Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but I don’t see how any argument against racism that depends on color to make its point is valuable in the long run. If the goal is to end racism, which I hope it is, then shouldn’t we be engaged in activities and rhetoric that de-emphasize skin color (etc.) as a valid reason to make political (and by extension certain types of personal) decisions?
[Edit: If you're reading this on PD.com, you may want to head over to the mirror-post on my LJ to read the huge glut of awesome and thoughtful commentary it provoked there. I got a lot out of it, and thank you to everyone who participated/is participating!]
I’d like to give one example, with the understanding that there is a whole can of worms here that has to do with re-balancing and re-distributing privilege, which I’m deliberately not getting into (for now). My current thoughts, and this example, stem from this interesting “definition of racism”, from this post “Racism 101 for Clueless White People“. The emphasis is all theirs; I’ve added nothing.
3. Make sure you understand the definitions of the terms that are going to be used. The first thing you really need to understand is that the definition of racism that you probably have (which is the colloquial definition: “racism is prejudice against someone based on their skin color or ethnicity”) is NOT the definition that’s commonly used in anti-racist circles.The definition used in anti-racist circles is the accepted sociological definition (which is commonly used in academic research, and has been used for more than a decade now): “racism is prejudice plus power”. What this means, in easy language:
A. Anyone can hold “racial prejudice” — that is, they can carry positive or negative stereotypes of others based on racial characteristics. For example, a white person thinking all Asians are smart, or all black people are criminals; or a Chinese person thinking Japanese people are untrustworthy; or what-have-you. ANYONE, of any race, can have racial prejudices.
B. People of any race can commit acts of violence, mistreatment, ostracizing, etc., based on their racial prejudices. A black kid can beat up a white kid because he doesn’t like white kids. An Indian person can refuse to associate with Asians. Whatever, you get the idea.
C. However, to be racist (rather than simply prejudiced) requires having institutional power. In North America, white people have the institutional power. In large part we head the corporations; we make up the largest proportion of lawmakers and judges; we have the money; we make the decisions. In short, we control the systems that matter. “White” is presented as normal, the default. Because we have institutional power, when we think differently about people based on their race or act on our racial prejudices, we are being racist. Only white people can be racist, because only white people have institutional power.
D. People of color can be prejudiced, but they cannot be racist, because they don’t have the institutional power. (However, some people refer to intra-PoC prejudice as “lateral racism”. You may also hear the term “colorism”, which refers to lighter-skinned PoC being prejudiced toward darker-skinned PoC.) However, that situation can be different in other countries; for example, a Japanese person in Japan can be racist against others, because the Japanese have the institutional power there. But in North America, Japanese people can’t be racist because they don’t hold the institutional power.
E. If you’re in an area of your city/state/province that is predominantly populated by PoC and, as a white person, you get harassed because of your skin color, it’s still not racism, even though you’re in a PoC-dominated area. The fact is, even though they’re the majority population in that area, they still lack the institutional power. They don’t have their own special PoC-dominated police force for that area. They don’t have their own special PoC-dominated courts in that area. The state/province and national media are still not dominated by PoC. Even though they have a large population in that particular area, they still lack the institutional power overall.
F. So that’s the definition of racism that you’re likely to encounter. If you start talking about “reverse racism” you’re going to either get insulted or laughed at, because it isn’t possible under that definition; PoC don’t have the power in North America, so by definition, they can’t be racist. Crying “reverse racism!” is like waving a Clueless White Person Badge around.
G. If you go into an anti-racist discussion and start trying to claim the colloquial definition that “racism is simply viewing or treating others differently based on race”, you’re going to get a negative reaction. Stick to “racism = prejudice + power”. Anti-racists aren’t going to take it well if you wander in halfway through the debate and start trying to make them abide by your definition rather than the commonly accepted “prejudice + power”. Imagine if everyone in a classroom was chatting about a particular subject and then someone walked in and said, “No! You’re all doing it wrong! The REAL definition is ABC and I don’t care that all the rest of you think it’s XYZ!” — do you think that would go over well? Of course it wouldn’t; the newcomer would be considered rude. (Also, making an appeal to Dictionary.com is not going to work. Pointing out that the colloquial definition is how Webster’s Dictionary defines racism is not going to make anti-racists suddenly say, “Wow, you know what? You’re right! I never realized it, but now that Webster’s has backed you up, I see that you’re totally right and racism really is just judging people based on their skin color!” Actually, they may say that, but they’d be saying it sarcastically.)
