Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Can I be racist?

When I took my first "race" theory class, an African American introduction to race class my Sophomore year at UCSB, our professor, Dr. Claudine Michel, discussed, at length, the difference between institutional racism and bigotry. Anyone could be a bigot, but racism as a unique form of discrimination, could only be wielded by those within the power structure of a given society. For South Africa during the apartheid era, this meant white Afrikaners. For Tibetans living under Chinese rule, this mean Chinese people (probably specific the Han majority). And for those of us living in the U.S. this meant white Americans. Therefore, I would tell my friends, people of color (and me in particular) cannot be racist.

And yet, theory only takes you so far. Because at heart, racism is about power--about people in situations of power choosing to use their race as a measurement of superiority against others. And so, although I agree, in general, with Dr. Michel's definition--and although that's how I tend to define racism--as part of an institutional power structure, the social (and racial) landscape is changing--slowly but surely. In Hawaii the dominant ethnic-racial group is Japanese American (with Chinese coming a close second). And definitely in different parts of the country, saying that just because the larger US society is white dominated doesn't mean that if you are white you always have access to this power structure or that if you aren't white, you don't. So while I think, in general, I don't have access to power and the force to discriminate at random and at will, I also think that especially given my relative (and relatively small) status as a University professor, I do have an amount of power I could exercise and therefore I could, in fact, discriminate against all non-Asian Americans (or non-people-of-color--shouldn't I just say white?) people, which would, in fact, make me racist. Or at least my acts racist.

Of course I'd love to hear other opinions on this.

Also, final note: It seems like this has become the word to watch out for lately--that in the last twenty or thirty years to call someone racist or level charges of racism becomes such a force--and that there has become a backlash against calling any but the most obvious and violent of acts and people racist (in other words, it's still OK to bash the Clan but less OK to start calling the Republican Party out, and even less OK to start calling out the Democratic nominees for some of their stuff). Which is why I tend to avoid the term. Not because I think it's not relevant--it is in so many small ways--so many unintentional racist acts by well meaning people--by progressive white liberals, by progressive-liberal African Americans, by progressive liberal Asian Americans. And yet, I do still think it's important for us to call things as we see them--we live in a world in which your chances of survival, if not simply daily comfort are greatly increased if you look white and better, still, if you are a straight man. There are still plenty of policies that are getting reworked in a different language that, at the end of the day, still spell out institutional power that target non-white Americans. Which, to me, seems racist.


Kamea said...


I have to say that even though white people are a smaller group in Hawaii then in their own American country, they are the ones who wield the power, albeit unearned power and privileges, and it is they who have historically imposed their will on the people who are largely non-white. They have taken great measures to ensure that the socio-economic status between non-whites and whites remains uneven. So you see, in Hawaii as was in South Africa during Apartheid, thrives a small group of people who wield a deadly advantage over a people they deem as "others" and are therefore expendable. Clearly that is how the the story unfolds on a global scale.

What is most sad about racism is that it fuels blind nationalism. You have many people of different ethnicities and classes who come together to destroy people or at least ignore the protests against the destruction of their lands, cultures, and languages. Yes, when Americans do this, no matter what color they are, it is rooted in white racism. It is how the oppressed become the oppressors.


Jennifer said...

Thanks for providing your first hand perspective on racism in Hawaii and the still dominant white power structure. I think for those of us outside Hawaii, looking purely at racial demographics (ie: that 63% AsAm one) that Hawaii would seem to be a place in which some poc wield power in a way that we don't see in the other 49 states. So thanks for giving us your own take on Hawaiian politics and race relations.

And hope you come by and leave more comments!

Kristen Howerton said...

Very well said!

Jennifer said...

Thanks Kristen!

DreamCatcher said...

I'm hoping this doesn't come across as inflamatory, because I'm well aware that I can't possibly relate to every side of this discussion.

In the larger aspect, you're absolutely right. Whites do wield the majority of power, and it becomes a blind habit to exercise racism: if they are not fully confronted with the level of racism they have exercised, they likely will simply "never notice" that all the people around them look like them. It's easy, I imagine, to overlook what keeps you in your comfort zone.
Growing up in an almost entirely Hispanic area as a white-and-Navajo child, I was the odd ball. At age 11, I was attacked by three girls I'd known since I was five, and stabbed. The explanation I was later given was I was the only white girl they knew, and they wanted to get a reputation for being tough, and there was no reason for a fellow 'Chicano' to get in the middle of this.
Maybe on a larger scale it is much more common for whites to be racist. Anyone, however, can commit a racist act.

