Fairy tales for privileged kids: “the anti-white racist”

A disclaimer before we begin: what I’m about to talk about here are facts. This means they are not up for debate. There are not multiple sides to this story. You are not owed a “reasonable discussion” about this, nor will I “agree to disagree” with you. I’m talking about things that are abjectly, incontrovertibly true. Okay? Okay.

Let’s start things off with a little mathematical proof:


(A) RACISM = [racial prejudice] * [institutional power]

(B) SUM OF [institutional power] held by black people = 0

sub (B) into (A)

RACISM against white people = [racial prejudice] * 0

therefore RACISM against white people = 0


As you can see, because multiplying by zero will always give you an answer of zero, racism against white people equals zero for any and all values of “racial prejudice”.

See, racism isn’t just about prejudice. Is it possible for non-white people to be prejudiced against white people? Sure. I mean, I don’t know about you, but if I lived in a community where land and house prices were soaring because of gentrification, leading to me having to give up my home, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people driving me out onto the street. If I were to be looked over for a promotion because my boss didn’t want a non-white person being a public face of the company, I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the people who made the decision that a non-white spokesperson would seem too threatening to be effective. If my son were, say, shot dead in cold blood by a white man who was then found not guilty of murder because my son was walking home on his own wearing a hoodie, then…yeah, I guess I’d probably be a little prejudiced against the assholes who ensured my son’s killer was never brought to justice.

So yeah, non-white people can be prejudiced against whites.

Can they be racist against whites? Nope.

Racism, like any other -ism, requires not just prejudice, but power. And the fact (see that word, fact? that means this is a thing that’s true and not up for debate) is that in the world in which we currently live, every single institution worth a damn is controlled by white people. Banks? White-controlled. Entertainment and news media? White-controlled. Educational institutions? White-controlled. Legislature? Despite America’s Black President, still majority white-controlled. The judiciary in most countries? White-controlled. Wide scale economics and trade? You guessed it: white-controlled.

So how can non-white people be racist against the people who hold all the cards and the balance of power? They can’t.

Racism isn’t just about slurs and curse words, though when uttered by people who have institutional backing, those things certainly have a great deal of power. Racism is about the systemic and institutional violence that contributes to the continued oppression and dehumanisation of non-white people around the world, even in majority non-white countries (their financial systems are still contingent on white-controlled international trade and their cultures are still heavily influenced by their white colonisers). Racism isn’t an angry, disenfranchised black person calling a white man “cracker” or “whitey”; racism is that white man’s ability to move on from that insult completely unscathed in every single way that matters because the black person who yelled that insult doesn’t have the power to back it up in any meaningful way.

White people control our legal system, our educational and financial institutions and our media. White people decide what is beautiful, what is respectable, what is acceptable. White people set the benchmarks for culture, for progress, for enlightenment. White people control who succeeds in business, who gets into the best schools and who will get off on their minor criminal charges instead of serving out an unnecessarily harsh jail sentence. White people export media that is absorbed into non-white culture until it changes the standards of beauty, respectability and acceptability even within those societies. White people decide what is good and what is bad and which way society’s moral compass points. White people, numeric minority they may be, control the world.

Tell me, what is a black person shouting “cracker” against all of that?

The simple fact (again, FACT) is that it is impossible to be racist against people who hold the balance of power. The n-word has power and weight as a slur because it is a reminder that white-dominated society sees black people as second-class citizens. Words like “exotic” as applied to women with non-white skin have weight and power because they are reminders that non-white women are being held against the white beauty standard and being found different (and therefore wanting). By contrast, the word “cracker” does not contribute to a culture in which, for example, white people are forced to earn less, are underemployed, over-incarcerated, devalued, dehumanised, shunned and oppressed. “Cracker” is just a word. It has no power behind it. It is not indicative of a culture of control and oppression. It is, to quote the Bard, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Here are some facts:

