IS that what it is – “truth on ice”? The online platform, QUORA, describes polite racism as “racist insinuation delivered with eloquence without obvious vitriol”. Yet, how often have we rejected such concealed and shamefaced rationalizations when delivered by the “invisible enemy”? At any rate, it is what it is: a Greek gift that shouldn’t be opened.
However hidden, disguised and subtle, polite racism comes across as seemingly harmless compliments, often laced with clichés, prejudices, judgements and even ressentiments. In other instances, it comes in the form of warped humour (mostly accompanied by a smile or even a pat on the shoulder) – deeply offensive to ethnic and cultural sensibilities.
Those of us who have lived or perhaps spent time in Europe or America at some point in our lives may/will have encountered this refined form of discrimination – a shadow of the past concealed in the underbelly of world societies. And just in case you didn’t know, the same way people can claim to be “politically correct”; they can also be “racially correct” (hence polite racism).
The most appalling thing about polite racism is that most people who engage in it don’t even realize that they are being racist. Often the offending person appears to not know any better. It can happen anywhere – in schools, places of employment, on the streets, or even in families. Yet isn’t it more racist to not notice race or to not be aware of your own rhetoric and surroundings?
On the other hand, you may have encountered those incorrigible ones who were downright inconsiderate and nasty, and who made a deliberate effort to hurt and offend – and perhaps even subsequently questioned your experience of racism – providing plenty of excuses and explanations.
Once I had a conversation with a friend of Caucasian descent who – apparently totally oblivious of her surroundings – used an old nineteenth century figure of speech, “nigger in the woodpile” (Agatha Christie used it as title of the chapter in her novel “Dumb Witness”) to explain her suspicion of a contractual arrangement she had just signed. You know, sometimes the best you can do is to pretend you didn’t hear such thoughtless comments. But isn’t it ironic that the hurdles of politeness make us hold our tongues to keep the peace?
To be sure, all racism – whether institutional, systemic or subliminal – is borne out of either plain ignorance or sheer depravity. It’s a scum of society which resides in our brains and castigates cultures, peoples, societies and religions. Above all, it’s a sickness which reminds us of the old nefarious days of slavery and colonialism; of an age of snobbery and bigotry when “humankind” had decided “for the sake of the unity of society”, to remain silent and not fight the scourge. Even today, we often decide to sweep racism in all of its various forms under the carpet perhaps out of fear, shame and yes, courtesy. Most of us have learned to instinctively turn a blind eye to it because we don’t want to stir a racial, I mean uhm, hornet’s nest.
Then there is the kind of racism that’s perpetuated in the name of culture, which has stoked a heated debate on national customs. If I tell you that it’s racism and it offends me, why find all sorts of reasons to justify it? The Dutch have defended their “Black Pete” Christmas tradition – in which white people wear blackface – as a harmless piece of culture and “fun”. But I ask: In a post-racial and progressive society like the Netherlands, why is “Black Pete” still a utopian idea? As the legacy of slavery and colonialism has preserved structural racism, it seems it has now become impossible for the Dutch to disconnect Black Pete from this legacy.
The U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called on the Netherlands to revamp its Black Pete Christmas tradition because it is still seen as a “vestige of slavery.”
Even languages have proved indispensable in the transmission of stereotypes and prejudices. Rendered into German, the terms bogeyman, fare dodger and morbid humour, would literally translate as black man, black passenger and black humour, respectively.
Owing to the fact that societies have become more colourful and diverse, one would expect that a greater effort would be made to display more respect and sensibility towards cultures, and to present a more “racially correct” and multicultural image of those societies. Rightly so, ethnic minorities are becoming more self-confident and assertive, and they are learning not to rely on the political consciousness and politeness of the majority or their host country.
But even if some of us haven’t yet experienced polite racism, we’ve probably read or heard narratives from people who actually have. I recall being told by a friend from Kenya about a business meeting he had attended, where his Caucasian business partner had asked him to “turn on the lights so that he (the business partner) could see him better” – of course with an innocuously pleasant smile. He reacted by simply smiling back, but then the humiliation happened again a second time, and then a third time in front of friends and respected colleagues. How should one respond to such racial innuendos? Should one simply ignore the facts of the situation and bury one’s head in the sand?
Another friend recounted an occasion in a business negotiation when he had convincingly and successfully argued for new terms and conditions in a joint venture contract. Apparently “impressed” with my friend’s seamless performance, the head of department quipped, “You don’t sound black”. My take: We ought to stop pretending that such jokes and remarks are acceptable. “Give me a blatant racist over a polite one, at least I know who I am dealing with”, writes KhayaDlanga in his book, “In My Arrogant Opinion”.
Coming Soon: Conscience of a Progressive (My New Book)