Friday, June 07, 2013

This isn't the racism you're looking for.

It's not even 6 pm, and at least four of my Facebook friends have posted this video on their Timelines today. Apparently the video, originally posted on YouTube in 2010, is just now reaching a lot of people via Upworthy, where a fellow named Rafael Casal shared it under this headline: "Know Anyone Who Thinks Racial Profiling Is Exaggerated? Watch This, And Tell Me When Your Jaw Drops."

Please check it out before reading further:



In each case, I think the people posting this video, and the people responding to it, are missing the real story. Indeed, I think that the creators of the experiment, the producers of the TV show, "What Would You Do?", are missing the real story of their own work.

At 1:54, when host John Quinones is shown reviewing the footage, he remarks that people respond to the black guy "right away."

AS WELL THEY SHOULD - a CRIME is in progress.

The real story is not that a black kid committing a crime is treated like a criminal. The real story is that a white kid committing a crime is not, and that a white girl committing a crime receives an offer of help (What the what?!?).

Does this clip demonstrate racism? Yes. But the racism demonstrated here is not the racism of persecution (WHICH DEFINITELY EXISTS) - it's the racism of privilege.

On Upworthy, Mr. Casal says:

"at 1:50, I literally yelled, "You've got to be kidding me!" at my screen."

The problem is not at 1:50. The problem is at 1:31, when a black woman (sigh) says, "I remember thinking, 'Young white men don't usually carry burglar tools.'"

The problem is at 3:56, when an older white gentleman helps a white girl to commit her crime.

The racism of privilege says, "that person can't be committing a crime, even though it really does look like they are - because they're white," or worse yet, "that person's committing a crime, but that's ok - because they're white."

That's the racism of privilege - when the assumption of white rightness overrides the evidence of one's own senses, and shuts down one's own moral faculties.

A commenter on YouTube said, "The old guy at 3:23 is my hero." He's mine, too, because he tried to stop a crime. And for all he knew, that kid could have had a gun. That old guy doesn't bother me. The old guy at 3:56 does.

All forms of racism are stupid and evil, but the racism of privilege is especially pernicious in some ways.


  • First, because it is largely unconscious. The racism of persecution knows that it is race-based. The racism of privilege often doesn't.
  • Second, because, since it operates by unjustly lifting some people up, rather than by keeping some people down, it may feel like generosity of spirit.
  • Third, precisely because it is largely unconscious and feels like a virtue, it may be more pervasive than the racism of persecution.


It's hard to know how pervasive it is. And it's especially hard for Black folk to know how pervasive it is, because it happens when we're not around and when people aren't even thinking about us. It is not just a white thing, it is a white-on-white thing. And it is up to white people to notice it and to fight it (also, probably, while we're not around).

Now, some of the white people in the middle segment may be racist. Heck, they all may be. But this clip doesn't demonstrate that. If the same people who let the white guy go, stopped the black guy, that might demonstrate racism. If people gave the black guy a hard time when he was not committing a crime, that might demonstrate racism (and that scenario would have been more worthy of invoking Trayvon Martin, as some have done). But stopping a black kid from committing a crime is not racial profiling, and it is not a racist thing to do. It's a neighborly thing to do. And you know what? I would rather have white neighbors who do that, than black neighbors who allow babies to be shot to death, and say nothing.
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