First, a qualifier.* (Read it yet? Excellent. If not, fine, it’s not going to affect what you read. Just don’t go looking for any handouts afterwards.)
What started out as me laying out my definition of racism turned into a whole list of observations about how difficult it is to even talk about. Not nail down; discuss. Racism is hard to talk about in the finite because the human condition is steeped in it. So I’ve included some of those observations, and in turn allowed them to jack up my perfectly good 500 word piece, turning it into this fucking thesis paper. Really, I was just going to say, “Hey guys, we should try to get this racism definition thing right” but then I kept being confronted with reasons why someone was going to email me and tell me how it was wrong even though they never really thought about it before and since it just “feels” wrong to them I should blah blah my pain blah. So here are a few ways we, as a society (but mostly as white people) handle racism all wrong. I’ll tell you upfront that the first one is long, but it has to be to do it right. I promise: the other four are more ADD friendly.
Problem #1: We can’t agree on what racism is. A lot of us (pick your flavor) don’t know what racism really is. It’s understandable: if you pick up a dictionary definition of racism, you’ll find a very reasonable-sounding definition: racism **
1. The belief that some races are inherently superior to others.
2. Discrimination based on race.
Holy shit, that’s insufficient. Think about all of the events and ideas you’ve ever heard swirling around the issue of race. Does this definition really capture all of that? Can you Kevin Bacon “affluenza” out of that shit in fewer than 3 steps? I can’t, and it killed four people last year. If you go to Wikipedia, you’ll find a more robust definition, but it’s really just a super-sized version of the above. After dropping 70 words explaining what racism is, the site immediately proceeds to tell you how ”controversial” the definition of racism is because no one can agree on it: not our scholars, not our parents, not our allies…not even our racists.
Here’s why we can’t just agree to disagree and then keep talking about racism like it’s okay that we don’t agree (besides the fact that arguing about something you don’t even define the same way for longer than a minute is stupid): Based on all of the things I have experienced as a black person, on top of all of the things I have read and processed and studied and written and conversely debated over a great number of years on this issue alone, the problem isn’t that I’m racist. It’s just that I – and many others – do not subscribe to a definition of racism that allows for it and you do. So now I need to define it. I need to do the thing that even Webster’s gets wrong. Fine, here we go:
Racism is an institutionalized system designed to create patterns of discrimination based on race.
Taa-daa. The wording is mine, but it’s not an original definition – again, a great many people who study and think about race for a living have been using a similar definition for years. Since I mentioned a few other words, let’s define them too. We’re going to need them all before we’re done:
Prejudice is a preconceived opinion of a person or people with no basis in reason or actual experience, largely based on a stereotype. Anyone can be prejudiced. I would argue that everyone is about something. ***
Discrimination is an act with a basis in prejudice. This is best used to describe situations in which one person punishes or otherwise dismisses the advancement of another person or people based on a prejudice. This is also something anyone can do. I, as a black man, can decide not to hire someone at my job based on their race (prejudiced!) and that would be discriminatory. Mind you, I would never pass over someone because of their race. (I might pass over them if they like Scandal though.)
White/Black supremacy is a two-fer: they got the same roots, but they grow into two completely different trees. White supremacy is the specific belief that whites and their whiteness are naturally superior. Black supremacy is the same thing, just chocolate.
They’re both a very specific strain of prejudice. Racism, however, demands that the tree that grows from white supremacy automatically begins to generate the mechanisms of racism. On the flip side, the little bonsai plant that comes out of black supremacy is barely a blip on the radar. Racism’s target audience of reward is so overwhelming and ingrained that no other type of prejudice stands a chance. Is the black guy who doesn’t hire the white guy based on his race being racist? I don’t know: is he deconstructing the white man’s sense of self (not his feelings; his sense of what it means to be white) or culture or standards of beauty? Or is the black man reacting negatively and poorly to racism that has affected him since he was born? (It’s B.) Racism isn’t a game of one-on-one; it’s an especially insidious social virus that isn’t content with just giving white people jobs. It has to do what it does at the expense of other people, and it does so systematically, with no regard for whether or not any particular white person likes it or not. This is why white people should be scared: you’re being controlled just like the rest of the world…you just get to benefit from it. It’s the worst case of having an overbearing rich father you can think of. You can’t turn that machine off with a diversity class and a black boyfriend. This is why we need another word for it; it’s too pervasive to deny and too big to fail.
