Letter From the Editor: Subtle Form of Racism

subtle form of racism

We often speak about overt forms of racism: Obvious examples are the use of derogatory terms like Nigger, Chink, Spic, Honky, Cracka, Jap, Gook, etc. And if listing them made you very uncomfortable and angry at me for using them, guess what? They should! They’re ugly sounding and of course each has a nasty history of people using them with the sole intention of humiliating someone and stabbing them in the heart. But what about subtle forms of racism? Do you think about how many times someone may have used a subtle form of racism and either you caught it or it flew over your head? And this could be whether it’s directed at you or someone else. Of course there are also well-intentioned forms of racism, which I can cover in another blog, but right now I want to talk about what a subtle form of racism looks like. My hope is that as a person who might use some of these expressions, you can recognize them for what they are. I am well aware of the fact that many do so naively and don’t realize they’re causing harm. More often than not the person saying them wouldn’t characterize themselves as racist, but make no mistake, these are still subtle forms of racism.

What got me thinking about this whole subtle form of racism thing was something specific. And it didn’t happen to me per se, but a sleight (that in hindsight was clearly intentional, and in that case not so subtle) against all people of color (PoC). And when I use the phrase PoC, I am not always referring solely to Black people. I am also referring to Asians (including Indians and people from the sub-continent), Latinos, Natives and Hispanics. In other words, I am referring to anyone who isn’t White.

Last week a contributor wrote an essay titled, “Dear Fellow White People.” As a White woman, Kaitlin’s hope was to reach out to her fellow White people and talk about the issue some White folks have with so-called colorblindness. The claim of “I don’t see color” is obviously a crock o’ poopy, and in a friendly way (nothing like the way I just described it), Kaitlin wanted to explain why this is both impossible and dismissive to PoC. What I hadn’t expected were some of the comments on our Facebook page. Some expressed thanks and that they could relate, while two said, “I have enough going on in my life, I don’t have to be bothered with what upsets Black people.” On the face of it, comments like this are dismissive, but if you think even a little bit deeper, it’s actually a subtle form of racism.

Another subtle form of racism (and again, this is just my own observation) is when your friend (who’s the same race as you) posts an article on his Facebook page about, let’s say, a bombing in Paris. When we think of Paris, although there are many North Africans living there, most people (both White and PoC) associate Paris and France as a whole as being White. So the obvious occurs. Your White friends and you engage about how awful it is and how sick you all feel about this. “When will this violence stop?” queries one person. “What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they value life?” These people and those people are both subtle forms of racism, by the way.

But now let’s say a PoC posts an article on her Facebook page about an airstrike over some country full of either Muslims, Black people or both. What seems to usually happen is that comments from White people are few and far between (although many PoC are angry and not being shy about expressing their anger) and the prevailing response coming from White people is usually a brief one like “Oh, that’s sad.” That infuriates me beyond words! That right there is a subtle form of racism. If you can’t express the same degree of anger and outrage, please don’t bother commenting!!!


Another example would be the comments that flood in from White people when a Black student is accepted into all of the Ivy League schools. “No one cares when a White student does this,” they say, completely ignoring the historical, institutionalized racism that makes it a Very Big Deal Indeed for a Black student to be accepted into one Ivy League school, let alone all eight.

So What Exactly Is a Subtle Form of Racism?

I think we can all agree calling someone a derogatory name such as Nigger (probably the most commonly used and most recognizable to all people in the United States and even abroad) is an overt form of racism. But the subtle form of racism is obviously—for lack of a better word—more subtle and more apt to fly over the heads of people.

A subtle form of racism is anything that is dismissive but without using words like, “Get out of here, you person of x, y or z heritage.” Another subtle form of racism is saying, “I don’t see color.” Of course you do, unless you only see it when referring to the sun, moon, skies and trees, but somehow you’re colorblind when it comes to seeing variation in skin tones and differences in hair textures. Another subtle form of racism is, “Oh, that’s sad.” Why this one? Because if you can express outrage for someone who is your same race who experienced a tragedy but your response is ho-hum when it happens to someone of an entirely different race, yes, my friends, this is a subtle form of racism. And it is whether you recognize it as such or not.

Look, we’re getting better as a species. Social media has helped, believe it or not. Being bombarded with news stories that one could normally filter out when reading a paper whose social, economic, political and ideological views resonate with our own is actually forcing us all to confront our own bigotry. Yes, I have it too. As Multiracial and aware of race and all its forms of racism as I am, I too have been guilty of expressing bigotry.

(And no, calling out racism or White privilege is not a form of racism, whether subtle, well-intentioned or overt.)

We all have it and to insist otherwise is a waste of time. And mine aren’t always so subtle either. I have a bias toward two groups of men—because of the way they have treated me in a professional setting: dismissive, as a feeble female or worse, vacillating between wanting to make me be submissive to them to being overt about wanting to exert sexual power over me. I am well aware of the fact that not all men in these two ethnic groups are like that and I am working to address it when I meet men from those two ethnic groups, so I don’t blame someone for something he was never guilty of.

What I am talking about is people who let things fly out of their mouths without realizing how dismissive they are and when it happens, folks don’t pay attention to the way the mood just changed as a result. If it’s a face-to-face situation, look for the body language after comments like that come out. If it’s a social media situation, in other words, where your keyboard is not only thinking for you but conveying your true feelings, look closely at the responses and see how people can take offense, even when you hadn’t intended on it or didn’t call them a derogatory term.

Oh and one more subtle form of racism? If you are in a store and you see a PoC and you clutch your purse or check to make sure your wallet is there, whether this is conscience or not, it is a subtle form of racism.

Are we cool?

Photo credit: Mike George

In addition to being the founders of Multiracial Media, both Sarah and Alex are writers and opinionated ones at that. They like to write about many topics, including: politics (encompassing issues on race, gender, the LGBTQ—U.S. and geopolitics), current events (which could, of course, encompass politics), pop culture, culture and many, many others. The Letter from the Editor may cover our thoughts on current events or on-gonig issues that are important to the Multiracial Community. You never know what we’re going to write about and it may even include some humor, since Alex is a stand-up comic.

2 Responses to Letter From the Editor: Subtle Form of Racism

  1. Thank you for writing this article. I am guilty of having certain biases. and try to check myself when these thoughts come into my head. My choice of words has gotten me into trouble. When I was doing consulting work in a home care agency, one of the student’s daughter was marrying a man of a different ethnicity, and I asked, “How do you feel about that.” I can’t remember what she said, but I told my mother and she asked, “Why would you ask a question like that.?” I thought about what she said and realized that was not an appropriate question to ask. I would like to think that I am wiser now that I am older and see the world differently than I did when I was in my twenties and thirties. Although I was never one to judge a person by their color, at least I hope I didn’t. And when you say PoC, I get it because I use that term often.

    • Avatar Sarah Ratliff says:

      Thanks, Vivienne. Shoot if you said that in your twenties, I would hardly characterize you as being insensitive. In that age group we’re not wired to be other-person sensitive yet.

      And hey, you know now it wasn’t the best thing to ask but honestly? I could have easily asked that myself, too.

      Yeah when people get upset for using PoC, I don’t get why.

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