Racism As Quietism
It might be appropriate to preface this essay with a warning to you. You may not agree with everything that I am going to highlight — and that’s okay. I welcome that as an opportunity to talk. This is an account of my experiences and subsequently how I understand and live with the points I am going to make. I understand that this has been and will continue to be a topic of contention. There may not be a definitive answer that is right or wrong. All I ask is that you try to keep an open mind.
What I mean exactly by quietism can be understood in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is the acceptance of a perceived reality. It is dangerous to accept this reality as is because you don’t know who or what exactly is imposing this perception on you. It is very important to recognize that reality is often an agreement of sorts. Reality isn’t necessarily a stagnant thing that exists without ever changing. It is fluid as water; constantly welling in and out of existence; shifting from epoch to epoch. Its main goal: to serve the interests of some and to subjugate the many. Those who possess institutional, social and economic power also possess the ability to produce reality. The reality that is being produced benefits the interests of those who hold power. Dominant groups are often on the winning side of this equation.
In regards to racism, it would be reasonable to conclude that our society is one based on white supremacy. The institutions perpetuate this dominance and supremacy through education and media and through any and all means that information is disseminated into the public arena. This dominance manifests itself in ways that are sometimes almost impossible to notice. For example, when I go to my local barbershop to get my hair cut I see something very particular. Of all the pictures of the hair models plastered across the salon, a fraction of them are people of color, and an even smaller fraction are from a minority (Asian or Arab/Indian, etc). This is exactly what I mean by quietism; the byproducts of such dominance often hide within their nuanced conditions. The effects of white supremacy create a social reality in which only a certain look is acceptable for use in (and of the individuals themselves) the beauty industry; one that centers around being white, blonde and blue-eyed. It may be difficult for someone to aspire to be something or someone they can’t even see. The invisibility of role models that accurately represent those within the population is another byproduct of white supremacy. Not everyone is white, blonde and blue-eyed, why do we continue to have these people on the front of every cover for most mainstream magazines?
From an economic standpoint, one example that comes mind is this: a Mexican restaurant worker claimed that he was doing the work that, “no ordinary American would want to do.” This means that there are jobs and tasks to be completed by people who are willing to get down and dirty. And that these exact jobs are left to Mexicans, not Americans. To me, this speaks to a certain dichotomy not only based on work division due to nationality and ethnicity, but also one that speaks of necessity. Could it be that Mexicans need the money more than Americans, therefore they are willing to do odd jobs to make ends meet. Could it be that Mexicans may have immigrated to America and the only jobs they could land without a formal education are ones of minimum wage? The content possibilities are endless. It is the idea that certain jobs are left to certain ethnicities, races and nationalities that aren’t of white origin. We as individuals accept this reality as form of stereotype, internalizing the preconditions laid out for us by our dominant counterparts. Our taxi drivers must be Middle Eastern, our nail salon workers have to be Asian, and our greatest basketball players must be black. It is not about essence of skill or determination, just a coincidence of race, ethnicity or nationality. Nowhere in this plethora of stereotypes are white people explained. Admittedly, these stereotypes are taking new form due to social media. Making its way across social media are memes depicting white folk as 'school shooters' and as people who fervently engage in incest.
Socially, our division is exacerbated by dangerous stereotypes and misnomers. Black people are seen as leeches upon a system that doesn’t even want them there in the first place. Parents warn their children not to get too familial with us for they will certainly regret it later on. We steal, rape and leave our children at birth. Once again, this is not how things are but instead, these characteristics are part of a created social reality. A form of this perpetual white dominance manifests itself in a particular way. The benefits and success of white folk become naturalized, almost like they were destined to be successful. The preconceived notions of being white are ones of positive attribution, hardly stereotypical whatsoever. While those who make up marginalized, minority communities are seen as parasites upon the system; as obstacles to be overcome. Logically, this supremacy creates a racial disparity between any group that is not white and any group that is. Obviously this isn’t reality as it is, but one that has been created. In the words of Michel Foucault, power isn’t oppressive, it is productive.