  • Even white women earn more than non-white men, despite a pay gap that generally favours men over women
  • Non-white men are incarcerated at a rate exponentially greater than white men
  • Non-white people are under-represented in federal legislature, in positions of power in the business world, and on the governing bodies of educational institutions
  • Despite the ethnic and racial makeup of many “white” countries, it is white beauty standards that remain the benchmark in magazines, on billboards, in movies and on our TV screens
  • Non-white women are raped more often than white women, report the crime less often, receive less police support when they do and see their rapists brought to justice less often than white women
  • The legal and judicial systems are profoundly skewed against non-white people to the point that both “stop and frisk” and “stand your ground” laws have been empirically shown to favour whites (see: Trayvon Martin, whose murderer is still a free man who attends conferences and signs autographs, vs Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot to scare off an intruder in her home and was originally sentenced to twenty years in prison)

Again, these are not opinions. This is not up for debate. It is demonstrable, incontrovertible, empirical fact that the balance of power is held by white people, and that in every way that counts, non-white people are at a significant systemic and institutional disadvantage.

So tell me again – what is “cracker” against all of that?

Cultural exchange and the myth of equals

When I wrote last week about cultural appropriation, I spent some time talking about cultural exchange – the trading between cultures that can enrich societies and people’s personal lives. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if cultural exchange is even possible in the society we live in today.

See, the thing is, cultural exchange requires that all parties be equal. It requires that the culture being borrowed from is necessarily seen as equal to the culture doing the borrowing. And in a world where whiteness and its trappings are seen as ultimately superior to the cultures of non-whites, this equal footing is sorely lacking. White people don’t see the cultures from which they borrow as equal to theirs – hell, white folks can’t even get their heads around the idea that some people have stories and histories that don’t involve them. How, then, can they borrow respectfully from those cultures, when they can’t even recognise that people other than themselves are multi-faceted, autonomous and far more than backdrops and supporting characters in white stories?

Before white people can engage in healthy and productive cultural exchange with non-white cultures, there are a few things they need to recognise:

  • Non-white cultures are rich and complex, not one-dimensional – there is much below the surface that outsiders may never see
  • Non-white cultures contain stories and histories that are not necessarily white-oriented
  • White culture is not in any way superior to non-white cultures
  • Non-white cultures are not slave cultures; non-whites are not intrinsically meant to be subordinate to whites
  • Non-whites do not necessarily want to partake of white culture, nor are they necessarily interested in adopting its trappings

And yet, when we look at the history of white engagement with non-white cultures, it seems that these simple truths are difficult to grasp. White people demand entry into non-white cultures, disregarding the fact that some aspects of a culture may be off-limits to all outsiders. They expect non-white people to be supporting characters in their histories rather than lead characters in their own. The globalisation of white culture is endemic – white media, white industries, white-run corporations and so on are rapidly being established internationally, and this is seen as unequivocally a good thing by white people whether or not non-whites agree. Despite the fact that slavery is now illegal throughout the western world, white people still see members of non-white cultures as there to enrich their own lives, to give up their autonomy and personal needs in the service of whites. And when met with non-white people who seem utterly uninterested in white culture, white people are consistently perplexed.

The idea that white culture is superior and that the only parts of non-white cultures that have worth are the ones that white people deem worthy is so ingrained into our cultural consciousness as to make healthy cultural exchange nearly impossible. Exchange implies a transaction with equals, but there is nothing equal about members of one culture picking and choosing what it likes from another culture, whilst expecting others to accept their own culture in its entirety without question. There is nothing equal about rewriting history so that white stories take centre stage, with non-whites relegated to supporting roles.

As long as this systematic positioning of white culture as superior and default continues, white engagement with non-white cultures will remain appropriative and damaging. In order for healthy cultural exchange to take place, the voices and stories of non-whites need to be foregrounded and positioned as equally valuable and worthwhile. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that white is the gold standard, non-white cultures will remain subject to appropriation, trivialisation and erasure.

