This isn’t what I’d hoped to spend my time writing today, but recent events have made clear that the time is ripe for a commentary on racism. I’ve touched on the topic peripherally in other posts (namely “On Black Lives Matter” and “On Police Brutality”), but it’s a subject that deserves much more than a peripheral dialogue. And while I do encourage civil discussion and debate, this is obviously a delicate subject, so please keep it respectful and be sympathetic to the feelings and experiences of others. I will not permit my page to become a mouthpiece for racist douchebags and you can rest assured that I will delete any hateful comments.
Melissa Hortman and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad case of White Male Fragility:
Recently, Melissa Hortman, a white woman and the Minority Leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives, called out a number of her colleagues—specifically white males, in this case—for playing cards in the retiring room during the speeches of other House Representatives. Her subsequent remarks suggested that this is a rather commonplace occurrence during the speeches of women, and particularly women of color. You can read all about the absurdity that followed here, but in short, a number of Hortman’s white male colleagues—in a magnificent demonstration of white fragility—complained that her statement was racist (yes, racist) and called for her to apologize.
Now, to anyone with half a brain (and/or a modicum of decency) this is asinine on too many levels to count, but it highlights a continuing need to explain to some what racism is (and isn’t). To that end, let’s take a look at a few definitions of racism (n.):
-prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race
based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. (Oxford)
-a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capabilities and that racial
differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. (Merriam-Webster)
-the belief that some races are better than others, or the unfair treatment of someone because of his or her race. (Cambridge)
And racist (adj.):
-showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races,
or believing that a particular race is superior to another. (Oxford)
To be sure, these are definitions of racism in its strictest sense—there are others, which we’ll discuss in more detail later. But for now, these suffice to illustrate the ignorance of the House reps who called Hortman’s statement “racist.” It should be immediately clear where the problems lie (after all, I did italicize them for you). Hortman is, firstly, the same race as those whom she called out. Her statement therefore, cannot, by definition, be “racist.” If anything, it suggests the white male legislators engaged in the racist behaviors by deeming the comments and positions of minority women not worthy of their time and attention. Simply invoking a particular race or ethnicity does not make a statement inherently “racist,” and it is frankly a sad state of affairs that it’s necessary to explain this fact to people elected to represent multi-ethnic constituencies in our (allegedly) progressive state. Furthermore, Hortman’s comments did not, in any way whatsoever, imply any kind of racial superiority. In fact, it could be argued that she was actually calling for equality.
This is an important distinction that makes an equally important point: asking for, expecting, or demanding equality on behalf of a race is not (and by definition cannot be) “racist,” because equality is not superiority. (I’m talking to you, “Black-Lives-Matter-is-racist” people.) Likewise, asking, expecting, or demanding that one’s rights not be infringed, is not somehow an infringement of your rights. In other words, the fact that you can’t discriminate against others is not a form of discrimination against you. I see and hear this contention all the time, especially from some on the religious right who insist that being forced to serve homosexuals (or others with whom they disagree) is a violation of their "religious freedoms." Bullshit. That’s not how it works. Your personal freedoms don’t extend to taking or circumventing the freedoms of others. Allow me to illustrate with a very simple example: an American Muslim (whose right to practice whatever religion they wish is protected by the First Amendment) fervently believes that one who denies Allah should be put to death. Is it therefore acceptable for them to murder atheists? Of course not. This is obviously a rather extreme example, but the logic holds--in order for people to be equal, we must not only be free to believe as we wish, but we must also be free from the beliefs of others.
Conceivably, one might argue that Representative Hortman’s comments were in poor taste, or in violation of the stated rules of the House, but I think we’ve effectively nullified the asinine assertion that they were racist. Personally, I commend her courage in defending her minority colleagues and for calling attention to the behaviors of her white male counterparts in the legislature. At best, they were lazy and disrespectful. At worst, they were patently racist. Gentlemen, you should be the ones to apologize. Quit crying because you were (rightly) called out for your indecorum. Grow up. Engage with your constituents and colleagues. Make Minnesota better. That is the job you’ve been sent to do. If that requires more energy and effort than you are willing or able to give, then perhaps you (or we) should reconsider your role in government.
The Racism Spectrum
Now that we’ve gotten that fine bit of idiocy out of the way, let’s take a look at a few other definitions of racism (n.):
-a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or
that a particular racial group is inferior to others. (Dictionary.com)
This definition adds a critical dimension to the concept of racism: power.
And my personally preferred definition:
-the systematic and often institutionalized oppression of a people based on race or ethnicity by those in power.
This definition takes the concept of power a step further, in that racism cannot be perpetrated on the privileged by the oppressed, and there is therefore no such thing as “reverse racism.” (Never mind the linguistic impossibility of the phrase.) Now before you throw a clot, allow me to explain how I justify this belief. Racism is not an individual issue. It is a collective experience for minorities and the marginalized (as referenced in this terrific article). An individual can have racist beliefs, but unless their race possesses the power to oppress another race, they are incapable of propagating racism. (That’s not to say they can’t be a raging asshole. Assholes are everywhere and come in every size, shape, and stripe.)
