When people of colour speak about racism, we are told that we are the problem.
It’s an almost universal experience – and this week, we’re watching it unfold spectacularly on the global stage via the reaction of Donald Trump to the protests by black NFL players who have taken up the cause started by Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback, started peacefully protesting racism and police brutality in 2016. He does so by kneeling as the American anthem is sung prior to the start of a game. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he told America’s NFL media last year. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
US President Donald Trump is just the latest in a cavalcade of commentators to characterise this quiet act of protest as one of delinquency and disruption. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” Trump said last week, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!'”
While Trump’s reaction is extreme – especially from a president – it’s far from unusual, or confined to the US.
Just last week ex-Collingwood AFL player Heritier Lumumba’s account of the racism he endured during his 12-year career was heard with scepticism and disbelief.
When Peter Helliar of The Project called for Lumumba to further substantiate his claims of racism, lest he “smear an entire team”, a victim of racism was quickly made into the perpetrator of malice. In a one-on-one interview with Lumumba, Waleed Aly asked with astonishing condescension, “isn’t this just an organisation that doesn’t know how to deal with this kind of thing?”
This is what happens when people of colour speak about racism. We are assured that we are oversensitive, disruptive, ungrateful and above all, mistaken. The implication is that by bringing up racism, we summon racism into existence, rather than naming what is already there. The result is that the real problem of racism escapes the interrogation that it so badly needs.
It’s something I’ve experienced myself – and will likely ring true to anyone who has complained about racism especially at work.
When I was racially harassed by co-workers two years ago, I lodged a complaint with our HR manager, recounting the incident to her painstaking detail. Her response was to stare at me with the bafflement that many white people reserve for people of colour describing their experiences.
It’s what British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge described as “stony faces of disbelief” in her book Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the HR manager responded to me in dismissive, minimising terms. “People don’t mean to be mean”, she offered. I was assured of the goodwill of the perpetrators, despite the clear evidence to the contrary.
Word of my complaint had travelled fast, and within a week of making my complaint, the vast majority of my team had turned on me in favour of solidarity with their racist colleagues. In short, I became the problem.
When the anxiety of coming to work with no support network became unbearable, I resigned from my role.
It’s obvious that the American president sees kneeling footballers as problem people. In doing so, the continuing oppression of African-Americans and people of colour in the United States is ignored. As David Remnick writes in The New Yorker, “[Trump] is infinitely more offended by the sight of a black ballplayer quietly, peacefully protesting racism in the United States than he is by racism itself.”
Similarly, by reacting to Lumumba with probing distrust, The Project saw Lumumba as a problem to be scrutinised, while the real problem of institutional racism within the AFL (and Australian racism more broadly) vanishes from view.
Black writers and critical race theorists have long described the experience of racism as one of being seen as a problem. In The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1901, American civil rights activist WEB Bois said that to be a person of colour in America is to be constantly but indirectly asked, “how does it feel to be a problem?”
As British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed puts it, “in making those who experience racism into the problem, racism does not become the problem”.
By hearing those who protest racism as the problem, the problem of racism itself is ignored. As a result, nothing is gained from these conversations, and the opportunity for social change and transformation is lost.
If we want to have constructive conversations about racism, we must stop re-framing those who have the courage to speak up about racism as problem people; as bearers of malice and ill-will.
The problem is racism. And the solution starts with acknowledging that.