Friday, January 23, 2015

White Happened to You

This week, MSNBC effectively banned a guest from appearing on its network. Those of us who have been shaking our heads at CNN personality Don Lemon's recent series of on-air gaffes may already be familiar with the guest: Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer perhaps better known as "The Muslim Guy." Iftikhar, who thanked Lemon and his panicked query about ISIS for "making me famous," appeared on MSNBC's Now with Alex Wagner saying that, in furthering the myth of Muslim no-go zones in Europe, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is Indian American, "might be trying to scrub some of the brown off his skin." Following Jindal's condemnation of the remark and general outrage from within conservative circles, a spokeswoman for MSNBC told CNN that "We found this guest’s comments offensive and unacceptable, and we don’t plan on inviting him back." What, exactly, was "offensive and unacceptable" about Iftikhar's language? While Iftikhar may not have done himself any favors with his tone and word choice, I suspect that MSNBC was troubled by Iftikhar's barb that Jindal would rather be white and, more importantly, by the insinuation that there is something wrong with being white. MSNBC sets a dangerous precedent by dictating how we can discuss race in open forums, lest we be banned. In this blog entry I will discuss how even in higher education, the dominant, institutionalized ways of talking about the meaning of white skin do not tell the whole story, particularly to white people. Some vigorous scrubbing may not be a bad idea for all of us.

Bobby Jindal is not the first Indian American to be accused of wanting to be white, nor will he be the last, but the honor of the Indian American with most interesting story in this regard goes to Bhagat Singh Thind. Memorably profiled in the indispensable PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, Thind was a Sikh from India who immigrated to the US as a young man. After his naturalized citizenship was revoked, he famously took his case to the Supreme Court in 1923. Until well into the twentieth century, only "free white persons" and persons of African descent (thanks to the 14th Amendment) were eligible to naturalize as American citizens. Only months before the Court heard Thind's case, it had ruled against Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who sued for his right to naturalize based on his beliefs and values, which he argued were as "American" as any white man's. Ozawa lost because the Court ruled that he could not be considered white by any accepted scientific measure. Thind seized upon this ruling by claiming that his high-caste, northwestern Indian ancestors were, by the anthropological definitions of the day, Caucasian and not Mongolian. But Thind lost too. The Taft Court effectively decreed that race was a social construct by ruling that being Caucasian on a technicality did not make one white: "Whiteness was what the common white man said it was." Japanese and Indian immigrants were not the only ethnic groups contending for whiteness and therefore American identity at the time; they were simply two of the most prominent to have lost.

Ozawa and Thind and so many others knew the value of whiteness in their time, value made tangible by the access to rights and resources that whiteness promised. Following United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, many immigrants of Indian descent also had their citizenship revoked, some losing title to property because extant alien land laws were now applicable to them. One man, Vaishno das Bagai, committed suicide. According to Neil Foley, the decision to create a separate racial category for "Mexicans" in the 1930 census was strenuously protested by Mexican Americans (previously assigned to the "white" category) as well as by the Mexican government itself. Very simply, whiteness guaranteed access to an array of possibilities in life closed to people of color. In her influential 1993 Harvard Law Review article, law professor and critical race theorist Cheryl Harris argued that whiteness is valuable because it is, in fact, a form of property. White identity maximized personal liberty for those lucky enough to have it, revealing a greater range of choices in life, beginning with whether and where you could live, how you could learn and work for a living, and whether or whom you could marry. This meaning of white skin has become the dominant one in social justice-oriented higher education today, the knowledge of its social effects institutionalized in the field of study known as "white privilege." But approaching the topic of white privilege only as a possessive phenomenon, something that gives but never takes, can attenuate even the best-intentioned antiracist pedagogy.

Several years ago, an administrator at my university made a disappointing comment to me. "David, what you try to do is make white students feel guilty for being white," he found it necessary to say. I responded by inviting him to watch me teach. (He never did before he moved on to another institution.) I work at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, and given that the literature defines a PWI as having a majority white student body, we probably qualify as a Super PWI. Approximately 90% of our student body is white. That figure correlates with the share of white students enrolled in my three classes, in aggregate, last semester. We instructors recently received our student evaluation results for the fall semester. I realize how flawed this evaluation process can be, but, like most instructors, I would be lying if I said that I didn't care about them and didn't want my students to feel as though they learned a lot during our time together. The evaluations, frankly, were through the roof. I'm not mentioning this to boast but to make the point that virtually all of my students, again all but a tenth of them white as far as I know, felt as though they had a positive experience learning about racism and white supremacy, and not just for a unit or a few weeks here or there. Every. Single. Class. What was so compelling to my white students, if not guilt and shame?

Over the years, I've had many conversations with colleagues who want to integrate learning about whiteness--including white privilege--into their curricula but don't know how to do so effectively. They know that doing so will provoke strong reactions from white students, from defensiveness to guilt to shame. Is it right to focus on white students this way, they ask, and how best to address their feelings? I tell them that I am just as concerned about the welfare of my white students as I am about the welfare of my students of color. Early into a semester, I announce that one of the key goals for the course is for students to develop what Beverly Daniel Tatum, citing Janet Helms, calls a "positive" racial identity. For students of color, this means that they begin to disrupt the internalization of white supremacy by refusing to believe all of the lies that our culture circulates about their "inferiority." White students begin to disrupt their internalization of white supremacy by learning how the superiority of whiteness is a social construct, knowledge that then must effect a disposition of responsibility rather than guilt. In other words, white students learn that whiteness happened (and is happening) to them, and the history of the process is shameful. (It is beyond the scope of this entry to detail this process, but the literature--see Joe Feagin and Ian Haney-Lopez to begin--is available and essential.) This is the reason why white students should never want to take pride in being white: doing so means embracing not a cultural identity like an ethnicity but an unjust and inequitable historical process working in their favor. Far from guilt or shame, my white students begin to feel another emotion once they learn about the history of whiteness.