I see racism as one of the most severe of stops along a continuum of ugliness. Ignorance, stereotyping, bias, intolerance, prejudice, cultural appropriation, discrimination, hate crimes, racism, subjugation, and genocide all belong on that continuum. (Undoubtedly, there are a number of other terms that could be added—it’s not meant to serve as an all-inclusive list, and yours may look somewhat different, if you have one at all.) None of these things are generally seen as socially acceptable, though all of us have probably engaged in at least some of them: cruel jokes about Asians or Mexicans or other subsets of people; thinking that the black gent in that shiny new sports car must be a drug dealer; concerns about the person of Middle Eastern descent on a flight; nervousness or fear when a group of black men approach; instinctively saying “All Lives Matter” in response to Black Lives Matter… I admit that I’ve been guilty of all of these things in the past. And while I’m certainly not proud of the fact, it’s also probably to be expected. After all, we’ve been programmed to think and believe these things for much of our lives.
Nothing imprints on our psyches quite so much as fear, and in this technological age of instant information, our fear buttons are clicked so often and so forcibly, it’s little wonder that we form misconceptions. After near-relentless exposure to images from horrific terror attacks, news stories focusing on violence and riots among hundreds of peaceful protests, and years of misinformation and fear-mongering at the hands of politicians, media, and others, ignorance, bias, and prejudice are, sadly, the logical result. The best some of us can do is to recognize when those thoughts creep in, ask ourselves why, then work to change the thinking that caused it.
The origins of these constant clicks to our fear buttons are far too numerous to contemplate here, but let’s examine a few of the resulting rebuttals that I often hear and read to illustrate how this psychological imprinting works. How many of you believe that black people are more likely to use hard drugs than white people? How about that black on black crime is a more serious problem than other intraracial crime? Or perhaps you feel we need to engage in “extreme vetting” of Muslims and refugees because they pose a significant risk to the safety of Americans? In fact, white Americans are more likely to use hard drugs than black Americans. In fact, black on black crime statistics are similar to the intraracial crime statistics of all races, and would likely be significantly lower if gang-related crime were removed from the equation (which is less of a contributing factor for, say, white folks). In fact, Muslim extremists (though frequently labeled terrorists—rarely the case with white or Christian extremists) account for only 123 of the nearly 250,000 murders that have taken place in America since 9/11/01. These facts fly in the face of the fears that contribute to our places on the above continuum, and it’s only through the purging of our ignorance that we can ever hope to find our way off of it.
Let's take a closer look at the racism spectrum for a moment. Only at the extreme end of the spectrum are we dealing with issues that are perpetrated primarily by one race against another. In America, this is, and has always been, almost exclusively at the hands of white people. (That’s not to say that the power dynamics aren’t different in other parts of the world—they are.) But here, in the “land of the free,” white people (and in particular white men) hold the power. We are the subjugators. Whether it be against Native Americans, Africans, Asians, or more recently Muslims and Mexicans, white people in the U.S. have a long, ugly history of exerting power over those we believe might be a threat to our way of life. And that continues to this day, by way of the threads of institutional racism, woven throughout the fabric of our society to assure that we maintain our power and hold on to the advantages we already possess.
Many would argue that the privilege of which I speak doesn’t exist. They would perhaps counter that if one would just buckle down and work hard (the infamous “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” argument) they could be successful regardless of their race. They might point to Barack Obama and other successful black people as proof that there are no longer any barriers for people of color. They may claim that because we’ve abolished slavery, and that black folks can now vote and have all of the same rights as all Americans, we’re way past all of that racist shit. They might take the position that because of things like affirmative action programs, the playing field is level (or even that it’s now tilted in favor of minorities and the marginalized). Okay, white readers—how about we test that theory, then?
Imagine you are suddenly granted the ability to permanently change your ethnicity in today’s America. Would you willingly give up your whiteness to become, say, black? Would you do so knowing that you’re roughly 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police? What if I told you that you’d also face a staggering 33% chance of going to prison at some point in your lifetime? Would you choose to be black knowing your children are more likely to be born into poverty? That it’s more difficult to obtain a decent education, a job, a loan, or housing in a good neighborhood even if you can afford it? Would the affirmative actions in place for black people be sufficient for you to willingly endure the animosity and aspersions and discrimination that people cast upon you because of the color of your new skin?
Maybe you’d choose to be Native American instead, where nearly one in three can expect to live in poverty, or where, as a woman, you are twice as likely to experience sexual violence than any other race? Did you perhaps choose to be Hispanic, the lowest paid demographic in the country for the past twenty years? What about Middle Eastern, armed with the foreknowledge that so many are maligning your religion and watching you with suspicion and malice?
After considering the possibilities and facing the reality, can you really answer that you’d voluntarily shed the color of your skin for another? And if not, and things are truly so equal, why would you be resistant to such a change? I believe that very resistance is your tacit admission and acknowledgement that systemic, institutional racism exists to this day.
