Racism should be like stepping on someone’s foot

How’s that for a glib and sensationalistic post title?

I think it makes a certain sort of sense though and expresses an idealism that’s not at all common in discussions of the former, saddled with “uncomfortable” baggage that makes the use of euphemism so attractive.

Say that you’re at a dance. You’re standing off to the side enjoying the music and watching others dance when one of the dancers whirls by too closely and steps on your foot, but doesn’t notice. They twirl off, completely enraptured by the music and the moment. You now have to make a choice: either you leave them be, dancing along their merry way where they might potentially step on another person’s foot, or you speak up: “Hey, you stepped on my foot. Might want to be a bit more cautious in the future.”

Now, say you decided to speak up and the person replies with something along the lines of “What?! I’m just dancing here, having a good time! Since I would never dream of stepping on someone’s foot I *know* I didn’t step on yours. I was raised to not step on people’s feet, that’s just the kind of person I am. In fact, I’m really hurt by your accusations, how could you even say such a thing?!” Their reaction doesn’t really make sense because of a few points:

Firstly, it completely dismisses your point of view. By claiming they couldn’t have stepped on your foot they’re saying that at best, you imagined it or that at worst, you flat-out lied. It’s not at all a stretch of the imagination to consider that, being completely wrapped up in dancing, they simply didn’t notice that they stepped on your foot. We’re just human beings after all, not omniscient machines: our attention cannot be everywhere at once. Given the fact that you experience physical pain when your foot is stepped on, it makes sense that you would damn well know if your foot was stepped on. So while they may not have noticed it, it’s not at all hard to take you at your word. In other words, it’s easy to accept that your point of view informs the situation more than theirs.

Secondly, it’s an overreaction. A person wouldn’t feel threatened or attacked if you’d just pointed out that they’d stepped on your foot. You’re not accusing them of being some horrible foot-hater that they should feel the need to defend themselves. It was a gaff, an accident, like dropping a bit of pudding on your shirt. And it’s common courtesy to just apologize and go back to the dancing with a bit more awareness of the dance floor. It’s as simple a solution as that.


Imagine the situation wasn’t someone stepping on your foot, but making a racist comment.

Everything I wrote still applies.

If people’s reactions to having their racist comments pointed out went more like their reaction to someone pointing out that they stepped on someone’s foot, conversations about racism would be far more productive and informative than they are currently, bogged down as conversations become with precisely the above kind of nonsense.


~ by Picaspexit on March 25, 2010.

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