In conclusion (‘cause I got four more of these), I don’t define it this way because it absolves me of racism. I own a LOT of the stuff just short of it that anyone can do if they’re so inclined: prejudice, discrimination, evil, greed, and so on. I don’t need to be un-racist. If the shoe fit, I’d wear it. I want the best definition possible that explains the world in which we all live so that I can better combat the wrong in it. The words are important, and it’s not so much that we use the wrong words for the wrong activities, so much as when we apply more apt words to what we observe, we better know how to deal with it. It’s quick, easy and theoretically correct to point to something a white person does that’s discriminatory and say, “That’s racist.” I agree that it is, but it muddies the water we all got to drink from to take those kinds of short cuts every time at bat. Call it prejudice or discrimination or white supremacy so we know what we’re fighting and how we should be fighting it, or if we should bother at all.
Problem #2: White people don’t want to be the bad guy The problem I have debating this with white people is that they don’t want to hear a definition of racism that makes ONLY them the bad guys. They don’t want to hear about systems or standards of beauty or socially constructed inferiority complexes or standardized racial profiling or patterns of opportunity or ideological betterness. To use those things to define racism would apparently be cheating. I’m supposed to stick to the one hundred year old definition of racism that, applied to any of the things I just mentioned, STILL MAKES MY DEFINITION BETTER. I’m spitting Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse and you want me to roll back the tape and record “Accidental Racist” instead. Fuck that. Read more books.
Problem #3: White people don’t see how important race is to THEM. White people don’t realize how important race is to their self-definition because they don’t have to think about it. The world all around them reinforces their being and self-worth at all times. They don’t see how it does that based on race because it’s normal to them. And it’s a short jump from “normal” to “right” or “the way things are supposed to be.” This one also touches on the issue of white privilege that drives white people nuts. They don’t understand how, if they’re poor or unemployed, they can also be privileged. There are a ton of great articles that deconstruct this and if you’re here you probably had to pass through a couple of them to get here. The most common example people like to throw up is that if you take a homeless white guy and clean him up, he’s more likely to get a job than, say, a moderately qualified black guy. It’s not a bad case for privilege, but when you define privilege as “money” you dismiss a whole list of benefits that white people receive from racism no matter how much money they have, like not being pulled over for having a nice car or not having to explain why you can use big words. Those types of interactions are mad stressful, son. Here’s a privilege test: If you’re white and you decide one day that you aren’t going to talk about race anymore and then THE WORLD ACTUALLY LETS THAT HAPPEN? You’re privileged as a motherfucker. There isn’t a black person in this country who can walk away from the issue of race, even if it’s just to stop someone every day to say, “yeah, sorry, I don’t talk about race.” White people can walk away from this at any point and it have zero impact on their lives. Even rich black people can’t do that. Here’s a word you wish would go away: affluenza.
Remember the kid in Texas who skipped jail entirely after killing four people with his vehicle because he was afflicted with “affluenza”, a so-called condition in which he was too rich and pampered to understand the wrong of his actions? Did anybody anywhere think for a second that anybody that wasn’t white might have received the same sentence? Anyone? There isn’t a black person alive who could get that deal, I don’t care who their parents are. Anybody believe that if Blue Ivy killed a bunch of people with her stroller that she’d get off because Jay-Z and Beyonce have God money? The answer is, “Fuck you, quit trying to play devil’s advocate.”
Problem #4: We spend too much time on man-to-man coverage. At this point we shouldn’t even really be fighting people; were fighting a machine that uses the people it’s designed to reward as cannon fodder for a smaller portion of the people it’s REALLY designed to reward. We’re already living in The Matrix; we just can’t kick through walls or do any kung-fu.
