Racist Isn’t A Slur.
For all my White friends and acquaintances:
Please stop trying to argue with me and other people of color in your life about racism. You don’t get to define what racism is. We know what it is. We’ve had to learn the hard way what racism is — by experiencing it and carrying our present and historical trauma with us every day. We’ve paid for this education on racism with our resources, land, labor, and bodies. And some of us even went to expensive schools and learned the proper terminology and theories and sources to use while trying to have civil discussions without popping off on fools who demand from us a free education and who waste our time and energy while disrespecting us and our expertise*. No person of color owes to you a free education on racism, especially while you so haughtily demand it and when it don’t take but 2 seconds to Google something. But I like to think of myself as generous, so here’s a free lesson.
Racism = Prejudice + Power + Privilege
(Before you you reach for your dictionary to try to tell me I’m wrong, please read this comic about why the dictionary definition of “racism” is inaccurate.)
To clarify, one can think of racism in tiers: (i) internalized, (ii) interpersonal, and (iii) institutional.**
(i) Internalized racism is racism that people of color have unconsciously learned and absorbed from society, usually negative prejudices focused towards ourselves and people of our same race. While this can certainly be hurtful, because it is perpetuated by underprivileged people of color, it does not have the power to be truly damaging in the same way that the other forms of racism are.
(ii) Interpersonal racism is the racism that happens between and among individual people. This is the hurling of slurs and the individual actions that most people recognize as “racism” and how most people want to define racism. Closely related to and oft confused with the term “prejudice.”
Here’s the thing though: yes, the way most people are socialized, anyone, regardless of their race or any other factor, can have negative biases and exhibit prejudice towards people from groups different to them. Even if it’s unconscious or unintentional, most of us are socialized to prefer others who are like us over those who are different. But, a member of an oppressed race does not have the power to be racist. (These are different topics but, similarly, women do not have the power to be sexist against men; there is no such thing as “cisphobia” or “heterophobia” because people in the LGBTQA community do not have the power to do this against straight people; poor folks can’t perpetuate “classism” against rich folks, etc. Oppressed groups cannot be oppressive towards oppressors.)
This difference is related to the definition of (iii) institutional/systemic/structural racism: racism embedded in the structures and institutions of our society. This is the centuries of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, redlining, state sanctioned killings, Native American genocide, Japanese internment, gentrification, immigration quotas, mass deportations, and mass incarcerations. This is the fact that all of our country’s most powerful institutions are disproportionately White. This is Ferguson, MO. This is Flint, MI. This is Baltimore. This is Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and the hundreds of other Black bodies killed in the last few years (during our so-called “postracial” period) by the criminal justice system. This is the fact that people of color, especially Black people, by just about every measure, have worse lives in the United States than do White people.
Racism isn’t just making broad generalizations about one group of people. It isn’t just having an unfounded dislike of a group based on a single characteristic. It isn’t just stereotypes. That’s part of it and that stuff is hurtful, sure. But it’s that prejudice plus having the social power to discriminate, degrade, and kill people based on their race. It’s that prejudice and power plus having the privilege to receive preferential treatment in ever aspect of society simply because of your skin color.***
This is the reason why people of color cannot be “racist” against Whites.
A person of color starting a joke or a sentence with “All White people…” doesn’t reduce the number of White people in positions of power in this country. Sharing a meme on the Internet about White people doesn’t cause police officers to suddenly start suspecting and wrongly arresting and killing White people. Saying “White people are racist and responsible for Donald Trump’s racist campaign” doesn’t strip White communities of their resources and value. There is no power behind those statements to actually be racist.
On the flip-side, saying “all Mexicans are rapists” or “all Black people are criminals” or “all Muslims are terrorists” reinforces the systems of racism that are actually occurring and hurting people. It reinforces Stop and Frisk. It reinforces the horrid conditions in immigration detention centers. It reinforces the violations of privacy against Muslim Americans and the drone bombing of Arab nations. Those statements are rooted in the historical and present systems of racism (and xenophobia and colonialism). They cannot be separated from that. That is the difference.