H. I’m under the impression there are a number of different reasons why anti-racists use the sociological definition as versus the colloquial one, but the major reason I’m aware of is that anti-racists aren’t just focusing on individual acts of racism; they’re looking at racism as an entrenched system that pervades every layer of our society. The colloquial definition reduces racism to an individual level; the sociological definition focuses on the systemic level. The systemic level is actually more important, because even as individual/obvious acts of racism become less socially acceptable, the systemic effects of institutionalized racism continue to work quietly, efficiently, and powerfully. Think of it like a body; it’s easy to find a cancerous lesion on the skin and remove it, and then you’d look like you were cancer-free. But even as you looked fine on the surface, the real cancer would be inside your body, spreading from lymph node to lymph node, and invading your bones and organs. Individual and overt acts of racism are the lesions on the surface; the invisible cancer is the systemic racism. Unless you’re addressing the underlying disease, eradicating surface symptoms isn’t going to accomplish much. But that’s enough about the definition of racism for now; let’s continue. (Full post here.)
I’m completely in agreement that CWP need a guide like this (it’s awesome, and the rest is worth a read); it’s absolutely true that there’s a tendency of (mostly)-well-meaning whites to wander into race-relevant situations and start a conversation that either a) completely misses the point or b) demands that everyone please educate them right now ok I’m waaaaaaitiiiinnnng… So hell yes, more things written to educate whites about racism and how to talk about it, absolutely. Awesome. I’m also quite okay with the idea that “this is the definition we use, so don’t barge in demanding a new one or trying to change ours” — but there’s a fine line between that, and demanding that no-one (especially no pesky outsiders) challenge your ideas, and across that line I will not follow.
But this excerpt in particular addresses something that, to most (educated) anti-racists is an occasional case or a non-issue, but which to me is not: I’m referring to the white person stuck in a (yes I’m calling it a) “reverse racism” scenario who wants some acknowledgment from PoC that their (people of color’s) behavior (individually and as the heads of institutions) in that case isn’t okay either.
And it’s not, of course. I think the idea of “anti-racism” is that racism isn’t okay in principle, right? No matter who’s doing it? But there are genuinely people who use definitions like this, that categorically deny the possibility of racism against white people, to excuse behavior that does qualify as racist under this definition. You literally get an argument that goes “racism is prejudice plus power, unless it’s prejudice against and power over white people, in which case it’s not.”
Of course, the answer to that statement is often given as “but that never happens”. And maybe it’s easier for me to spot how making color a part of the formulation of racism is problematic, because I’ve seen the prejudice-plus-power of a non-white population in effect. I personally know more than a few people who, growing up as whites in Detroit, experienced continuous exposure to a kind of ostracization and mistreatment that can only be called “Jim-Crow-like”. I’m not talking about being called “honky” or feeling uncomfortable walking around at night. I’m talking about a whole childhood (sometimes longer) of not being served in restaurants, not being permitted to apply for public assistance and scholarships because you’re the wrong color, being harassed in school by kids and adults alike; of being openly taught that your race is inferior and bad and you’re inferior and bad because of it, and forced to “act dangerous” and constantly live in fear for your safety because you “don’t belong” and you might be blamed or punished for anything perceived as being the fault of your race. Any time a person of color experiences that kind of oppression, we encourage each other to call it out, to call it racism. And while it’s certainly FAR less common, and not in keeping with the habits of our country as a whole, to have it happen to white people, I fail to see what good comes from denying the harm it causes when it does.
The point of being anti-racism isn’t to be anti-white (I hope); it’s to be anti-institutionally-supported-prejudice. At least, that’s why I’m in.
According to this article, which certainly boasts more authority on the topic than I do, living the way some white kids in Detroit have is not being a victim of racism. Those kids, who grew up a minority in a situation where the majority feels justified in (and is capable of) openly and systemically mistreating people of the “wrong race”, may forever be shut out of any discussion of what it’s like to be a victim of racism…because they’re the wrong color. Yeah, the irony on that one stings a little. But according to this article and others (many of which are taught in Detroit schools), “reverse racism” is impossible, because “racism” as a technical term here refers only to cases involving prejudice AND institutional power, and moreover (here’s where I think the problem lies), “institutional power” is defined as NATIONAL power.
*INSTITUTIONS AND THE REAL WORLD*
It’s true, by that definition, that whites have the institutional power in the U.S. It’s also true that the majority of politicians and cops in Michigan are white. But it’s not true that white privilege operates in a place like Detroit the same way it does in New York or Dallas or Boston. And while there are probably other places — small towns maybe, or other cities or parts of them, where non-white power-structures have built up and become racist, Detroit makes a good and powerful example of how it can happen, and happen here, right in the middle of the good-ol’ nonthreatening midwest.
