In her recently published book, Samira Mehta offers insight into a lesser-known, but nevertheless hurtful, type of racism
It’s 2016, Pennsylvania, and Samira Mehta, who would later become an associate professor of women and gender studies and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is having dinner with an old friend.
He asks about her experiences during the election, as he, like many people, has become worried about the xenophobia stirred up by the Trump campaign. How’s that been for her?
Short answer: not great.
The daughter of a white mother from Illinois and a father from India, Mehta has twice been spat on at her local grocery store and told to “go home.” (Home, by the way, is Connecticut, where Mehta was born and reared.)
Yet although such flagrant acts of racism are scary, Mehta tells her friend, they aren’t the kind of racism that really hurts her. The kind that really hurts her, she says, is “the racism of people who love me.”
Now Mehta has published a book exploring this topic, The Racism of People Who Love You: Essays on Mixed Race Belonging, which takes a first-hand look at the challenges of mixedness and encourages discussion of a kind of racism that is sometimes overlooked, under-addressed or misunderstood.
Usually, when we think about racism, Mehta says, we think about big historical moments. We think about the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; about Los Angeles police officers brutally attacking Rodney King; about Rosa Parks being told to give up her seat on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus; about John Lewis being beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“What’s much harder to talk about and think about are moments of racism that you encounter in relationships where you love the other person and they love you,” says Mehta.
The racism of people who love you is a subtler, more elusive form of racism, Mehta explains, and one that can be especially challenging for mixed-race individuals. Mehta herself has endured it on many occasions.
One example concerns the very friend she was having dinner with in 2016.
Years earlier, she was flying out to visit him, she recalls, “and I got searched really aggressively by TSA, and it was invasive. I got pulled out of the line and had to take off clothes, and I was worried. And my friend was like, ‘If, by searching people who look like you, they keep everyone safe, this is just an inconvenience.’”
Another example involves Mehta’s maternal aunt. At a family get-together, Mehta was wearing Indian clothing, and so her aunt decided to ask her, “So, are you super ethnic now?”
Neither Mehta’s friend nor her aunt was deliberately being racist. In fact, they’re the kind of people who’d vehemently disavow racism. “These are people for whom being liberal, or maybe even being progressive, is really central to their identity,” Mehta says.
Yet it’s precisely this tension between who the person is and what the person says that can make the racism of people who love you so difficult to address.
“It’s really hard to talk to people about these things, because to them they’re one-offs; to them they’re little things,” says Mehta. “They don’t necessarily recognize what they’re saying or doing as indicative of a larger power structure.”
Plus, Mehta says, “nobody wants to see themselves as a racist,” especially when that person is someone close—an old friend, for instance, or a family member—and especially nowadays, when charges of racism feel extremely high stakes.
“We’ve got a sort of one-drop rule of racism in the United States, where, if you do one racist thing, the distance between you and someone who would burn a cross on someone’s front lawn collapses. It’s the worst thing you could say to somebody,” says Mehta.
This then creates a Catch-22 for those suffering from the racism of people who love them: “If you don’t say anything, you lose the friendship because you let them go off and be racist. And if you do say something, you run the risk of losing the friendship because you just called your friend a racist.”
Put bluntly, either lose the friendship or lose the friendship.
But Mehta has a way around this dilemma, one she drew from the work of Loretta Ross, a feminist, activist and educator known for her work in women’s rights, reproductive justice and anti-racism, and a cofounder of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.
Ross distinguishes between two modes of confronting racism: calling out and calling in.
With calling out, Ross says, “You think somebody has done something wrong, you think they should be held accountable for it, and you think they should be punished for it.”
Calling out is an opportunity to shame, says Ross. It’s done out of anger. And for that reason, she believes it is ineffective. “With this approach, you’ve guaranteed one thing. With this blaming and shaming, you just invited [the person accused of racism] to a fight, not a conversation.”
Calling in, however, is basically the same as calling out, but “done with love,” says Ross. It is not an opportunity to shame but an invitation to change. It promotes conversation, not fighting.
It’s the difference between volubly condemning someone at the Thanksgiving table and asking them to a private chat on a walk after dinner.
When it comes to the racism of people who love you, says Mehta, it’s calling in, not calling out, that’s the thing to do.
And that is one thing she hopes her book helps readers do. She hopes it helps those who’ve experienced racism from the people who love them, as well as those who’ve committed such acts of racism, find a healthy way to discuss that racism.
But Mehta is also quick to admit that these conversations don’t always create the desired outcome, which leads one to wonder, as her audience members often do at her book talks, when to forgive a person for his or her racism and when to cut that person off?
“How you make that judgment call is really individual,” Mehta says. “It depends on what's going on in your life. It depends on how much you need that person. I do not think it’s a good idea to cancel the people you love for things that they do that hurt you, but I also don’t think you should be a doormat who is willing to be hurt forever.”
There is a balance to strike, in other words. Care should be taken.
But, ultimately, Mehta believes in people’s ability to be and do better, as long as they’re given the chance.
“If you cancel people, they never grow and change. But they can grow and change when you call them in and offer them love.”