No Easy Solutions For Subtle Racism

I’m standing in line outside the Cat in the Cream in the November cold. Sammy Rae & The Friends are about to perform. The band’s music is a beautiful jazz-pop-rock fusion with tinges of funk and soul thrown in. I can’t help but notice that all the genres at play find their origins in Black culture. Behind me are two white people, talking about their anticipation to watch this band live. Their conversation takes a turn.

White Person 1: (annoyed) Did you see the theme for this week’s Splitchers?

White Person 2: (restrained) Yeah.

White Person 1: Bollywood.

White Person 2: Yeah.

White Person 1: (exasperated) I mean, did it have to be this week? I dunno, it’s just not the vibe before the break, before Thanksgiving.

White Person 2: (cautious) Yeah, I mean, it’s not my place to say, y’know?

Their conversation moves on. I don’t think they noticed I was there. It takes me about 10 seconds too long to realize what I’ve heard. Before thoughts form, my blood begins to boil. I’m not quite sure why yet. I try to remember to breathe first.

It’s a small thing. I really shouldn’t be this angry. I’ve heard white people say far worse things. I’ve been orientalized by thoughtless students, heard people mock the words of Asian languages, been called a chink, and so on. So why does such an unimportant, off-hand comment about Bollywood Splitchers make my blood boil? The exchange was ambiguous enough that I could be misreading it. But that’s one of the beauties of this contemporary style of racism: it cowers beneath subtext so that a blatant self-incrimination can never fully arise. Regardless of the intentions of the two people, this is what I interpreted their statements to mean.

White Person 1: Bollywood music makes me uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar; it’s foreign and sounds funny. Why couldn’t they have made it more convenient for me? Most students are white. They’re not gonna go to this.

White Person 2: You’re right, but I don’t want people to think I’m racist, so I’m just going to say it’s not my place.

The problem behind this interaction is not that it’s the most racist thing ever said. Rather, it signals something far subtler and maybe more insidious. Every time racism gets called out on this campus — be it through a Review article or a social media post — the solutions proposed often run along the lines of being action-oriented or public-policy concerned. This involves asking white students to do something like “listen to voices of students of color” or institute new codes of conduct. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it’s very necessary, but it can feel exhausting and unproductive. I highlight this because I don’t intend to offer any solutions to this problem in the same way as others might have. Instead, I want to reframe the racism I wrote about above in a different way.

In supposedly progressive spaces like Oberlin, there is an abundance of ready-made frameworks, buzzwords, and social media posts you can refer to to help you interpret the world around you. It’s very easy for anyone to feel like they’re being a good person because they know how to define intersectionality and outline institutional racism. This approach only works so long as the things you’re dealing with can be easily interpreted in the frameworks you’ve learned. This falls short when people inevitably come across situations that weren’t explained in a five-slide Instagram post, and their unconscious biases and intellectual laziness are exposed.

The problem is not that privileged people are secretly hiding bigoted beliefs — that implies a conscious concealment of their bigotry. Rather, it’s that they’ve already decided that they’re good people and that their engagement with social issues begins and ends with ready-made intellectual frameworks or language. As James Baldwin put it, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”

What really pissed me off about the two white people’s comments wasn’t so much the racism of their speech but rather the soulless apathy with which they casually talked about cultures different from their own. From the tone of their voices, you couldn’t tell they were talking about people. It’s the tone I’ve heard when rich people talk to waiters or service workers without any hint of respect or warmth.

Proposing bite-sized solutions and ideas would only put a band-aid on this internal bleeding. That said, a decent starting point is to realize that sometimes the root of internal bigotry can’t simply be combated through external education or listening to marginalized voices; it requires introspection about how you as an individual relate to the world around you and serious questioning of who you interact with and who you want to be in the world. Are you engaged with the world, and do you actually try to understand the nuances of it around you? Or are you content with passively coasting on your privilege?

Culture is expression, and those who value their capacity to express themselves are seeking to be part of a culture. Oberlin College community traditions and practices — Splitchers, Oberlin Burlesque, Organ Pump — are unspoken opportunities for us strangers to share joy together. It’s a small thing, but shared public spaces — precisely because they’re so often taken for granted — are the lifeline of a community’s health. It is because these events aren’t loaded with obvious identity tensions and formalities that they’re vital. Students of color may need safe spaces and exclusive events for racial healing, but at the end of the day we are still a part of this community. Safe spaces are important, but we also have the right to share events of public expression and joy — such as Bollywood Splitchers — without fear of judgment.