Monday, January 14, 2008

Defining Racism

If anyone has been following the comments in my last post, "If only we could take it back..." (January 11, 2008) then you will see that I have been asked the question:

"How do you define racism?"

Which is an important question to ask, given the topic and given a blog called "Mixed Race America."

And I have actually answered this in various forms in previous posts:

"Can I be racist?" (August 28, 2007)
"Individual Bigotry vs. Institutional Racism" (November 11, 2007)

And I've also acknowledged the difficulty of talking about race--why it's hard and why it can be so emotionally exhausting:

"Talking about race" (July 9, 2007)

And about my idealized vision of getting rid of the analytic category of race and replacing it with an anti-racist praxis and philosophy:

"Getting rid of race" (December 14, 2007) and "Living the Anti-racist Praxis" (December 14, 2007).

I don't expect anyone to go back and re-read all of these posts, unless you really do want to know what I think about all of this and how I define racism. I included these posts to show that I have blogged about it before but what I really want to know is, how do YOU define racism. I didn't get a lot of responses when I blogged about these issues in the past, so perhaps if I withhold my own definition, people will be more willing to give your opinion in the comment section--and of course if you then want to read what my definition is, you can and we can have a dialogue about it.

Or perhaps if it would help to know my own thumbnail belief, the cocktail party definition I would give is that racism is about an institutional system that upholds a racial hierarchy; in the U.S. this has meant those of European descent having access and privileges unavailable to non-European Americans.

I also think if we are going to talk about racism, we should also talk about white privilege--and one person who really talks about this in a very clear way is Peggy Macintosh, whose essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" is available by clicking on the title of the essay.

So another heavy topic--and here I was planning to tell you about some films I've recently seen featuring Paris as a little lighter blogging. C'est la vie!


CVT said...

How to define "racism"? This one is almost too difficult to even attempt, but I felt the need. As a middle school teacher in a low-income area, this comes up a lot with my kids, and I'm often in a position to talk about it - and try to educate (both white and non-white alike). What it REALLY means, why it shouldn't be over-used, etc.

You already touched on the "formal" use of the word (as I see it) which involves power. Those not in a position of privilege (i.e. "non-white") can't, technically, be "racist" because they are not in a position to take advantage and/or enforce policies, systems, etc. to oppress the others. I suppose that is a situational thing, but for practical purposes for a conversation in the Western World, it means that only "white" people can be officially "racist."

However, I know how that immediately strikes chords and puts people on the defensive. What about all those people of color who clearly hate and/or are actively prejudiced against other races (white included)? How can they not be "racist"?

For sure, everybody can be (and is, to some degree) prejudiced and bigoted. Without the power, though, not everyone even has the PRIVILEGE of being a "racist."

And I know all sorts of folks are going to trot out the Webster definition which just says it's about thinking any race is better than another or some such thing. That's great. Convenient for those who are "the norm" and get to be unaware of the culture of their own country because it's theirs. But it doesn't touch on what gives racism its power over - and hold on - people of color.

I can run up to a white person and yell "Cracker" or all sorts of other derogatory, race-related remarks. And I can infuse those words with hate. And they may be shocked and hurt by it. But that can NEVER have the power over that person the same way they would have by yelling various derogatory epithets at a person of color. NEVER. And any white folks saying otherwise only illustrate my point - because their privilege makes them think they can understand something that, inherently, they can NEVER understand.

And that's what "racism" really means, whether the dictionary fully supports it or not. There's so much more to it, of course, but I think that's the key aspect.

That said, I think people do confuse prejudice and bigotry as "racism" quite a lot. I have worked with white folks that have said and done things that have completely sidelined kids of a certain race, unintentionally. Those people weren't "racist" in terms of conscious hatred of another race, but they were treading on those lines through the naive ignorance that comes from living in a country where almost all realms of power (employment, government, education, judiciary, etc.) are in the dominant, white culture. These people assumed that their way (a "white" way) was "normal" because that was how "everything was done." Sadly, almost true - but tragic in a classroom made up mostly of kids of color. The people I worked with weren't "racist," but they were unknowing tools of the institutionalized racism that pervades our society.

EVERY person of color in this country must adapt to a different culture (a "white" one) to even get to participate in education, employment, etc. If that does not give white folks an advantage, then I am crazy. It's like asking all white people to pass through a tribal rite of passage at age 13 - one in which they are only conversational in the language and only vaguely aware (if at all) of customs, traditions, and their meanings - simply to move on to grade school. It really is.

As I write this, I realize I'm falling into "education" mode, and I need to stop before I get too carried away and write for another hour.

I'll end it with this - the true power of racism comes from all of the things that will never (and can never) occur to white folks BECAUSE they are white. Things that cannot be expected of them - thus, cannot be held against them - and yet perpetuate inequality in all the areas that count. For example, my father was white, and so it never occurred to him that my search for identity and understanding in the world would be any different from his, even though I wasn't white. And so - even though he supported me in every way he could - I had to go so much of it alone.

Now imagine if that was my President.

baby221 said...

That's pretty much the definition of racism I use, actually. It gets annoying because most of the people I'm talking to are stuck on the dictionary definition, like cvt mentioned, but that definition is (to put it nicely) incomplete. Racism is about more than some dudes in white hoods burning crosses on people's lawns; it's an entire system of attitudes/habits of thought and behaviors that privileges lighter skinned people over darker skinned people and whites over people of colour.

I do struggle, sometimes, as to whether members of the oppressed group can be considered -ist. Mostly because I think, to a degree, we can be -- in that we can perpetuate systemic inequality against our fellow poc by having other combined privileges. Not just in an internalised racism way, but in a selling-out kind of way, or maybe a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way as a friend of mine once put it.

But at the end of the day, racism is a system of power; it's bigger than you, it's bigger than me, and yes that means that even that joke you thought was so funny or that offhand comment you made could have been (and probably was) racist, even if you didn't mean for it to be, because the ugliest bit about racism as a system is that intention doesn't matter -- it gets perpetuated whether you did it on purpose or not, the end result is the same. And that, that's hard for a lot of people to swallow, because we're used to being let off the hook with "but it was an accident!" or "but I didn't mean to!" That's what makes it hard, because not meaning to doesn't usually make a damn bit of a difference.

I'm rambling, sorry :p Either way yeah, the "academic" version is the definition I use, because why should we use a definition that just benefits white people and the existing hierarchy by masking the true depth and extent of the problem?

Jennifer said...

CVT & Baby221,

Thanks for sharing your definitions--as you can probably guess, I agree with you and have always felt like, at the heart, it's really about a system that is in place, one, as Baby221 noted, is much bigger than any of us, and I like how much historic and social contextualization you both give because if we rely on a definition of "racism" that is simply based on a belief in racial superiority it doesn't get to the heart of power relations.

Also, what I like to tell my students is that racism is not an American concept--that racism will literally "look" different in a different country. For example, the Weigar minority in Western China is horribly oppresed by the Chinese government, which has an ethnic majority of the "Han" people (please, if there are any China scholars out there, correct me if I'm wrong--this is what I remember reading once upon a time). So racism in China against Weigars (because they are poor, because many are Muslim) "looks" to an outsider (esp. an American) as Chinese against Chinese, but the nuances of power and racial hiearchy are different in China.

The other example I like to give my students is about representation. There isn't a single branch of the U.S. government, judicial, legislative, or executive that consistently and accurately "represents" me in terms of showing me someone with my background, whether that is based on gender, class, or race.

Sorry--didn't mean to write so much--it's so hard to balance wanting to "respond" to people's comments and to have a real dialogue with allowing more space for people to chime in. So people, keep feeling free to chime in!