Casual racism is casual discrimination against a marginalised racial group, which is expressed casually. Casual racism can be presented in the form of “jokes”, off-handed comments or actions (such as excluding certain people from a group activity).
These behaviours are normalised. There are plenty of “jokes” and statements that are normalised. We, as a society, have decided that certain racist behaviours aren’t racist. We allow people to make these comments and that’s why people are free to do so casually.
Can Racism Be Unintentional?
Yes. People can most definitely be racist without even wanting to be. Usually, casual racism is not intended to cause harm. So what makes an action, comment or attitude racist?
It’s racist if a person has upheld the systemic issue of race-based discrimination against BIPOC by doing one (or multiple) of the following:
- Ignored the fact that we are living in a society designed to oppress people of colour.
- Perpetuated harmful stereotypes.
- Invalidated people of colour’s voices and experiences.
- Refused to or hasn’t recognised their own racism.
When an individual (regardless of their own race) ignores racism or refuses to acknowledge its existence, they allow the system to thrive. So they support the oppression of marginalised communities.
White people have white privilege. Consequently, they have a responsibility in this society to be more than just “not racist”. White people must be actively anti-racist. This means recognising the off-handed comments and casual racism that they or others may be unintentionally hurling at people of colour. They must proactively unlearn the anti-black values that we’re all taught by society.
Are They Really “Just Jokes”?
In conversations about casual racism and microaggressions, many [ignorant] people like to argue that “people today are just too sensitive” or “this generation is so soft”.
Actually… people are just fed up. The term “dark humour” describes comedy that is based on a person’s (or a group’s) own experiences and traumas. Laughing about your own trauma is a very common coping mechanism. However, those that exploit another person’s trauma, by making rape “jokes”, racist “jokes”, abuse “jokes” and more about experiences they themselves have never had, are beyond disrespectful.
Ultimately, it comes down to this… if a person’s only outlet for humour is to make vile jokes at the expense of marginalised communities, are they really funny? Are they really that funny if it’s genuinely difficult for them to find a new punchline?
Can a Person Be Racist to Their Own Race?
Yes, and in a number of ways. To be ‘racist’ simply means: to uphold the system of racial oppression that negatively impacts BIPOC. This can happen between, across and within different races. One of the main manifestations of racism (that may be expressed as casual racism) is colourism. Colourism is the idea that lighter skin is better and more attractive than darker skin. This has led to numerous stereotypes and prejudices against dark-skinned people. This is amplified for women, given the pressures and constraints of unattainable beauty standards.
What Are Some Examples of Casual Racism?
As a black woman myself, growing up in Britain hasn’t been an easy experience. Racism in the UK is nothing like it is in America. American media and TV has led us to believe that racism only occurs when a person is murdered, verbally abused or lynched. British culture made use of this. In the UK, it has always been a taboo topic. By using racist attacks in the US as the poster for racism, we ignored the casual racism and microaggressions in British culture that socially exhaust marginalised communities.
There are those phrases that we’ve all heard. Here are some common examples of casual racism and microaggressions:
- “You speak English so well!”
- “No, like where are you REALLY from?”
- “You’re so pretty for a black girl!”
- “You don’t need to get aggressive all of a sudden.”
- “Are you related to [another POC]?”
- “Can I touch your hair?”
- “When get back from holiday, I’m gonna be the same shade as you!”
- “Can you tan?”
- “Can your cheeks go red?”
British High Schools
The British school curriculum teaches young people nothing about Britain’s history or how a racist society functions. Young BIPOC are left with the difficult task of navigating a racist society all on their own. Because of the fact that young people aren’t taught about racism, it becomes very difficult to call it out.
The most aggravating part of the black teenage experience is when you realise (by educating yourself and becoming more aware) how racist the people around you truly are.
For me and for most young BIPOC, we were aware of racism in its most obvious forms and will be able to tell stories of racist experiences we’ve had in high school. But for me, personally, it wasn’t until I left high school and looked back on my experience, that I realised that I (and other people of colour) were actually just the punchline for almost every “joke”. There were so many behaviours/comments from students AND teachers that were simply disgusting… but I didn’t know that at the time. So I put up with it.
I remember the other students would ask me if they could have an “N-word pass”. I just wanted to fit in and be liked so I’d allow them to use the word, even though I don’t even like saying it.
Reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ was an experience I assume most black students would like to forget. Seeing all the nonblack students jumping at the opportunity to say the word as loud as they could. The teachers would sit silently while several of the white students took their chance. Others would just stare at me and the black students in the class to see if we would react in any way. ‘Of Mice and Men’ was a highly traumatising experience for both black students and students with disabilities.
International students and people of colour attending universities in Britain also have their own experiences. Sam Phan tells his story as a British-Chinese student attending Sheffield University in The Guardian. Racism in the UK is largely microaggressions and casual racism and because of this a lot of it gets swept under the rug.
However, that doesn’t mean casual racism doesn’t exist overseas. In the US, Dolly Chugh (author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias) tells the story of how a friend of hers, Kimberly Davis had to deal with casual racism from white women. Davis attended a convention for female executives which were predominantly white. She entered a room full of white women, who were socialising in groups. None of these groups opened up to her. These women were not intentionally or purposefully discriminating against Davis. Davis assumed they just didn’t recognise her as a fellow executive because she didn’t conform to their expectations.
What Can You Do When You Encounter Casual Racism?
Don’t Downplay Racism
Racism isn’t always intentional, but it’s encouraged when we sugarcoat the reality of it. Sugarcoating involves downplaying (or entirely ignoring) the impact or reality of a situation. Racism is often sugarcoated. Whether it be a comment, an attack or worse, we tend to sugarcoat it to accommodate white fragility.
Even in conversations about racism, society has taught us to behave in a way that makes white people most comfortable. By not explaining the full and real impact of casual racism (or any form of racism), we encourage white people to allow/ignore it. Don’t sugarcoat your own experiences. Put yourself in spaces and environments where you feel you can truthfully communicate an experience and the impact that it’s had on you.
How to Be an Ally
There is an important differentiation to make when discussing how people should handle racism: the difference between an ally and an active bystander. As Micki Mcelya wrote in the Boston Review, an ‘ally’ is someone who “does not suffer the same oppressions, but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom”. So, an ally is someone who acknowledges systemic oppression (including their role as an individual in society) but actually lacks action.
“An ally is someone who does not suffer the same oppressions, but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom”.Micki Mcelya
This is where we may often see the bystander effect. The bystander effect refers to the scenario where individuals are less likely to offer help in a problematic situation when other people are there. This is because when more people are present, no one has to take responsibility for any action (or lack thereof).
So, what is an active bystander? An active bystander is any person that makes the conscious decision to intervene and respond to a problematic situation where someone is experiencing harm. Active bystanders take action against a racist attack or instance of racism. This can happen in numerous ways, such as:
- Recording police brutality.
- Challenging racist comments.
- Educating others on the problematic origin of common expressions.
But how can you make sure you act correctly in a situation where casual racism has occurred? Micro-interventions are used to validate the victim’s perspective whilst also indicating solidarity with this person and there are several strategies that can be used.
The first strategy is to actively expose the prejudice. This could be by asking a person to explain why they made a certain comment or what about a certain “joke” is really funny.
The second strategy is to shift focus from the victim by disagreeing with the comment/statement/joke.
The third and most common strategy is to educate. If you are able to, try and inform a person on why something they said was racist or offensive. If, in the moment, you aren’t able to act directly and intervene in the situation, always make sure to follow up with the victim to make sure that they aren’t too shaken or uncomfortable.