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What is racism?  How is it different from prejudice and discrimination?

We could spend all of our time debating what racism really is or isn’t—and often that is exactly what we do. It’s another way of not addressing the realities that whatever racism is, is viewed and experienced differently by those who identify as white and those who identify as a people of color.

In his book “White Like Me”, White anti-racist activist and author, Tim Wise says “Most whites tend to view racism or being racist as individual and interpersonal--as with the uttering of a prejudicial remark or bigoted slur--more overt kinds of behaviors.”

Like the easily identified shocking behavior of let’s say Michael Richards or a Don Imus. When most white people point to racism THAT is the direction the finger wags. Racism is a white man screaming the N-word.

Wise explains that although individual and overt racism is certainly problematic for blacks, more so “ it is the pattern and practice of policies and social institutions, which have the effect of perpetuating deeply embedded structural inequalities between people on the basis of race. To blacks, and most folks of color, racism is systemic.”  Hence the continued disparties in employment, education, health care and criminal justice.

Leading psychologist and author Dr. Frances Cress Welsing urges that rather than referring to it as simply ‘racism’ we must always refer to it as racism/white supremacy and keep in the forefront of our minds that it is a ‘system’ and that the purpose of white supremacy is white’s gaining and maintaining economic advantage over non-whites—and that is key.

For people of color, racism is systemic in nature which means Black people potentially confront it wherever they work, shop, eat, buy groceries, get drivers licenses, go to school, sleep. In short: everywhere there are white folks.

Systemic racism does not reside in one particular neighborhood, or one particular institution or one particular country because it exists first ‘within us’.  We are socially conditioned to operate within the system simply because that is how society was constructed—based on principles of discrimination, domination and control. I guess you could say ‘wherever we go, there it is’. We take it to all the various institutions in which we work, shop, eat and buy groceries.

For whites, it is purely personal. Because we do not experience systemic racial discrimination we often do not recognize it for what it is—even (and especially) when we are perpetuating it. And, because it is so uncomfortable to admit we are walking around in and amongst it at all times, we are deeply invested in explaining it away.

A friend told me once about group of people having dinner in a restaurant and the subject of amputation came up in the conversation. Perhaps not exactly polite dinner conversation—especially when one of the diners sported a mechanical arm, which happened as a result of a boating accident, in which he found himself tangling with a motor.

Few would argue that the amputee had a fairly firm grasp of the physical, emotional, psychological and fiscal trauma which resulted from his experience. In fact, we might even readily consider him an expert on the subject of the challenges facing an amputee. And yet, there was a surgeon at the table who monopolized the conversation and several times contradicted the ‘armless’ man’s account of what it is like to live without a limb. Even though the doctor has spent umpteen years in the medical profession and graduate suma cum laude, he has never spent even a minute without an arm, let alone experienced the pain of having it ripped from him and then having to put the pieces of his life back together afterwards.

Although this may seem like an absurd comparison, it is no more absurd than the way many white people call to question black people’s experience of racism regardless that we have never experienced first hand and we never will.  And yet, so often, we are judge, jury and ‘the experts’. 

A good friend of mine who is African American and admits to having ‘bad white people days-- because some days we require ‘too much energy’--s told me how difficult it was to be friends with us white folks. “Ya’ll always have to be the experts” she said. She expressed that rarely does she tell a white person her experiences of race in this culture--or about anything in which race plays a part--that we don’t nod our heads prematurely and act as if we know already and as if the problem is ‘over there’ as if to say ‘I hear ya sister’.  

Even though we might have no experience with what many people refer to as ‘driving while black, shopping while black, applying for a car loan while black or breathing while black, we are perfectly comfortable ‘correcting’ people of color when they ‘mistakenly’ identify an incident as having a racial component and very often deny their claims of mistreatment. That is not to say that every black person correctly interprets every situation 100% accurately and that race is ‘always’ the issue but we whites--more often than not--are more comfortable suggesting that they are’ playing the race card’, rather than reflecting deeply on the situation and examining how their individual experience might be reflective of systemic inequalities. 

Frankly, I think white people might entertain the idea of erasing the phrase ‘playing the race card’ from our vocabulary.  Especially in light of the irony that it is white’s who played the race card for several hundred years.

For a person of color who has a life time of first-hand knowledge in the subtlties of negotiating life in a predominately white world (here in the U.S. at least) it can be frustrating and unsettling. 

We whites are often the first ones to insure a person of color that what they experienced is NOT racism but a misunderstanding. Because we are not immersed in it, not only do we not see it, but we rarely see ourselves as part of it and just because we don’t want to see racism, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Click here to read any of the parts of this series of commentaries.

BC Columnist Molly Secours is a Nashville writer/filmmaker/speaker host of her Beneath The Spin radio program at 88.1 WFSK at Fisk. Her websites are and Click here to contact Ms. Secours..


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June 14, 2007
Issue 233

is published every Thursday.

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