I’m not racist, but…

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“I’m not racist, but…” seems to preface a great many clearly racist statements. Working in a call centre, I get to hear it a good two or three times each and every day. Whether they’re complaining about our company’s out-sourced call centres in the Philippines or bitching about the Indian guy who sits two desks up from me and accusing him of being from Mumbai – it’s always prefaced by that simple claim that they’re not racist.

The words that follow the ‘but’ range from the relatively harmless “but I can’t understand a word they’re saying’ to the slightly more offensive ‘but I don’t want to talk to no fucking Indian. I mean, they’re good for a curry – but they shouldn’t be answering phones’.

I even had a customer today who wasn’t even 100% sure who he was being racist again. In the one breath he complained about “Indians in the Philippines” who were only good for making sweet and sour pork. I wasn’t even sure where to begin unraveling that.

The saddest part about all of this is that these people genuinely believe what they’re saying. They view this kind of casual racism as being different from crucifix burning, white robe wearing, Southern Cross tattoo sporting in your face racism. And that’s a worrying thought.

It’s not restricted to Australians, of course. My two years in South Korea exposed me to all manner of racism – ranging from the innocuous cries of “Waygookin” (foreigner) as an ajumma pointed at me in the street to the less obvious snickering of children as they pointed at a person with darker skin in one of their textbooks.

I remember telling my students that I was dating a South African girl and having them mime throwing a spear in answer.

What relevance does this have in a blog about travel? The obvious link is that when we travel, we’re interacting with other cultures and races. I like to think those of us who have traveled are cut from a different cloth than the people I describe above. I’m not going to make the bold statement that I’m never racist – but I do think travel and exposure to people from a variety of backgrounds has given me a far better perspective to work from.

I’ll admit that from time to time I do get a tad irritated with one of my colleagues from an offshore call centre. Sometimes I’m having a hectic day and the last straw is having to slow things right down to make it easier for them to understand what it is I’m saying.

But rather than get angry, I stop a think for a moment. I think back to attempting to order bibimbap in my halting Korean or nodding with a stupid grin on my face as I walked away from a Chinese cab driver frantically gesturing that I pay him. Turns out arms crossed in front of you to make an ‘X’ means $10 in China and ‘zero’ in Korea. Go figure.

In my reading of Frommer’s Fiji in preparation for my visit there later this year, I’ve read about the tensions between native Fijians and the Fijian Indian population that emigrated there in the 1800s. It’s definitely something I’m going to encounter everywhere.

I guess the point I’m making is that we’re all human and we’re all going to think those uncharitable thoughts from time to time. But rather than indulge them and go into a tirade about whichever minority it is that we perceive to have slighted our delicate sensibilities – maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, think back to a time where you’ve been the fish out of water, and remember that it’s not easy to speak in another language and adapt to a new culture.

That’s just my two cents.

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  1. I grew up one of only 50 white kids in a school of 2600 (98% black, 1.5% Asian), but I experienced far more racist attitudes from my white friends and members of my extended family than I ever did from the black kids. The older I get, the more understand that racism is usually the result of a combination of ignorance and fear… two character traits I try to avoid at all costs. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • That’s really interesting, Bret. I would have imagined that it would be the minority who received the worst of it, so it’s intriguing to see that isn’t always the case.

      Ignorance and fear are definitely the biggest parts behind it. I don’t know many smart racists who are comfortable within the world they inhabit. It takes a special kind of self-loathing that is then projected upon others.

  2. I have to admit I am guilty of thinking uncharitable thoughts from time to time, specifically when dealing with people over the phone who can not speak adequate English. I KNOW it must be hard for them to learn the language – it’s a hard language to learn, but they should be able to speak pretty good English if they are going to be talking to people in English-speaking countries. Just as I would not go to France or Italy without learning a decent amount of their languages – it just seems common sense to me. I don’t think that’s being racist. However, I don’t get rude and think ‘stupid Indian, all you’re good for is making curries’ – that’s going over the borderline, I think. Maybe it is the companies they work for that need to provide proper and decent English lessons for their employees who aren’t natvive English speakers.

    & So ends my rant. 😛 Good post, Chris. 🙂

    • I think it’s perfectly natural to be frustrated with people who make no effort to acclimatise to a new region. As long as we walk that line between frustration and making cruel generalisations, I think we’re doing okay 🙂

  3. Great post! You’re right though… traveling is so important with globalization. It’s funny how many people I’ve met on my travels though, who can’t get past their ideas and opinions of how the world and the many cultures in it should exist. One of the important things about traveling is to stay open minded… which a lot of people fail to do, sadly.

    Fiji sounds exciting! Looks like you have some great adventures ahead of you! 🙂

  4. Good post, i will admit i am guilty of having started sentences with “im not racist but…”
    re tension in fiji.. you won’t notice it really, but you will notice a big divide between native fijians and fijian indians. the cities (suva, nadi, sigatoka) are highly populated with indians, basically all stores are owned and operated by indians too.

    • In hindsight, I definitely noticed this. A lot of racism going both ways between both parties. It’s a rather fascinating (and sad) dynamic.

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