Labels on my soul: “white/non white”

When I was in Year 5, a girl told me that she wanted a tan like mine, but lighter. “Maybe two or three shades, so I wouldn’t be too dark,” she said. I cried after school that day, wishing my skin didn’t mark me as so obviously different. I used to mix talcum powder with soap and smear it over my face to see what my skin would look like if it were paler. I avoided the sun at all costs so that I wouldn’t tan an even darker shade. It didn’t help – no matter what I did, no matter which books I read or which TV shows I watched or which references I learned, everyone could tell I wasn’t like them. I was Other – the girl with the dark skin and the weird name, the outsider whose family ate curry for dinner instead of steak and veggies. I learned to pray in Arabic around the same time I learned the Lord’s Prayer at school. My parents had both come to Australia from other countries, and though they spoke English fluently, my mother’s covered hair and my father’s dark skin marked them out as different, too – the strange parents of a strange child who never quite fit in.

It’s a weird experience, growing up non-white in a white society. TV shows and movies show you people who look and sound nothing like you, and you’re expected to see them as your heroes and idols. For people like me, the children of migrant parents, the cultural disconnect between the world outside and the world at home can be jarring. It was strange enough being raised in two different faiths (Islam at home and Catholicism at school); add into the mix the fact that the people I went to school with hadn’t seen the movies I’d seen, didn’t know the music I knew and didn’t speak the languages my parents spoke, and I often felt like a traveller between worlds, at home in neither and a stranger in both.

In discussions about race, I can never decide whether I’m meant to be white or non-white. I’m white when it comes to Indigenous issues because I’ve benefited from Australian colonisation; I’m non-white when it comes to the othering of people of colour, because my darker skin has always marked me as a target of racial discrimination from the kind of people who think “towelhead” is a creative insult. I grew up immersed in white culture, but also sheltered from it – my father considered most TV and movies “trash” that would give us dangerous and immoral ideas, but there was no stopping me from talking to the kids at school or sneak-watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch when my dad was working late. (My mother aided and abetted my siblings and me in this, allowing us to watch TV when we weren’t meant to and helping us borrow “bad” books from the library without my father’s knowledge.) Steeped in white culture but simultaneously removed from it, I grew up a white-educated girl in a non-white body – a walking, talking paradox.

My first experience with white people appropriating my culture was the runaway success of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of a similar name. To me, Aishwarya Rai was a household name – to my friends, she was a new find, an exotic beauty who helped bring the tale of Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy to raucous, garish life through (dubbed-over) song, dance and spectacle. Suddenly, it seemed like every white person I know wanted to be a “Curry”, as they called those of us from the Subcontinent – they thought saris were super-cute, swooned over Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan that my sisters and I had known about for years, talked about trying out Bollywood dance classes, thought “Indian” food was delicious. My culture – the culture I’d kept hidden for years in an attempt to fit in with my white contemporaries – was suddenly mainstream, even cool. As someone who’d spent her life being othered because of her dark skin, to hear similarly-coloured actors and actresses described admiringly as “exotic” felt strange. Was I exotic, too? Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Of course, none of those people were particularly interested in the rich and varied cultures of the Subcontinent, or even particularly in Bollywood – they were just latching onto something new and exciting to them. None of the people sighing over Aishwarya Rai’s beauty knew or cared about her religious upbringing as a Hindu, the caste system to which she belonged, the meaning of the bindi she and other Hindu women sometimes wore. Nobody knew or cared that there was a difference between the brown-skinned mostly-Hindu Indian stars of Bride and Prejudice and their Muslim, not-even-slightly-Indian friend Aaminah, who was still an outsider and a freak, but suddenly one with valuable information and insights. Perhaps one or two people might have realised on some level that my life was not like a Bollywood film, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was peppered with questions: did I have an arranged marriage in the works? Did I wear saris at home? (No, and no, though I owned a shalwar kameez or two as a young girl.) The trappings of my culture – or something people could equate with what they thought was my culture – had become a source of entertainment, excitement and fantasy for people who’d seen one Bollywood movie and decided that made them Indian film buffs.

