When Eamonn Holmes compared Dr Zoe Williams’ Afro hair to an alpaca live on This Morning earlier this week, Dr Williams responded with a smile and a laugh.
Holmes said sorry for his comments, calling them an ‘attempt at being humorous’, and many responded saying there was no need for an apology and that the interaction wasn’t offensive, because Dr Williams had laughed.
‘He was having a joke with her and I laughed and so did she,’ said one woman on Twitter.
‘She thought it was funny. It was not offensive. No malice just banter,’ commented another.
There are lots of situation where a Black person, or any person of colour, might laugh along, or choose to ignore a comment rather than call out racism. If your boss says something problematic in the workplace, for example, or if you’re trying to make a good impression with your new partner’s family.
But just because someone laughs or appears to shrug off a problematic comment, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t harmful or racist.
Due to the power dynamics that exist during racist interactions – where the person who is a minority automatically holds less power – laughing, smiling or brushing off racism can be the safest option for the person on the receiving end of the comments.
For example, if Dr Williams had expressed anger towards her white male colleague – who is in a powerful position as a lead presenter of the show she works on – it may have resulted in a negative impact for her own career, or she may have been labelled ‘aggressive’ or ‘a bully’.
People who experience racism often only have milliseconds to weigh up their options of how to respond. Choosing to laugh or downplay the situation doesn’t mean the interaction was any less harmful.
‘Watching Dr Zoe Williams response of laughing the microaggression off is something very familiar to me,’ says Natalie Evans, co-founder of Everyday Racism.
‘As a mixed-race woman with curly hair that gets fondled regularly, I relate to the awkward and uncomfortable laugh that comes every time a white person compares my hair to something or touches it without asking.’
Natalie says this response happens because she believes she has been conditioned to prioritise the feelings of white people over her own.
‘Even though I am the one who feels uncomfortable, I know that if I say anything, I will be met with fragility and will be gaslit. So, more often than not I laugh, keep quiet and move on.’
Diversity and inclusion facilitator Bilal Harry Khan, explains why choosing how to react to racism can be such a minefield for people of colour.
‘In a split-second you need to weigh up what’s going to take more energy,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘A: responding emotionally, resulting in a further burden of then needing to educate the person who has made you uncomfortable. Or B: Dealing with all the shoulda-coulda-woulda thoughts in your own mind later on.
‘When you’re used to having to navigate the world to protect people with power, even at the interpersonal level, you make these accommodations, laughing so they don’t feel too bad about themselves, while at the same time you’re the one feeling harmed.’
Naomi Evans, co-founder of Everyday Racism, says watching the clip of the interaction on This Morning ignited a sick sense of recognition.
‘I recognised the nervous laughter, which for me often came from shock and embarrassment,’ says Naomi.
‘The problem is if you challenge it – and you absolutely should – you are often met with, “oh I was only complimenting you” or, “It was just a joke” – making you feel as if you’re the problem.
‘When there is a power dynamic in place (such as employee/boss), it’s hard to challenge comments without being seen as uptight or sensitive.’
Naomi says the underlying issue here is a lack of understanding from people with no lived experience of racism, and an unwillingness to spend the time unlearning these behaviours.
‘People not understanding how anti-Black racism operates are just going to continue to show themselves up. For example, if Eamonn Holmes had read Emma Dabiri’s book “Don’t Touch My Hair”, those words would not have left his lips.’
How power works in these interactions
The power dynamics of racial hierarchies makes calling out racism a dangerous thing to do for people of colour.
It can cost you your job, your reputation, or lead to you being disbelieved, accused of lying, or branded unnecessarily angry.
Bilal Harry Khan says it’s important to have an awareness of these dynamics, and how your power can impact other people.
‘For people with privilege, however you have it, it can be easy to assume you’re a good person when you’re not actively doing things that seem blatantly harmful,’ Bilal tells Metro.co.uk.
‘When confronted with the idea that you’ve offended someone, caused harm, or in this instance, quite casually used a very commonly known racial trope, it’s likely that you will respond defensively, to protect that internal belief about by yourself as a “good person”.
‘In this, there’s the power dynamic where your defensiveness comes at a cost to me, the person experiencing the harm. Because now, if I say something, I’m the one who’s “sensitive”, “aggressive”, or “has a chip on my shoulder”, all to protect you from the knowledge that you’ve said or done something that’s caused offence.’
‘In any other context where the word consent might be used, laughing probably isn’t going to hold up as a valid consensual agreement.’
Bilal says that laughing can also signify discomfort, self protection, or it can be used as a coping mechanism developed from experiencing the same situation over and over again.
‘To not verbally express disagreement isn’t therefore an expression that it’s OK to continue saying or doing the things that are causing harm,’ Bilal explains.
‘For some of us, we laugh when we are under pressure, when we don’t know what the right thing to say is, when we are pausing to give ourselves time to even think “what the actual f***?”, when we are coming to terms with the fact that yes, once again, here I am, experiencing a microaggression.’
Bilal says this incident shows up the fact that too many people have a limited and singular understanding of what racism is. The nuances of damaging stereotypes and harmful microaggressions are still being misunderstood.
‘Let’s be clear, racism isn’t just lynching Black people off the streets, saying that word you’re not meant to say even though Kanye said it in the song, disproportionate stop-and-search, disproportionate numbers of white people in senior leadership.
‘Of course, it’s all those things. But it’s also the things that play out in micro ways between individuals when ideas of who is and isn’t valued in the world, of who does and doesn’t possess power become internalised and therefore play out in interpersonal dynamics.
‘It is in the things people let slip, in the ways someone moves across the street because suddenly they’re questioning their safety, in the terms of reference people use when speaking to a person of minoritised ethnicity – that they just wouldn’t use when talking to a white person.’
Bilal adds that to truly dismantle racism, we must interrogate ourselves for the ideas we have internalised that are rooted in racist ideas.
‘It’s brilliant to challenge things at an obvious, blatant and very macro level, but the real difficult work comes when we begin to challenge ourselves and why we might say or do that thing that’s probably racist, that has also become so normal to us.’
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