I would argue that when we, as white people, experience what we initially think of as “racism,” it’s actually something further to the left on the continuum. People of other races can be biased or harbor prejudices toward us. They can discriminate against us. They may despise everything about us. A monstrous black man with physical power over me as an individual may kick my ass simply because I’m white—a hate crime. But none of those things are “racist,” because minorities simply lack the power to oppress us as a race. It is only when we’re referring to white Americans (whom we’ve established hold all the power) discriminating against other ethnicities that those behaviors rise to the level of racism.
Now you might call this nothing more than a case of semantics. But allow me to demonstrate this with a rather simplistic example: I'm a big shot football player who tears my ACL. Obviously, this isn’t a pleasant experience for me, and I’m in a lot of pain. To me, this injury seems devastating. Life altering. As I hobble my way to my hospital room on my crutch, I even wonder if my future is in jeopardy. You're my roomie at the hospital. Somehow, you've managed to shatter every bone in your body and are laid up in a full body cast. I sit on the bed, turn to you and say, “I just suffered a catastrophic injury.” Have I not just minimized your very real catastrophic injuries by elevating my bum knee (painful though it may be) to the level of your suffering? Or alternatively, let me ask you this: Would you ever think it appropriate to say, “Man, this job sucks. It's as bad as slavery,” to an African American colleague at work? And if not, then why would you ever assume it’s acceptable to claim to be a victim of racism (which includes slavery) to those very same people?
As a writer and editor, it is important for me to consider not just the literal definitions of words, but also how the words and language we use are perceived. To me, the word racism is very near the pinnacle of the continuum. It encompasses all of the horrible shit that minorities in America have gone through, almost exclusively at the hands of white people. For us to now call every offense and perceived slight “racism” is insensitive and diminishes what racism truly is for those who’ve experienced it.
Were it up to me, I would change the definition of racism to better reflect these realities. But since I’m not, I bring the plea to you. We all have a choice of what words we use. You can call someone of another race prejudiced, or biased, or say that you’ve been discriminated against. You can call them assholes. Or, you can choose to cry “racism,” or “reverse racism”—terms that directly compare your plight to theirs. You might argue that’s just something they’re going to have to get over if we’re ever going to get beyond our "race issues." But to them, when our choice of words (intentionally or otherwise) diminishes their pain and suffering, all they see is more of the same. It’s just one more way that we marginalize them and nominalize their experiences. And that, perhaps more than anything else, drives a wedge between races and creates more division. Besides, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of the bulk of racism in the U.S., should we not be the ones to acknowledge it in this one very simple way? I view this as an opportunity for us to express our compassion for fellow human beings who have suffered greatly (and often still do to this day). It doesn’t cost us anything at all. For most of us, it’s nothing more than a word with its literal definition. But for others it’s much more than that. It is a word that represents their life experience and existence and history. For us to appropriate the word "racism" tells them that we don’t give a damn because our plight is just as bad as theirs.
But it’s not. It never will be. So let’s quit pretending that our minor injuries are equal to those who have truly suffered. Every one of us—regardless of race—face difficulties and challenges and hardships in life. No one is disputing that. But the difference is that we, as white Americans, don’t face them specifically because of the color of our skin. Others do. And that is where the reality of racism lives and thrives to this day. No one is asking or expecting you to wallow in a lifetime of guilt because of the privilege you’ve attained simply by virtue of being born white. But if you fail to acknowledge its existence, if you refuse to accept it and work to dismantle it, then you are enabling racism—no matter how many black friends you have, no matter how often you claim to be the least racist person around. You are perpetuating it. Permitting it. Condoning it. Your silence and denial are the very things that allow racism to endure and flourish. That is when you become culpable. That is when you shoulder the blame.
We are all different. That diversity is what provides mankind with its beauty and strength. While we may like to say we “don’t see color,” that, in itself, overlooks the reality. It refuses to acknowledge the uniqueness we all possess. We never claim to not see the color of one’s hair, or of their eyes. It is only when it comes to the pigment of one’s skin that we claim to be “colorblind.” But does that not imply that there is something negative about our skin color that should be ignored, negated, unseen? Is it not, in a way, a tacit admission that racism exists while conveniently refusing to address it? Isn’t it common knowledge by now that in order to overcome a problem, we must first admit that there is a problem to be overcome?
Yes, racism is still a problem. It still permeates nearly every aspect of our society. And it still exists, not only in the darkest hearts of man, but in our ignorance and dismissal of it. We must begin to see it. Face it. Accept it. Admit it. Condemn it. Tell those in power that we will no longer stand for it. Because all it takes to perpetuate inequity is our silence. And we’ve all been silent too long. When confronted with the indecorous, insensitive, and likely racist behavior of those around her Melissa Hortman spoke out.
A number of sources were used in the compilation of this article, not least of which is this terrific post by JBW Tucker.
Other resources and recommended reading:
ignorance--stereotyping--bias--intolerance--prejudice--cultural appropriation--discrimination--hate crimes--racism--subjugation--genocide