Am I a racist?

I just read through a series of articles on the Daily Telegraph’s website, dealing with racism in today’s society, mostly in the UK and the US.

Here are some of the articles’ titles, and I will confess it was the first one in this list that caught my attention:

  • What black women don’t want: ‘Is your pubic hair an Afro too?’
  • Racism versus humour fail: ‘You’re quite pretty…for an Indian girl’
  • Rihanna twerks and all black women are ‘whores’. Miley does it and it’s just her who’s judged

Let me say immediately that many of the situations described are indeed inappropriate, and some are clearly racist, but I suspect that some, while evidently racially offensive, may not reflect a racist mindset but simply ignorance about what offends some people.

Take that first title, for example: “Is your pubic hair an Afro too?” does not strike me as racist as much as inappropriate and infantile. It is the curiosity of a white person who doesn’t know much about black people, and who has never learned to respect other people’s privacy. It is as inapproriate as asking a redhead “Is your pubic hair red, too?” Seriously, unless the woman you’re asking that question is your wife, or perhaps in our contemporary society divorced from biblical morality, your lover, the color or other aspects of her pubic hair are simply none of your business.

Or the questions also listed as offensive and a sign of racism in that first article, and which, phrased slighly differently, I might be guilty of asking a person who looks African or like he comes from the Indian subcontinent:

– Where are you from?

– London.

– Yeah, but where are you really from?

Really, truly, I am not trying to imply that a person with your skin color, or your facial features, cannot really be from London. But, nosey as I am, I want to find out what your background is; just like I might ask an American with a name like “Schwarzenegger”:

– Where are you from?

– California.

– Yeah, but where are you really from?

– California. I even was governor for a few years, and before that I had some movie parts in Hollywood.

(Of course, no Austrian needs to ask that particular question, and quite a few of us would know the answer as soon as he opens his mouth 🙂 but we are not really questioning his American citizenship or his bona fides as a Californian. )

So if I ask non-white people where they are from, I am not questioning their standing as a Londoner, or as an American, or as a Scot; rather, I want to find out whether they are of Indian or Pakistani background, for example, or whether their parents or grandparents came straight from Africa (and where in Africa), or from the Jamaica, or from the US, or whatever. Just like I would want to find out whether an American or Canadian called “Neufeld” comes from German Mennonite ancestors via Russia, or more recently directly from Germany. It is not racism, it’s an interest in people, it’s simple curiosity.

I recognize that some people don’t like that curiosity (Ava Vidal, the journalist and comedienne who authored several of these articles, has no information about her ancestral background either in her Wikipedia entry or on her official web page), but that does not make it racism.

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