It is a quietism insofar as those who passively accept this perception truly believe that it will continue to exist this way. Many times I hear, “it’s always been like that” as an explanation for injustice and inequality. Tradition and longevity have never been accurate metrics for things of this nature. The trickiness of ideology is that it sits upon your mind whether you are aware of it or not. It is a modus operandi of sorts; creating and perpetuating certain behaviors that reflect the ideology that informs them. It is, in the most simple terms, a vicious cycle that one often doesn’t know they are caught in. What ideas are truly yours or mine? What do we say or do that is completely organic and free of ideology? Is it even possible to be truly free of ideology, or is ideology just another tool we use to govern our lives (or the lives of others)? It would be reasonable to conclude that ideology aids in keeping people docile because it is the very nature of being subservient and unaware that perpetuates ideological power.
Imagine you had access to glasses that when you put them on, ideology suddenly reared its ugly face. What you are seeing is not necessarily reality. Racism can be understood as one 'lens' of this pair of glasses. It is another tool that groups use in social structures such as societies to dominate other groups. Racism is a controlled distortion of reality. This reality can claim that you may be able to do certain things better than me simply based on differences of race, not skill or hard work. This is one manifestation of ideological power; it includes this but certainly is not limited to just this function. It also acts as a looking glass of sorts. Racism aids in shaping and moulding the self-identity of those it affects. It rests quietly, within the minds of those it infects, causing inevitable ontological problems. This process makes it next to impossible for one to see themselves anew; outside of the preconditions laid out for them by their dominant counterparts. The true tragedy of this occurence is that people live their entire lives in reaction to someone or something; never finding the true essence of themselves. Never seeing how they interact with society in a pure, uninhibited way. They will always carry this ideological “baggage” wherever they go.
Racism has some key properties: it has an insidious and nuanced nature. It is an imposition on the mind of those it occupies; filling every nook & cranny of one’s thinking and behavioural patterns. It is similar to a virus: it lies dormant inside of you until very specific moments where it can become a motivating factor for hatred and violence. This is exactly what I mean by quietism. Some of us aren’t aware of how much of our lives are predicated upon racist ideology. It basks in the sunlight, right before our eyes, and oftentimes we accept it; whether we are aware of this acceptance or not is a different story. It is this “invisible” nature that makes dismantling it incredibly difficult. Racism has become so engrained in society, from the people who flock to the institutions to the institutions themselves. It is normalization that is fundamental to the upholding of racist ideology.
Now one may strike up opposition by simply saying, “Quietism? There are those who are doing great work in identifying and disassembling racism! Surely their efforts are not in vain!” In this instance, I wholeheartedly agree. I do not, for one second, underestimate the power of a dedicated few over a docile majority. Drawing from what Mother Teresa said, it really has only been a few individuals who have achieved the change they truly wanted. Realistically, there have been many doctrines combatting racism in which the ideas and words are so compact and vacuumed, there is no space for inaction. Filled with such lucidity and determination, how could one think of not acting? Think of the works of Malcolm X, MLK, Frantz Fanon and so many others. What these people say is the direct opposite of quietism. It is a call to action as well as a demand for self-examination and inward reflection.
For the sake of syllogism, it would be appropriate to conclude that action is necessary in combatting the insidious entity that is racism. I believe the first step of action is to educate one’s self. Even then, this is a difficult task. What we learn is informed by racism. What the best approach may be is unlearning the very mannerisms and mental gymnastics that we once thought were accurate and true. The processes that have lead us to this contemporary paradigmatic junction must be critically studied and reflected upon. For future endeavors to reach fruition we must draw on past shortcomings and successes.
Divorcing our previous way of thinking may help us see ourselves anew. Free from the mental baggage that accompanies such an obscure way of thinking. From this new perspective, we can found new discourses and philosophies that aim to dispel racism without having us turn into the beasts we aim to destroy. What I am trying to say here is that we create ideas and things that are organic — not things that are in reaction to some dominant culture of ideology and racism.
I don’t think that outward change is achievable nor is it the holistic answer to today’s issues. I believe that in order for change to achieved, it must start within the minds of those who are ready to work tirelessly and without fear. This path will be violent, turbulent and at times, never ending — but that may be the only way.