Maybe people thought they were complimenting me by doing this. Maybe they thought I’d be flattered by the attention. I’ve found that a lot of people who appropriate others’ cultures think that way – they think their attention is welcome, that their interest is a sign that they’re worldly, cultured, sophisticated, that they’re the good kind of white people. They eat ethnic cuisine and listen to “world music” and feel enlightened. I know a lot of people like this, and you probably do too. They think that by picking and choosing their favourite parts of someone else’s culture, they’re doing that person a favour.

But there’s nothing flattering about cultural appropriation – about the idea that someone else’s culture, with all the complex history and baggage that comes with it, is nothing but a smorgasboard from which you can pick your favourite bits and make a meal that’s to your liking. White people can choose to engage with other cultures at will, but they don’t have to live them. The girls who fell over themselves to gush about Bride and Prejudice knew nothing about the caste system and its effects on Indian society, particularly the poor, nor did they care. To them, “India” (read as: the entire Subcontinent, because white folks tend not to care that it consists of several countries with distinct cultures and subcultures of their own) was a glamorous parade of women in saris and strapping, safely exotic men singing and dancing for their entertainment. To them, I was their gateway to this fantasy world, one they could access without having to weather any of the drawbacks.

And so it is with people who wear “ironic” war-bonnets and can’t understand why Native people find this offensive; with people who appropriate “urban” culture and get upset when they’re not allowed to use the n-word; with people who view the developing world as their own personal spiritual cleanse, through which they can go on Eat, Pray, Love-style journeys, learning valuable lessons from non-white people who exist only as the background characters in their stories. This is something white culture props up and even encourages – the white culture narrative is that white folks are heroes and that non-whites exist only in supporting parts.

The thing is, those background characters have lives and thoughts and feelings of their own, and their cultures are far more than what white people get to see. As an Australian, I have benefited from colonialism, but as a Pakistani, I am forever scarred by it: I grew up hearing my father’s tales of life in newly post-Raj Pakistan and inherited the combination of bitterness and admiration many Pakistanis feel towards their English colonisers. As a person living in a white society, I am both a party to its benefits and a permanent outsider, the girl whose skin colour falls in and out of fashion depending on what magazine editors decide is trendy this season. (“Get that perfect summer tan!” they proclaim, as though skin colour is just another accessory, something to be put on and then discarded at whim. If only it were that easy for me.)

No cultural accessory exists in a vacuum. Our clothes, our food, even our songs and dances all have meanings to us. When you take them without considering what those meanings are, you are treating non-white people like props who exist as little more than scenery on your stage (Miley Cyrus, anyone?). When Bride and Prejudice had been forgotten, no longer the fashion of the hour, I went back to being that outsider with the too-dark skin and the unpronounceable name, my culture no longer fashionable, no longer of interest to white people, and therefore, lacking in worth to them. But it was still my culture. I still went home and ate curry with my family (and watched Bollywood movies my white friends didn’t even know existed). My tan didn’t wash off or fade. My parents were still migrants from other countries. We were still Other. Nothing had really changed.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not content being the scenery on a white stage. I am the lead character in my own story, and while I might be a traveller between cultures, that doesn’t mean I don’t take offence when someone without my upbringing tries to hitch-hike. If you want to learn more about my lived experiences, ask – but don’t expect me to act as your gateway to a more exotic existence. I’m not “exotic” at all – I’m just me, a regular person who just so happens to have grown up in a different culture with some different values and delicious food (that I will happily share with you upon request). There’s nothing special about my skin colour – it’s just the way my genes express themselves. There’s nothing mystical about my culture – it’s a series of stories, customs and practices with a history behind them, just like yours. You’re welcome to come and learn more about it if you like – but if you want to take anything home with you, even just to try, you need to know what you’re taking first, and what it means for you to take it.

I am Aaminah, sometimes called Jay, and I am a kinda-white girl in a non-white body living in a society that only wants me when I’m in fashion. Both “white” and “non-white” are labels on my soul – contradictory, often in conflict, but both marked on it indelibly by the people with whom I grew up: the white students who were my friends and my non-white family. I am Us and Them, These and The Other. But no matter what I am, my culture is mine, and does not exist for you. I am the lead character in my own story, not a supporting cast member in yours. And I won’t let you forget it.