There’s one more thing, unless they are actively and constantly doing anti-racist work, all White people are racist. You’ve heard the quotes about how remaining neutral in situations of injustice is taking the side of the oppressor. Because, simply due to the color of their skin, White people have all these social privileges and power and because, simply due to the color of their skin, people are oppressed in all sorts of different ways, it is up to White people to challenge racism. Not doing so, while benefiting from this system, upholds and perpetuates the system. It is White people’s responsibility because racism in the U. S. is a White problem. White people created this system and White people benefit from it. Even if you personally didn’t own slaves or have never shouted a slur at someone or don’t plan to vote for Donald Trump, staying “neutral” while benefiting from the system is the same as supporting it. And yes, people of color have been challenging the system and we will continue to do so because our lives depend on it, but for all our organizing, we cannot change or dismantle a system that has been operating for centuries and that ignores, degrades, discriminates, and kills us without some help from the inside.
Now, if a White person feels that they are actively and constantly challenging racism as much as they are able to, then they can ignore all this. They don’t need to ask their friends of color to give them the “not racist” seal of approval; no one has time to validate you (and if you’re really doing the work right, you wouldn’t be doing it to prove anything to anybody anyway). I understand not all White people can or are willing to be anti-racist. People have different concerns and interests and, whatever, that’s fine — as long as enough people do stand up and do the work then we don’t need everybody. But, any White person not doing the work does not have the right to get upset for being called out as racist. They can try to argue and talk about their hurt feelings, but, “racist” isn’t a slur and hurt feelings aren’t the same as racism.
How to Challenge Racism
The most important thing a White person can do if they want to challenge racism is to listen humbly to the people of color in their lives when we talk about racism, whether it’s venting about every day microaggressions or joking about how fucked up the system is. Do not demand from us a free education and do not try to argue with us about this issue. Most people of color probably are willing to discuss racism with their White friends, but won’t if they feel attacked or like they have to prove to their White friends something they’ve known their whole lives.
The second most important thing is to educate yourself. Learn about history. Not just the basic, whitewashed overview that we get in public schools, but real history. The complex nitty-gritty dark stuff. And then learn about today. All the ways racism plays out in 2016. The complex nitty-gritty dark stuff. (Below is a quick list of some things to read and watch, from classic works to more current events articles and think pieces. It is by no means a complete list — if you have any recommendations for sources to add, please send them my way!)
The third most important thing is to call out other White people when they are acting ignorant. They don’t like to listen to us, but they might listen to you.
Finally, show up and stand up for the people of color in your life. Back them up when another White person is harassing them. Go to rallies and marches and protests. Go to City Council meetings. Call state legislatures. Write to Congress. Actually do something to really challenge racism and White Supremacy culture.
Some quick theorizing…
Finally, I want to end with some quick theories as to why I think White people get so salty about being called racist.****
- The Myth of “Good” vs “Bad” People
Everyone wants to believe they’re a good person. But life isn’t a Disney movie. People aren’t “good” or “bad.” There is no such thing as heroes or villains. There can be good or bad actions, but you can’t define yourself or anyone else as either good or bad based on any single action. And you definitely can’t label yourself either “good” or “bad” based on non-actions. When I say, “all White people are racist,” it’s just shorthand description for everything I’ve written above, not a moral condemnation of someone, so it shouldn’t be taken so offensively. As much as I hate racism, my calling someone a racist doesn’t mean they’re a “bad” person, it just means they’re racist, either because they’re explicitly exhibiting interpersonal racism or implicitly supporting institutional racism. Stepping away from this good and bad duality might allow White people to accept these truths about racism and then go out and find ways to fix the problem instead of worrying about who thinks they’re a “bad” racist person.
2. The Myth of Individuality
The pervasive Western myth of individualism is one of the biggest reasons people don’t talk about racism the right way, imo. Because we want to believe that we are each special unique individuals who are wholly in charge of our lives and not affected by history or the greater society around us. Thus we can’t be held responsible for the actions of others and our own actions are only relevant to a narrow context. But humans are social animals and we don’t exist in a vacuum. Even if you’ve never personally donned a white hood, you are still affected by the system and society you live in. So when I talk about all White people being racist or White supremacy culture, I’m talking about systems and institutions and society as a whole. But this doesn’t absolve anyone of personal responsibility for racism, because the beauty of this is that, in turn, each person and what they say and do or don’t say or do affects the whole system. So everyone’s actions or inactions affect everyone else. But as I’ve said, because racism is White people’s problem and White people are the ones with the power and privilege to change the system, they are the ones responsible for doing so.
