I was brought up in a liberal tradition, one of the core values of which is that one has to be fair to everyone. If one sees someone being attacked unfairly, especially if it is a friend, one wants to defend them - indeed, one can sometimes feel obliged to do so. What I now understand better is how that approach can look to someone from an oppressed minority (and whilst this post is about racism, much of what I say applies equally in terms of sexism). If I leap in to defend a white friend from what I perceive to be an attack made by a person of colour, untempered by any awareness of my own white (and male) privilege, it looks like the whites closing ranks. Suggesting that a polite and respectful tone be employed looks like white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs. [Edit, 03/08/09: Ika Willis points out below that this looks like white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs because it is white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs.]
It's that lack of awareness of privilege which is the problem. A lot of the problem of RaceFail (and I may be wrong here, and if so, I apologize) seemed to be people getting very upset about having their behaviour described as racist. The response (and I may be caricaturing here, so again I apologize) was often "I am not and never have been a racist, and how dare you call me one!" What has happened here, I think, is the polarization of the term "racist", such that it is assumed to refer only to hooded KKK types with burning crosses and lynchings. Most white people reject that position, and are proud of dealing with people in a wholly colourblind fashion. Before RaceFail, this a view I'd have signed up to myself.
Which is all well and to the good, at least on the surface. But dig a little deeper, and I think that it's a bit naive and self-deluding. Sure, we may not go along with the British National Party's wearisome nonsense about English whites being discriminated against in their own country. But that doesn't mean that we're not capable of unthinking racism. Indeed, given that we whites (especially educated elite whites) are brought up in an implicitly racist society, whose wealth is at least partially based on profits made out of the eighteenth-century slave trade, it would be a miracle if any one of us were wholly devoid of some racist attitudes.
Here are three examples. When watching the 2006 television adaptation of Ruby in the Smoke, I remember being surprised that one role, apparently of a Victorian gentleman, was played by a black actor. My natural assumption was that Victorian gentlemen were white. I don't think that's based on exhaustive research into the period, but on the way the period has been portrayed in the culture to which I've been exposed. It is therefore a racist assumption.
Second example - my first reaction on hearing the rumour that Patterson Joseph would be the next Doctor was to think that there was something not right about that. Fortunately, I rapidly changed my mind, and realized that there was no good (i.e. non-racist) reason to object to this casting, and indeed that it was an idea whose time had more than come (and I now think it's a shame that this isn't what actually happened). But my first response was a racist one.
Finally, by coincidence, yesterday I read the section of Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy, that deals with Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea novels, where the point is made that the central character, Ged, is a person of colour, but that readers hardly ever notice this. I am among those readers. Intellectually I know better, and have for some years, but this is not what I saw in my mind when I first read the novel (influenced by various covers, and illustrations for a reading of the story on Jackanory, none of which made Ged's skin colour clear), and even now it is hard for me to imagine Ged as non-white.
Now, I don't think it makes me an evil person that I have these responses. I think it just means that I'm a product of my environment. And I think it's a good thing that I recognize these responses for what they are, and reject them as guidance for my conscious actions. But it does mean that I cannot claim that I am entirely devoid of racism, and I would be a fool if I asserted that there are not responses that I do not recognize as such.
It is only through awareness, acknowledgment and addressing of our own failings in this respect that we can progress. Of course, behaving in a colourblind fashion is an ideal to which we should all aspire. But behaving in a colourblind fashion in a society which is not itself colourblind can contribute to the problem as much as to the solution. It encourages the notion that racism is in the past, and that we no longer need anti-racist legal measures (an argument often put forward by those who wish to reassert white privilege). But whilst Obama in the White House shows that things have improved, it does not demonstrate that there is no further room for improvement. This is a process that I don't expect to be completed in my lifetime, or for that matter, in the millennium.
So where does that leave the liberal concept of being fair to everyone? Still there, but slightly modified. I'm certainly not advocating placing POCs on a pedestal where their colour makes them immune from criticism. If anti-racism is about anything, it is about trying where possible to disregard race and treat someone as a human being.* (This is the mistake the Republicans made when appointing Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate - they assumed that feminists would support her because she was a woman, whereas what feminism is about, in my view at least, is disregarding the fact that someone is a woman, and assessing them as a person, on which assessment Palin came up short for many.) Human beings are sometimes wrong and sometimes unfair, and it is legitimate to call them out for it when they are. But if one is engaging as a privileged white with a POC on these grounds, one must be aware of one's own privilege. Because if one isn't, then the fairness one aspires to is spurious, because it doesn't take the full picture into account.
* And I know I've said that's not always possible, and sometimes counter-productive. Life is complicated. Get over it. [Edit, 03/08/09: an anonymous commentator rightly points out that talking about 'disregarding' race is not actually helpful. Given what I said about the colourblind approach, I should have seen this myself.]