New Definitions of Racism

excerpt from a very interesting article I found via a post by Qian Xi on FB. Written by a white person in Toronto, it’s talking to white anti-racists in the West but I think with some tweaks applies very well to Chinese people in Singapore.

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.

4. Start learning about privilege. You need to understand what it is, and how it works. Read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (If that link is no longer good at some point, just Google it.) Acknowledge that you have privilege, through no fault or worth of your own; it was accorded to you at birth, and there’s no way to get rid of it. It just is, under the current system of institutionalized racism.

If you feel like doing so, spend a little time coming up with your own list of the ways that privilege works in your life; this will give you a greater understanding of the disadvantages that PoC face. Understanding your privilege will help you learn how to:

A) use it for good when possible (for example, when I write this I am taking advantage of part of my white privilege, which is that whites tend to listen to other whites and afford them more credibility than they extend to PoC), and

B) not use it to hurt PoC inadvertently (for example, by going into a PoC “safe space” and taking over the conversation).

5. Put down that strawman! Nobody’s asking you to feel guilty over having privilege. Guilt doesn’t get us anywhere. We just want you to be aware of it. Just acknowledge it and be aware of it and move on, for now.

6. Next, learn about derailing. “Derailing” refers to the many ways that white people take a conversation about racism and privilege and, well, derail it — make it all about them, rather than the PoC. This is almost always an unconscious act. Learning about how derailing works will help you learn how to avoid making the common derailing mistakes. Derailing for Dummies is a great resource. (Notice that the first two entries in Derailing for Dummies actually address the whole “educate me, PoC!” concept. It’s THAT prevalent.) Then go read this post: The Art of Defending Racism. (You will also notice both the article and the post are written with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Sometimes it feels like you have to laugh so you don’t cry, and sarcasm is a defense mechanism. Some people find sarcasm to be upsetting, but even if it bothers you, don’t allow the tone to keep you from absorbing what’s being said. It’s important stuff.)

7. Do not make the mistake of believing that because you have a lack of privilege in one or more ways (examples: “I was/am poor”, “I’m gay”, “I’m female”, etc), this means you understand what PoC go through.

A. We’re all privileged in some ways and have lack of privilege in other ways. A straight black man has straight privilege and male privilege, but lacks white privilege. A gay white woman has white privilege, and lacks straight privilege and male privilege. (A straight white cisgendered male with no handicaps, born to wealthy parents, has all sorts of privilege.)

B. By saying that “you have white privilege”, they’re not saying “you don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed” — they’re saying “you don’t know what it’s like to experience racial oppression”. You will not win points by saying, “But I’m gay/female/handicapped/etc, so I totally know where you’re coming from!” Nor will it win you points to say, “But I live in an area of town dominated by [insert PoC group here] and people are always threatening me because I’m white, so I know what it’s like to experience racism!” You don’t. If that’s your situation then you know what it’s like to be on the brunt end of racial-based acts of prejudice, but you still don’t know what it’s like to live in a racist system day in and day out. (If you haven’t yet read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as linked above, go do it now.)

C. To use an example of how racial privilege and class privilege are different: If you (as a white person) were obviously poor and at a country club, people would assume you’re a server. But if you were obviously rich and at a country club, nobody’s going to assume you’re a server. But if you’re a person of color and you’re at a country club, even if you’re obviously rich and dressed just as well as all the white people there, there’s still going to be some patrons assuming you’re a server and asking where their drinks are. Even if a PoC has ‘class privilege’ — which means they’re rich or at least upper-middle-class — that still never erases their lack of white privilege. They will always be seen first and foremost as a PoC. You, on the other hand, get to bypass that; people may judge you on your clothes or other visible markers of wealth, but they’re not going to judge you on the color of your skin en masse. That’s part of your white privilege.

D. To use another class/race example, if you were driving a really nice car, it’s highly unlikely you’d get randomly pulled over (unless you were breaking the law, speeding, whatever), even if you’re young. On the other hand, if you were black and driving a really nice car, you may well get pulled over just so the cop can check that it’s really your car (and not just something you presumably stole).

