism is systemic. Racism is a power structure in which is perpetrated to consciously or unconsciously oppress people of certain races or ethnicities. Within this system of power it is impossible for the oppressed group(s) to systematically oppress their oppressors. (Therefore, reverse racism does not exist.) Next be addressed for the first point, the dictionary definition really just doesn’t include all of the nuances or address the fluidity of which racism is sustained. To reduce the definition of racism to simply “an individual being overtly racist because they think their race is superior” makes it seem as though racism is simply overt, an individualized flaw in character, and can happen to anyone.

Second, the dictionary is a biased source. Dictionaries are opinionated documents that tell people how they should speak, not necessarily how they do. For example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), is not typically included in the dictionary (not until the words are popularized and used by the “general” a.k.a. white public.) So while AAVE is a largely influential and widely used dialect in the United States, a verified way of speaking- and therefore “proper”, it is not included in the dictionary, nor do the words AAVE borrows or uses in different contexts are included in definitions. An example of this is the term “finna” which is a shortened term used in place of “fixing to” which is also AAVE, both mean “going to”. “Finna” is used in place of the term “gonna”, as well. This has to do with the fact that throughout history, specifically speaking from American terms, dictionaries have been written and edited by heterosexual, white, educated men. That sort of narrow point of view is typically how the “average” American’s perspective is set. The dictionary is generally a fine point of view for general words (Honestly, defenestration is a great word, and how would I know it without the dictionary?). But due to the bias and lack of diversity in the history of decision making within the institutionalization of American history, socially heavy terms with so many complex nuances are just not well captured and defined. The dictionary is not an objective document, it is rooted in classism, elitism, privilege, and yeah- racism. Words that have to do with the heavily complex social systems of oppression are best defined by the people these systems and terminology affect, not by the oppressors. Dictionaries will downplay or entirely neglect to mention important vocabulary that have to do with these systemic oppressions, and that is neither objective or simply neglectful- it is erasure. This is another core way that these systems of oppression continue to thrive in society, blatantly or subversively. When the masses are not educated or informed, they will have no way, nor have the perspective to cause substantial change.

With this in mind, perhaps it would be easier for you to understand microaggressions. For example, fetishization. Fetishization can be a confusing concept if one doesn’t understand the fluid nature of both the definition and reality of racism. While fetishization could be seen from the outside as a compliment, it is far from merely “preference” nor is it truly complementary. What it is, is essentially the sexual preference for someone of another race or ethnicity based on the objectification of racial stereotypes of said race or ethnicity. So while you may think that this isn’t an issue, and perhaps big words that have anything to do with the term “fetish” may make you uncomfortable or even scared, the fact of the matter stays that it is an issue and it is completely dehumanizing. And in this case, racist. When asked whether they’d seen or experienced fetishization at school, two friends, a Black Sophomore and a biracial Junior who is Mexican and Black, answered that as soon as they came to Tam they were complimented on being so pretty and then immediately asked, “So what are you?” As if the only explanation for them being so pretty was them being mixed race. The both of them also commented on all of the so-called “compliments” they’ve gotten for being “light skins” by white and men of color alike, which were received by them to be much less than compliments. What those faux compliments were and are, in reality, are colorist and racist. The Sophomore, wanted it to be mentioned that she is not, in fact, mixed. Another phenomenon at Tam seems to be that Latinas at this school seem to to constantly have to hear comments on their “Latina ass”, which is completely dehumanizing. A Latina myself, and having spoken with many Latinas, one in particular being a Sophomore who shared many comments on her “spicy” attitude and her “Latina ass”- yes, in school, have heard a number of fetishization horror stories. An experience we bonded over was being told (usually by white men) that they’ve, “Never been with a Latina before,” which would seem to be harmless enough of a line had it not been for the fact that we were being reduced to our ethnicity and stereotypes and being erased of all other identity as human beings. And though I was unable to interview people of more ethnic backgrounds and genders, I will mention that these issues are not limited to Black and Latina women, or even just women, men of color are fetishized often as well.

We are people of color. We are not “exotic”, we are not your interracial fantasy. We are not beautiful simply because we are mixed or of a certain shade. We are not racial stereotypes of our cultures. We are not racially hypersexualized body parts. We are people.

Mill Valley is not unlike every other “liberal” community. Affluent, segregated, primarily white, and has a compromised sense of liberalism. A Junior spoke of a time in class where a teaching aid assumed that she was from Marin City and assumed things from her, consequently treating her harsher than her other peers. The same student disclosed to me an incident where a white boy in her class refused to learn anything related to Black history, he himself specified at the time that it was for the fact that it was Black history, and moved seats away from her. There was also an occasion where a female white student told a horrendously offensive knock-knock joke towards Black people. She also stated that there are many white students who try to act “black”, which means that they will perpetuate stereotypes and use them as a form of costuming because they think that’s what’s cool. (It isn’t, it’s offensive. Black people are not costumes. The traits they are stereotyped and criticized for are not yours to don because you think it’s trendy on a white person and dangerous on an actual black person.) A Sophomore revealed that a white student called her the N-word. Both of these students intelligently noted tracking as a form of racism  that exists within the walls of Tam. Another Sophomore mentioned that students would make comments to her about being “ an illegal” and questioning her documentation. All three of them mentioned joking as a prevalent form of racism.

Many students and faculty of color at Tam seem to have the same questions, “How do you make it more known to white people that racism is still an issue here?” “When will the school be more open in conversations about racism? Conversations that don’t penalize people of color for speaking up?” I implore you to question these things as well. I encourage you to reassess yourself, take responsibility and be aware.

Here at Tam there is institutionalized racism, micro and macro aggressions, they all exist in this space. There is no point in comparing to the South. Comparing Mill Valley to the South is merely a form of distancing, it distracts from the issues in the area and is a subversive effort to make people of color stop speaking up for themselves.  If you’re feeling offended right now- good. You should be. Ignorance and disillusionment should be called out, not coddled. White people, very specifically, are fully functional human beings. You can handle it. I believe in you. You can learn how to be allies. You can own up to your prejudices. You can even- shocking, yes, I know- even call out your racist friends.