Monday, 12 September 2016

How to tell if you’re a racist

One evening a couple of years ago I was on the bus to go home, and this old guy got on at a stop in the middle of town, by an internet café. This was around the time that the Council updated the bus schedules, and the timetable at that particular stop had recently been taken off its post. According to the old guy, it was the café staff that had taken it down. Now you or I might see nothing sinister in that, but the old guy knew better. He knew what they were up to. They’d taken the timetable down so that people looking for parking spaces wouldn’t know it was a bus stop! Then they’d park there and use the internet café, and they wouldn’t realize their mistake until they got the traffic fine! Just as well there were sharp people around, like himself, who wouldn’t fall for tricks like that!

I was sitting several seats behind him, so I didn’t get a good look at the expression on the face of the younger guy he was talking to. From what I could see it looked very much like “From the sanity level of what you’ve just said I infer that any attempt to reason with you would be a waste of time, so I’m just going to smile and nod.” But I don’t actually know.

When I say “this old guy”, by the way, are you picturing someone wild-looking, unkempt, with teeth missing, muttering to himself and staring belligerently about? Don’t. This was a dignified-looking, affable elderly man; working-class accent and second-hand clothes, if I recall correctly, but if you were asked to spot a mentally ill person on that bus by their appearance you’d pick me over him. I don’t think his bizarre delusion arose from any kind of brain disorder. I think it had more to do with a small detail which he never felt the need to mention, and which I also haven’t said anything about so far. See if it makes it feel any more plausible to you. Are you ready?

The staff and management of the internet café are immigrants from East Asia.

If your answer was yes, that does make it more plausible, then you – like the old guy – are a racist.

Nowadays we all agree that it is very bad for someone to be a racist. Which of course is true, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a genuine moral advance since the days when newspapers printed editorial cartoons decrying the “Yellow Peril”. But the advance has been less than it might appear, because of one unfortunate side-effect of the new understanding. “Racists are bad,” people reason to themselves, “and I am not bad. Therefore, I am not a racist. Therefore, my belief that Muslims are terrorists and East Asians are amoral schemers and Polynesians are stupid lazy thieves is not racism.” Well, sorry, yes it is, and yes you are.