Problem #5: We try to give too much credit to other systems besides racism. This is when people circumvent racism for what they think the “real” American problem is, when we start hearing things like “classism” and “greed” and “the two party system” being put on the same level (or better. Worse?) as racism. Here’s a quick test to see how true that is: If we somehow fixed classism, would that end racism? If we found a way to offer housing and food and jobs to everyone that wanted those things, at the level that made them genuinely happy, would racism still exist? Sure it would. People do racist things even when they don’t have stuff. It’s why you can be a black person walking down the street, see a homeless white guy on the street, offer him a dollar, and he still call you a nigger. He may be a victim of classism and American greed, but even if we gave him a great job, a beautiful house, all his teeth back and all of the Honey Nut Cheerios he could ever want, he would still suffer from racism. (In fact, this guy would probably become a racism super villain.) The math works for all the other big problems we face too: get rid of the two party political system and we’d still be left with racism. We sure as hell were in 1788 when this was very much the case (you know, when the president got elected without a two party system and owned slaves). The only social “big picture” problem older than racism is sexism, but sexism didn’t make America the world’s greatest superpower or enable Europe to conquer the world…racism did. But you get rid of racism? You find a way to install actual, real humanity into power (because a degraded view of humanity is what we’re ultimately talking about)? Or figure out a way to make it a system that can combat problems on the level that social/political/cultural systems operate? Those other things will drain away in the face of a society that not only celebrates its differences, but genuinely embraces them; that doesn’t just tolerate those differences for 28 days in February, but values them and seeks out their merits.**** Let me be clear: it’s not a contest. No one’s rolling me out in a Hunger Games chariot in a flaming body suit for being America’s most deep-seated “ism.” I take no joy in being a former slave living as a spoil of war in racism’s Matrix. I point these angles out because they change the value of certain things that go undervalued when we talk about race. The angles aim us at the root of our problems, the source code, the fuel that powers the machine that keeps all of the other problems in play.
In conclusion In the end you should appreciate this definition of racism for no other reason than it prevents us from using the whack-a-mole approach we’re triggered to fire up every time someone does something racist. The way we generally combat racism now – case by case, with too little emphasis on context and little more analysis than our feelings – is like trying to destroy on ant colony one ant at a time with a magnifying glass. You get your racist, sure, but you don’t stop the network, the resources that enable the racists, or the system of racism. You just get millionaire Phil Robertson suspended from Duck Dynasty for a week or two. (And to be honest, that ant still made it back to the colony just fine.) The old definition doesn’t fix anything. Calling everyone who commits an act that can be tied to racism is like working at a grocery store and being told that fronting the shelves is everyone’s job. Except that once you make it everyone’s job, no one does it because they think the next person is going to do the work. When racism is everyone’s problem, it’s no one’s target. You water it down to a distracting series of one-on –one actions or reactions when viewing it as a system enables you to better focus on more far-reaching solutions because you’re looking for the root cause of behaviors and tendencies.
* Qualifier: I am making known what I believe and use to navigate the world. I want my position clear and easy to find so that when you step into my spaces – or I into yours – you know the context of that space. I am not trying to change the dictionary. I am not seeking you out to change your mind or to engage you with what’s on my mind. I am letting you know that, should your mind ever happen to encounter my mind, that I have spent a significant amount of time and effort to arrive at an actual definition that I think works, and here it is. We can both then make educated decisions about whether or not it is worth our time to step into each other’s respective Thunderdomes. Proceed as you see fit with the understanding that this isn’t a conversation; it is a platform.
** Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary.
*** I make fun of these kinds of beliefs at my open mic show whenever an Asian shows up. I ask them if they’re Japanese (they usually aren’t) and then I act all dejected because I “really want to have a ninja party all of the time and no one will do it with me.” If I were serious, that would be prejudice. (Even though the connotation is “positive,” much like the belief that black men have big dicks. Bad prejudice, not so bad connotation. BUT ULTIMATELY BAD. DON’T THINK THAT.) (Plus it’s a lot of pressure on us.) **** Except sexism. Sexism is some primal, lizard-brain caveman level shit that we’re going to have spend extra effort on as a species. I don’t believe magically fixing racism would fix sexism (which is odd, because they’re so much alike in practice). In any event, that’s its own dissertation.