Detroit isn’t a “diverse” city — it’s a heavily-segregated, almost-entirely-black city. (That’s not to say it isn’t affected by the institutional power of white-dominated things nearby; obviously such arrangements are complicated. But it IS possible to grow up there and be mostly, or entirely, under the control of institutions dominated by blacks, which is all the sociological definition of “racism” requires, I think.) My white friends who grew up there were often one of less than ten white kids in all-black schools, taught by black teachers and run by black administrators, under a school board that was almost entirely black, overseen by a majority-black city council and a black mayor, enforced by a largely black police force in a place mostly ignored by white media and even the white politicians of our own state. (If that seems outrageous to you, it should: Segregation in the 21st century is not pretty, and Detroit has somehow gone from being the cradle of Civil Rights to the drainage-ditch of post-modern segregation. Yuck.) But somehow, the fact that it’s a poor white kid being tromped on by an entire cityful of angry and prejudiced people is supposed to save them, or ameliorate their pain and fear and the other negative effects of the treatment they received. Why? Is their whiteness supposed to comfort them, or shield them?
Tell me, when you were ten or twelve or fifteen, how much good did the adults and institutions fifty miles away do you? In a poor, neglected neighborhood that everybody’s either afraid of or disgusted by, how does the “national media” help you? How much does it do for you in real life, that most of the people on TV are white like you? (Other than to make you feel like a totally crappy specimen, of course.) And to what degree should we, those of us interested in standing up against racism, ignore or push away the victims who were, or are, caught up in such a situation?
I’m not saying that Detroit is some kind of racial otherword, but I do think it serves as a powerful example to raise good questions about where “institutional power” is really located. When you’re a kid in a city, does the fact that the state governor is white protect you from the effects of prejudice-plus-power racism? Is it those effects on you, and people like you, or the overall balance of state power that matters? When you’re afraid in school and none of the teachers will stand up for you and everyone wants to beat you up if you try to date anyone who’s not one of the two girls of your race in the whole school and you know the cops wouldn’t do anything about it….when your school hires speakers to come talk about how bad white people are and you’re squirming in the audience, is it not racism because you’re white and whites have the institutional power at the state and federal level?
Racism is about what happens to people, in their neighborhoods and schools and workplaces and lives, and not just “entire groups of people, nation-wide”. That’s one of those generalities that ends up hurting everyone, I think. The real world, at ground-level, is where a systemic problem like racism starts…and stops. Racism is about power, and not just prejudice. But one city, and one neighborhood, is certainly not the same as all others when it comes to the balance of power. Maybe there IS a welfare program, and a federal law that says that you’re allowed to apply for it — but we understand the harm when the white people working the counter “lose” your application because you’re black; why can’t we understand that in places like Detroit, the reverse happens, and that it’s just as harmful and wrong when it does?
On top of that, children, who are arguably worse affected by all of this (considering the educational and psychological damage, which I should add is quite definitely present in the “white kids from Detroit” I still know), usually don’t have the option to leave even their neighborhoods, so if the north-east side, for example, is black-controlled and using that institutional power to back up its prejudice against whites, then I think it’s inarguable that what those kids experience is racism. Any definition of racism that categorically denies someone’s experiences, and the effects those experiences have, simply because “they’re white” is just not okay with me. If racism is wrong, it’s because it’s wrong for any human beings to treat any human beings that way.
…Somebody’s going to ask if I feel this way, or if it’s easier for me to feel this way, because I’m white. Obviously my “white guilt” gets a little soothing when I think about things like “reverse racism”; that’s a fact of psychology. I’m aware of this, and I’m just as incapable of taking off my skin as everyone else, so it’ll have to remain an open question. But I can say that I’m also a woman, and that I genuinely feel the same way about male victims of rape as I do about white victims of racism: They exist, and they are genuine victims, and they don’t function as evidence against the overwhelming reality of the problem (of racism-against-PoCs, or rape-against-women). They–the “backwards” or unusual cases–are good reminders, I think, for the crusaders, to help them remember that it’s the crime they’re up against and out to defeat; not the group that mostly comprises the perpetrators. (If it were the perpetrators, then we would just be the “other side” in the same stupid war that’s been going on for millennia, and not really about solving anything at all. I, and I think others, are interested in solving racism, not lobbing stones back at the “white side”.) Victims of “reverse” rape or racism deserve support and protection because rape is wrong just like racism is wrong, and it’s crucial, if we’re going to make any headway in alleviating the actual problems, to stand by our principles no matter who the victim is. I really do feel that way. So maybe that helps.