Jennifer said...

Hi Sunshine Gitana,

You have a very personally disturbing relationship to this topic--I can't imagine being stabbed at the age of 11 due to racial targeting. What seems really sad about the Chicano girls who hurt you was that in committing this violence against you because you were "white" and they were "brown" they were buying into a system of race/racism/white supremacy that didn't allow them to see not just the complexity of your situation (bi-racial and culturally part of your Chicano community) but that their actions (targeting you racially, committing a racist act against you) only reinforces a larger power structure of white as superior. That's really the insidious thing about things people label as "reverse racism"--it still leaves a logics of white as better and white as superior and therefore a target for others to bring down, misguidedly, on an individual level--rather than understanding the matrix of power that ALL of us are implicated in a racist society.

Thanks for leaving a comment--stop by anytime!

Dan Ping He said...


This is a question that I've wondered about and have talked to my schoolmates about too. On one hand, I have a white friend who would argue passionately that you can never be racist against white people just because institutionally they have white privilege and they would still be advantaged compared to people of color. But what I think she really means is that along with the institutionalized racism in politics, there is definitely also the internalized racism that people use when they judge others solely by color, which is reflected in small, everyday gestures and interactions and can be really detrimental in work and community environments. People of color can certainly be racist and support the institutionalized system of white power if they are suspicious of people of color and then fawn over white people.

On the other hand, I believe power and privilege are all relative to the context and community. Like in the case of Gitana Sunshine, the race dynamics of her neighborhood did set up a very hostile environment for a white girl like herself, proving that people of color can be racist against white people if you follow the race + power formula. But what I'm kind of struggling with my thoughts right now is that I've learned that the nature of racism is historically rooted and supported with biological and cultural implications. So - I'm not too sure when I say this - only when there is a much larger and widespread effort to discriminate against white people can people truly be racist against white people instead of individual case-by-case events.

Also, just to reflect on your comment about your status as University professor, I wouldn't consider your actions racist just because you're well-educated and have a highly-respected job. I think the power and privilege granted to you by your education status is different from the power that is granted to you by your race. And while power is power, your education wouldn't distinguish your whole race as racially superior to whites. I think a very important aspect of racism is that it is grossly and horribly generalizing and just packs people into single-dimensions.

My comment so far has been mostly a meditation, so I'm not really adamant about it, but it'd be great to keep the conversation going!

Jennifer said...

Dan Ping Hei,

My apologies for not responding to your very thoughtful and interesting comment. I esp. appreciate that you want to keep the conversation going, so I'm sorry that I dropped the ball on that.

However, now that I'm here, let me respond to the overall tenor/intent of your comment (or what I take to be the overall tenor/intent) which is grappling with whether people of color can ever really have racial power over white Americans in any significant, institutional manner.

Truthfully, I think it's rare. I know that Sunshine Gitana shared a very disturbing story about a white girl being targeted and the victim of violence by Latina girls, but I suppose the question is while she is a racial target, did these girls have any real, institutional power? Were their families in positions within the community where the white girl and her family did not have recourse to the police? Or were not given good treatment at the hospital or had other Latino or non-white authority figures doubt their story or not provide them access to restitution/justice?

If the answer is yes--if, within the community where this violence against the white girl occurred--Latinos or other non-whites hold significant positions of power and authority which they wield against whites, then I would say that yes, whites in this community are victim to racism by Latinos.

But even in that scenario, within the larger context of the state and the federal government, white still hold majority--so all one would need to do is to go outside this community and find white allies to fight against this racist Latino community system.

I mention all of this to suggest that while any person can discriminate and act in a prejudiced or bigoted manner towards any other persons--and where whites may feel they are targeted and harassed and experience violence due to their race, it's hard to imagine an ACTUAL situation where people of color have real institutional power over whites and where they systematically use that power to discriminate against them. I think it can happen in theory, and may indeed happen, but I think the instances are few and far between.

I suppose, however, I do wonder about whether people of color are achieving power and wielding it in a fashion to really discriminate in a systematic way against whites. Also, I do think that people of color discriminate against other racial groups.

OK, done rambling--anyone else, please chime in!