The “Aw man, it’s racist” moment

An “Aw man, it’s racist” moment is a time when you go back to a book, film or TV show that you really liked a lot when you were younger and find that it’s got some pretty problematic content that you didn’t pick up first time around. These moments are usually but not exclusively experienced by white people, as we’re a lot slower to pick up on racism when it happens. Usually you feel shocked at first, then irritated because you have to start reassessing your opinion of this thing that you thought you just liked without question.

I had one of these moments recently when reading a favourite book that I hadn’t properly read for a little while. I still enjoyed it, but a couple of things jumped out at me which hadn’t before. Pretty much all of the main characters are white (which again, I hadn’t really paid much attention to before) and there are only two black characters who speak during the whole story. One is a woman begging money on the side of the road who the main character gives an expensive bracelet to. The other is a man who is rude to the main character in a Laundromat and she fantasises that maybe he’ll start “murdering everyone” and she’ll have to call the police.

There’s also a Chinese man who talks in broken English (“So! How you like?”) and a bit where the main character fantasises about having a Japanese lodger who will have “black hair and a soft voice and wear a beautiful turquoise kimono”. The main character actually says at this point that she is “possibly even being racist” but that she doesn’t care.

… I’m not an expert but I’d say that’s more than possible racism.

This wasn’t a hugely bad “Aw man, it’s racist” moment as they go, but I was still a bit startled that a book that I’d liked so much before could have such obvious racist stereotypes in it. The characters weren’t hugely problematic in a standalone sort of way but when I thought about the many many many times black and Asian people had been portrayed this way before in popular culture, it didn’t make me feel great about continuing to see the book as a favourite.

Unfortunately, once you’ve had an “Aw man, it’s racist” moment, it takes a hell of a lot of backtracking and “am I being too sensitive” thoughts to try and force your brain back where it was before you saw the racism. Even then it doesn’t really work, you still feel a sense of unease whenever you go back to it. Then you start questioning other things about it (is it OK that the only gay male character in the book responds to a burglar by hiding and wailing, “We need a man in this house”? Is it cute that the love interest tells the main character loads of stuff about astrophysics or is he just a massive mansplainer?)

The trouble with trying to tell people when you’ve spotted something racist in a favourite book or film is that they immediately assume you’re “being too harsh” and need to be pulled back from whatever extreme edge you’re teetering over before you start tossing your entire book collection into the bin. I still like the book and will probably still read and enjoy it on occasion. In a way, it feels better to have recognised what’s problematic about it so that I can bear this in mind in my own writing and when I choose to recommend certain books to other people.

With most popular culture (same as with people), things are rarely 100% racist or not racist. We need to stop getting hung up on binary explanations and start pointing this stuff out for what it is. In this case, it was a decent book which has offensive stereotypes that shouldn’t have been there. Saying “That thing you said/like is racist” isn’t some sort of permanent curse that follows you around forever – it’s a learning curve, or at least it should be and I appreciate it.

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