“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.
(This was written before the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, posting it unaltered)
One thing you hear over and over again in discussions on race is that everyone can be racist. The acceptance of this fantasy stagnates our knowledge of racism. From our Black feminist viewpoint, this stagnation strengthens racism and sexism. Something white feminists have historically failed to grasp.
Racism is not prejudice
This US article provides a useful metaphor to racism; it is not the sharks in the water the fish have to fear but the water they swim in. Keeping that in mind, let us consider these definitions of racism:
- Google states: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
- The Collins dictionary states, “hostile, or oppressive behaviour towards people because they belong to a different race”.
- American Black Lesbian feminist writer, Audre Lorde, defined it in her 1981 keynote speech The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism as: “The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance, manifest and implied.”
- British writer, Reni Eddo-Lodge defined racism in her 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as, “prejudice plus power”.
The oxford dictionary defines prejudice on the other hand as, “an unreasonable dislike of or preference for a person, group…based on their race…”
These definitions draw a distinction between disliking someone and disliking someone with power. Power to dominant not just one individual but collections of people because of their different race. Prejudice is then the inferior of the two because it has a limited reach. We are all capable of disliking someone but individually we can only affect some aspects of one individual at a time, if at all.
However, the media, politicians, police, those in positions of power tell us racism is prejudice. That it is about bad people who say bad things about other people who look different to them. A childlike understanding that implies we are all equal when it comes to racism. I think we can now see this is false.
The law does not help us understand racism.
The UK law basically defines racism as unfair treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity and national origin. British businesswoman, politician and feminist, Linda Bellos argues that while definitions like Eddo-Lodge’s are useful, we should stick to the legal definition in explaining racism. It seems her motive here was to avoid confusion from having too many definitions, which might make responding to racism more difficult.
However, Lorde and Eddo-Lodge demonstrate it is possible to define racism with clarity. Therefore, we can assume any confusion comes from those in power who want to conceal it.
But why would they want to prevent our understanding of racism?
In short, to deny it. To define racism as prejudice is to say it is not about power so not that serious. When Bellos explains that when a Black person discriminates against a white person, it is racism, she is working from the fantasy that all people are equal in Britain. But since the WHITE race holds powerful positions, Bellos’ argument to use the legal definition to explain racism is unhelpful.
It accepts the position taken by the media, politicians and those who hold power, (those who benefit from racism), that racism is individual not institutional.
The law looks at racism as individual incidents, specific moments cause by specific people. It does not consider broader political, economic and cultural structures. It places responsibility to challenge racism on the individual. This is not by accident. As the dominant race makes and interprets the law, we have to consider that not only is the law unhelpful in clarifying racism, it is racist.
“Racism does not go both ways.”
This narrative of individual not institutional allows the argument of reverse racism. A point Eddo-Lodge analyses in her third chapter: What is White Privilege?
She explains claims of reverse racism is a tool used by those who work to ignore racism. As Atwood’s quote above highlights ignoring is not to be confused with ignorance. To ignore is to intentionally refuse to take notice or to acknowledge something, this requires action to be achieved.
Actions we encounter daily. When talking about racism to white people in my experience, you first have to agree with the myth that everyone can be racist. Trapped, you either accept this racist premise and remain ‘friends’, or you deny it and commit social suicide. In 2014 Eddo-Lodge found talking about race to white people too taxing and she decided to stop.
The defences we encounter work to protect “white-skin privilege”, a term which Eddo-Lodge describes as “an absence.” Or as a Black colleague described it, not having to deal with the historical baggage of inferiority. White privilege means white people are not impacted negatively by their race. Like an open ended access pass, which means the white community would need to oppose its interest to become anti-racist.
White is the ‘normal’ human experience
Many British and American Black kids grow up desiring to be white. This is because white is what is understood as good. All other races are understood as bad which is expressed in the media for example.
Both Eddo-Lodge and Maya Angelou in her 1969 book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, describe their disappointment when they realised, they would not grow up to be white. During a discussion on white privilege, Black attendees described experiences when it was first brought to their attention, through ridicule, they were not white and thus not right. I asked white attendees at what point in their lives they realised they were white. I was met with confused expressions.
White people’s response to the utterance of white privilege vary. But as Eddo-Lodge explains, their impulse is to protect the status quo whether it is “a shoulder shrug”, “stoney faces of disbelief” intended to dismiss. Or displays of anger that claim it is white people who are the victims of political correctness. In this scenario their imagined suffering becomes the topic of discussion, not racism.
We do not have to dig deep for useful examples of this. In January 2020 on BBC’s Question Time, (a political talk show), British actor Laurence Fox was described as a “white privileged male” when he dismissed the point that racism was behind the British media’s role in Megan and Harry’s move to Canada. Fox responded by calling the audience member who raised the point, a mixed-race university lecturer, Rachel Boyle, a racist. Thus positioning himself as the victim.
The media eagerly amplified his voice after, while Boyle received “online abuse”.
In the same month Alastair Stewart, an English journalist and newscaster resigned after his tweets with a Black man were called out where he apparently used “the phrase “angry ape”. Strikingly, the media’s response was not to clarify what was said, not to condemn the racism asserted but rather to sympathise with Stewart. By identifying with him and the long career he had built, he was reframed as a victim of circumstances.
Racism was effectively avoided altogether in the discussions. His resignation also invited us to accept the problem lies sorely with him, not the institution within which he worked.
We can now see the claim that racism is prejudice is a broad economic, political strategy to maintain the status quo. Designed to keep the discussion shallow, encouraging us to accept the childlike understanding of racism, people saying mean things to those who look different to them. To believe there is no hierarchy of power, that we can all be racist, so racism is not actually a big deal.
It hides the reality that white is the everyday human experience and those who attempt to look beyond this, to expose it are met with intense hostility, labelled trouble makers, and RACISTS.
The insistence that the problem is individual not institutional denies the existence of racism in everything and nothing specific, because racism is “the water we swim in. And the water we’re in is called white supremacy.”