(A sidenote: Isn’t it, I wonder, monumentally stupid for the anti-racist movement to ignore or de-legitimize these rare people who have an amazing and valuable point of view to offer? They’re white, and they’ve experienced systemic racism firsthand! That may make them seem scary to those of us who are either only white, or only victims of racism (much like feminists and men tend to get uncomfortable around men who’ve experienced rape, I’ve noticed), but let’s get over the fear that the existence of a few of these people somehow damages or lessens our point about the rest of the country — it doesn’t. And lest you wonder, all of the “reverse-victims” that I know are not only rabidly anti-racism, but far better than most white people–including me–at spotting where institutional racism comes into play. Moreover, they know firsthand that racism is bad for everyone, that even those “with privilege” aren’t safe from its negative effects. They could be amazingly helpful to the movement, I think, were they not being excluded from it.)
I’m not, overall, in disagreement with the definition of racism given here, or how it’s presented. I see that it’s intended to address political racism, the kind that affects whole groups, and not just the prejudices and assholery of a given person or small group. That’s valid. I know that the “reverse racism doesn’t exist” argument is mostly intended to stop whites who would try to use reverse-cases as a reason to not work on solving the problem of racism-against-PoCs, and while I agree that those people need to be slapped answered, I don’t think shutting the door on all victims of racism who happen to be white is the way to do it.
I also don’t think we need to rewrite or make major changes to anti-racism so that we can focus on the tiny minority of whites in America that suffers from the “reverse” variety; it would be enough just to include them as real but non-standard victims, and to do a little walking-the-walk, by treating them the same as other victims in spite of how uncomfortable their color makes us feel. Regarding that, I have some suggestions I’d like to make, which perhaps others have already made, but here they are anyway:
1) Let’s re-think what “institutional power” is, and how it affects real people. One police station, one school and one court, working together, especially in an isolated or ignored area, can wield incredible power over the lives of families and individuals, and saying “they could leave” is short-sighted and victim-blaming. Some racism happens on a federal level; some doesn’t. And the feds can’t (and/or won’t) rescue citizens (even white citizens) who are trapped by localized racist institutions, so just because the feds are your color doesn’t guarantee you 100% protection from institutionalized racism. Regardless of their color, individuals and families deserve protecting from prejudiced institutions and systematic oppression. Representation in Washington is important, but it alone doesn’t solve the problem on the ground in a million different neighborhoods.
2) Anti-racists need to be very, very careful about excluding any group by race from their definitions and discussions, even if that race is white. While it makes sense to be proactive and on-the-lookout for defensiveness and redirection from whites who either don’t understand privilege and real, institutional racism or have motives for derailing discussions about it, it doesn’t make sense to get so wrapped up in colors that you lose track of what racism is really about: A powerful negative effect on groups of people, caused by irrational prejudiced ostracization and abuse from other, powered, groups of people. In the pure sense, racism can happen wherever there are two races and one is in power, even if the colors involved are green and purple (or bellies-with-stars and bellies without!) — and it’s the racist behavior of people and groups of people that we’re fighting here, right? Nor should it shock us that racism against white people in a majority-controlled non-white area is not only possible, it happens. Why is that surprising? People — human beings, regardless of color — tend to be ignorant racist assholes if not properly educated. We know this. People who claim to be anti-racist but who can ignore the plight of some victims of racism because they’re white are, um, missing the point I think.
3) If we’re going to define racism in such a way that excludes “individual and small-group prejudices and assholery”, that’s fine I guess, but then can’t we have another word, or a sub-term, that does include that concept? Often I&SGP&A (whether against whites or people of color) is the clearest direct experience of anything like racism that whites know they have, so to cut it out of the conversation entirely — to say “that doesn’t count, moving on” — does encourage whites to disengage from the discussion, not because they’re dickheads but because you’ve removed the aspect that they have the most direct and emotionally-compelling knowledge of. That was their way in to understanding bigger, more subtle racism, so why slam that door? I would very much like to see anti-racists taking more of an inclusive angle on individual prejudice & assholery, something along the lines of “Yes, it’s terrible when that happens. And just imagine the damage a court system run by people who think that way can do! For example…”
4) Let’s not forget that whites are a very very important part of the discussion here, okay? It’s analogous to men and rape. The party responsible, as a group, for the atrocity under discussion doesn’t like discussing it; and their victims don’t want to sit down and have heart-to-hearts with them either. Everybody’s hurt and angry and understandably so. But there is no healing a rift without cross-boundary cooperation. The only way for women to prevent rape, or people of color to prevent racism, is to get down on the ground and talk openly and honestly with the other side. (Well, the other way would be to segregate fully — whether by race or gender is a fun question — and then we can all stay enemies and stay out of each others’ way. But we’re assuming that nobody reading this is pro-segregation; I’m certainly not.)
If we want to get along, we have to talk to each other, to the victims and the bad guys and the people who don’t understand and the people who don’t want to understand, and that means that yes, Virginia, it IS important how your anti-racism rhetoric makes white people feel. Sorry.
(Thanks for reading! -PD)