3. The Myth of White as the Norm
Lastly, I think White people don’t like talking about racism because as a society we’re not used to talking about Whiteness or White people as a group. When you flip the lens and stop talking about Whiteness as the default and start analyzing it, it makes White people uncomfortable because they’re not used to being under the microscope or of being called out and held responsible. They don’t like the phrase “All White people…” because they haven’t been accustomed to hearing it (and as I said above, they want to consider themselves each “individuals” and “good” people). Now, we can talk about how race is a social construct (which it is) and how Whiteness was invented, but just because it’s not “real” doesn’t mean the effects of Whiteness and racism don’t exist. It doesn’t mean that history didn’t happen the way it did. So we have to come to terms and truly address and find ways to solve the problem. And that means naming and recognizing the problem and placing responsibility where it belongs. Which means talking about Whiteness and White people and White Supremacy. And it means White people taking responsibility for the problem that White people created: racism.
This is all I have to say on the subject for now. If I got something wrong, let me know. But if you’re just going to troll, I don’t have time for it. I’m tired of arguing with White people about whether racism exists (it does) or whether reverse racism is real (it isn’t). The only discussions I want to have anymore are how to fix the problem. Talk to me if you have solutions, otherwise leave me alone.
- Linda Faye Williams, “The Constraints of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America”
- Ira Katznelson, “When Affirmative Action Was White”
- Theodore W. Allen, “The Invention of the White Race”
- Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States”
- Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”
- Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.
- Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
- Gina Crosley-Corcoran: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”, “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness”, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”, “There is No Post-Racial America” (everything he’s written tbh)
- John Metta, “I, Racist”
- Hannah Giorgis, “We Need Racial Justice and Economic Justice: We Can’t Breathe If We Can’t Eat”
- AD Carson, “It’s Not My Job To Absolve White Friends of Racism, But It Can Seem That Way”
- Max S. Gordon, “The Cult of Whiteness: On #OscarsSoWhite, Donald Trump, and the End of America”
- Gillian B. White, “Poverty Compounded”
- Ian Ayres, When Whites Get A Free Pass”
- George Yancy & Noam Chomsky, “Noam Chomsky on the Roots of American Racism”
- Gradient Lair, “Why Whites Hate Affirmative Action”
- Julia Blount, “Dear White Facebook Friends: I Need You To Respect What Black America Is Feeling Right Now”
- James W. Loewen, “Why Do People Believe False Myths About the Confederacy? Because Our Textbooks and Monuments Are Wrong”
- Emma Gray & Jessica Samakow, “11 Things White People Need To Realize About Race”
- Kristina Marusic, “Find Out How You — Specifically, You — Can End Racism”
- NYT Editorial Board, “The Truth of ‘Black Lives Matter’”
- Kriston Capps, “How The Federal Government Built White Suburbia”
- Whitney Benns, “American Slavery Reinvented”
- Samhita Mukhopadhyay, “Stop Complaining About ‘Victimhood Culture’”
- Yawo Brown, “The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy”
- Max Ehrenfreund, “Researchers Have Found Strong Evidence That Racism Helps the GOP Win”
- Brittany King, “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist”
- Steve Phillips, “#AmericaSoWhite”
- John Halsted, “The Real Reason White People Say ‘AllLivesMatter’”
- Social Justice Training Institute Suggested Reading
- Cracking the Codes
- Are You Racist? No Isn’t A Good Enough Answer
- Race Forward: What is Systemic Racism?
*not that I know everything there is to know or that I can’t get stuff wrong, but rather that I probably know more about this issue than the White people who want to argue about this with me on the Internet.
**someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I use institutional, structural, and systemic racism interchangeably (and I like the alliteration of the words that start with “i”) so that’s the term I’m using here.
***it is possible for a person to have White privilege but to be a member of another oppressed group: working-class, LGBTQA, etc. This is where Kimberle Crenshaw’s idea of “intersectionality” comes in.
****None of this is entirely out of my own brain obviously, but there are too many people to credit in this space for everything I’ve written. Basically, thanks to everyone who has written about race and all the people who’ve taught me about it, inside and outside the classroom!