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.
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
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
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
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.
here to read any of the parts of this series
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 mollysecours.com and myspace.com/mollysecours. Click
here to contact Ms. Secours..