E. You’re going to come across the term “intersectionality”. The definition is “intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, species or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of discrimination.” In easier terms, this means that often different types of discrimination reinforce each other. Trying to tackle one system of oppression without dealing with other systems as well is going to leave some people in the cold. (This is a criticism often leveled at the current feminist movement; it’s primarily working on issues that pertain to white women.)

F. For another way of thinking about how privilege works, here’s an analogy. Imagine a racetrack with all those little divided aisles for people to run. Have a rich, white, cisgendered, straight male on the farthest aisle, and he has an aisle that only has a few hurdles. Have a rich, white, cisgendered, straight female on the next aisle, and she has a couple more hurdles. Have a rich, cisgendered, straight female of color on the next aisle, and she has a few more hurdles than the rich, cisgendered, straight white female. Keep going down the line, adding more and more hurdles as you add each form of lack of privilege. And if you’ve got a situation where intersectionality is often at work — for example, a PoC who lives in poverty — throw an additional few hurdles into their aisle beyond what they already had.

Now, let everyone run the race. It’s likely that straight rich white guy is going to finish first. And as for everyone else — well, many of them will still make it over their hurdles and get there too, but it’s going to take some people a lot more effort than others. And some people have so many hurdles that they’re going to be psychologically beaten from the get-go. No, being white didn’t get you where you are now — nobody showed up in a car and drove you to the end of the race simply because you’re white. But being white made it easier to finish that race, even though you will have had additional hurdles from the other ways you may lack privilege (being gay, poor, etc). No matter how many hurdles you had, at least you didn’t have the additional hurdles that the PoC faced.

Also, what’s even more unfair is when that white guy finishes and says, “Well, I got here on my own two feet, so I don’t know what you all are whining about! If I can do it, so can you!” That’s the nature of privilege, both to discount the ways it helps us and to refuse to see the ways a lack of privilege makes it harder for others.

8. Read. Read read read read read. I suggest starting with these blogs: Angry Black Woman (http://www.theangryblackwoman.com), stuff white people do (http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/), and Resist Racism (http://resistracism.wordpress.com/). There’s a lot of other amazing anti-racist journals too; try checking the blogrolls on those sites for links to other blogs. (If you’re a LiveJournal user, there’s syndicated feeds for the blogs I recommended: [info]abwoman_feed and [info]whitesdostuff and [info]resist_racism .) Also, go read the public posts on the LiveJournal community [info]debunkingwhite. (If anyone else has good resources to suggest, please do so.)

9. Accept that you will make mistakes and you will show your privileged ass and people will get upset at you about it. It doesn’t feel good to have people upset at us; we’re social animals and we don’t like it when we hurt people and people get angry. But don’t get defensive; relax, take a deep breath, and know that however upset you’re feeling about being jumped on, the people on the other side of the exchange are probably even more upset about what you said. (If you’re feeling very defensive and angry, the best option is not to respond right away; give yourself a little time to cool down and think things through. It’s a natural reaction to want to dig our heels in and defend ourselves, but it’s not the most productive path to take.) What you need to do now is accept that you screwed up, make a sincere apology, and figure out what you did wrong so you don’t do it again. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and it won’t kill you, so don’t get butt-hurt about it. Just make a sincere apology, figure out your mistake, and keep learning. (If you don’t know how to make a sincere apology, it goes like this: “I’m sorry I hurt you by saying XYZ.” Statements like “I’m sorry I did XYZ, but [offer excuse here]” or “I’m sorry if I upset you” or “I’m sorry you found my statements offensive” are not sincere apologies and they won’t help the situation.)

10. Once you reach a place where you are somewhat less clueless, start reaching out to other white people and trying to educate them about these issues. The weight of educating white people does not and should not rest on the shoulders of PoC; as a white person, you’re in a good position to educate other whites. White people generally listen to other white people (who are seen as being “more rational” about the topic of race, but that’s a whole other topic), and it’s less frustrating/upsetting for us because we’re choosing to educate others, rather than it being demanded/expected of us.

11. No, you can’t erase your privilege, or dismantle racism. But you can do as much as you can. That’s all any of us can do.

So there! Now you know how to start educating yourself on this topic, and the more education you get, the easier it will become for you to find ways to apply it. 🙂

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