Diversity | Representation
Racism: Not by Intention, but by Default
It’s not just what you do, but what you refuse to see — and what you won’t do.
A friend of a friend, arguing against dragging racism into a discussion about healthy eating guidelines, wrote, “By definition, racism is where you do something against someone specifically because of their race and nothing else.”
I can see the confusion, and I think it’s a common misunderstanding among white people who believe and swear they “aren’t racist” and who have never been on the downside of racial discrimination, themselves. The inability to see racism perpetuates it.
Racism is also where the “default race” is white, and everything of benefit is geared towards the default race, even if that includes harm to others. That ultimate harm may be intentional or incidental; the perpetuation of it, I think, can be negligent or simply neglectful.
A similar discussion, on Twitter, gave me pause: Do white writers ever mention skin tone for characters who are white? Or is “white person” so much the default that we only describe skin tone when the character is BIPOC? It may not seem racist, but consider this: For many years, there were no people of color in TV shows or leading roles in popular movies. When the first television shows with predominantly Black casts began to air, I remember people of my parents’ generation shaking their heads, saying things like, “Why would I want to watch a show about a bunch of Black people?” Heterosexuals are saying the same sorts of things, now, about gay characters on TV.
What straight, white, cisgendered people seem to miss is the self-awareness to realize that others have felt this way for decades. “Why do we have to watch yet-another-thing about white, heterosexual, cisgendered people?” That’s not about them. It doesn’t reflect their life experiences, the problems and conflicts they face, or their interests. And they deserve representation in entertainment, just as much as anyone.
It may not have been intentionally harmful for producers to make business decisions based on what they perceived as the majority of their viewing audience — white people. When the feedback they were hearing was from white people saying things like “Why would I want to watch a show about a bunch of Black people?” they weren’t giving BIPOC viewers any reason to tune in. Did they ever survey and listen to people of color? Probably not. It’s a vicious cycle.
Another vicious cycle: A lack of talent or a lack of good roles? You can be the most talented Black actor on the planet, but it’s hard to land a role that doesn’t exist.
Everyone deserves positive protagonists that they can relate to and identify with. They deserve to be seen in a positive light, as well —one that reflects the reality of their demographic. They deserve not to be relegated to the role of the sidekick or the villain.
This requires intentional changes to the entire ecosystem of entertainment: Those roles, and the books and screenplays on which they are based, have to be written. And not just written: they must be published, promoted, and read.
So no, racism isn’t always an intentional bad act or harm. It’s seeing a white dominated society as the norm and ignoring half the people in it — based on skin color — not character, skill, attitude, personality, or any other trait that matters. And being anti-racist isn’t about “not seeing” skin color; it’s about working to see these problem spots and fixing them.
Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle ; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. Visit her website at jahangiri.us.