Regardless of their race, my students eventually volunteer that they never learned about racism this way in high school or even in other college courses, and many say that they're angry about that. Anger is a natural response to this realization, I say, but do you know why you're angry? Students of color have clear and cogent reasons for their anger, but my question gives pause to white students. That's when I tell them about a former graduate student, a white woman who was in her fifties when she took a course from me. She'd also told me that she was angry that this knowledge had been kept from her, that it was not institutionalized in any required curriculum at any level, and that she had to happen into a course on it by sheer chance. We were sitting in my office, and our conversation drifted from the course to more personal matters. "I would have lived my life differently," she said firmly. That was it. My graduate student was angry because choices had been taken away from her. White identity, which many of my undergraduates understood only as the key to more choices in life--hence their initial guilt--also foreclosed and is foreclosing upon untold numbers of possibilities and opportunities in their lives, as it had done to their ancestors. How might all of them have lived their lives differently if white supremacy did not determine the range and depth of their relationships with other people?

The devastating power of racism is that it deforms the relationships we have with other people, particularly with people of a different race, or it precludes those relationships altogether. My all-time favorite headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion is this: "18-Year-Old Miraculously Finds Soulmate in Hometown." The faux dateline for the article is Peshtigo, WI, a city a couple of hundred miles from my university, and the two lovebirds in the accompanying photo are white. What's less funny about the article is the story of why these two imaginary teenagers have the same hometown, why huge swaths of Wisconsin and the Midwest are populated by mostly white people. James Loewen answered these questions in his crucial study Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Sundown towns were communities that exploited black people for their labor during the workday but demanded that they leave town at nightfall. Loewen's thesis is that racism in the Midwest was worse than it was in the South because most Southern communities could segregate but not expel whole populations of black people (Loewen's website is a public history project that allows users to learn about and contribute to the sundown history of their hometowns). Many Midwestern towns were home to more black people in 1890 than in 1930, while suburbs across the country like Levittown, NY were whites-only enclaves. (This recent article describes how communities in Oregon went even further with their ordinances, creating what might be called sunup-to-sundown towns.) What does it mean, I ask my white students, that your experiences and those of your parents and grandparents may have been racially-engineered in this way? What does it mean that larger forces decided who you would live next to, befriend, or fall in love with? How incomplete, how meager, those possibilities in life must seem now.

Today, we exist in a state of confusion about the meaning of white identity. Arsalan Iftikhar is banned from MSNBC for hinting that whiteness is an index to something other than the amount of melanin in your skin. Billboards spring up off I-59 in Alabama to proclaim that white people are the real victims of racism and genocide. FOX News blasts an academic course on whiteness at Arizona State University as "unfair" and "wrong." Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is white to some, not to others. And white students sit in classrooms unsure how to talk about their white identity while their peers of color wait, fidgeting in their seats. Colorblindness and MSNBC-style color cautiousness are not the solution. I don't think any billboard or ten-minute news segment can expect to be. We deserve better. For this reason I'm excited to be on the cusp of another semester with students eager to learn something new, most of them strangers. Paraphrasing Tim Wise, I will tell them what I have told all of my students in recent years. "If you're religious, then imagine that what I'm going to say to you comes from a higher power. If you're not, then imagine that your mother or other loved one is saying this to you. Whether you are a person of color or a white person, I want you never to forget something," I will say. "Never forget that you were meant for more than this."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Modest Proposal

Twitter is powerful.

It can get you called out by Margaret Cho. I still love Twitter; in just a couple of months, I've learned so much from the amazing people I follow. My previous blog entry was partly inspired by a Twitter conversation with Emil Guillermo, an esteemed Filipino American journalist whose writing on behalf of the AAPI community I'd read for a long time. Guillermo had blogged on why Cho's performance at the Golden Globes was fine satire and not racist. You can read it here, a good idea before going any further. Later that day, one of Guillermo's colleagues tweeted that she didn't feel the same way that he did about Cho's performance. That's when this overeager educator jumped in, trying to explain why I believed that the performance was racist. I included a link to my recent blog article titled, surprisingly, "How to Tell If Something Is Racist." Guillermo courteously replied (this doesn't always happen on Twitter), and each of us stated his case. Because he references this conversation in a subsequent article, I've included it below. We were working off two different threads, so I tried to assemble the tweets in a coherent order that may not be chronological at a couple points, sometimes repeating what Twitter calls a "parent" tweet for the sake of clarity. In any event, these are all public tweets that anyone can find and read.

















Well, Oregon lost. I have an MFA from Oregon and would have loved to see a national championship team quarterbacked by an AAPI. But I quickly got over it (sorry, Ducks) because my next blog post, "How to Win Friends of Color," was taking shape in my mind. In it, I argue that the best way to be a friend to people of color is to believe them when they tell you that something is racist and hurtful or offensive to them. You don't deny their experience, you don't minimize it, and you don't try to intellectualize it away for them. Just believe them, and you will be on your way to having new friends. (Strangely, this isn't as easy as it sounds, even for those who have no idea what racism feels like.) To this end, my argument challenges Guillermo's position that we need to understand Cho's performance only as satire and not as racism, although my blog entry is not really a critique of the performance. I thought it was only fair to tweet to Guillermo because I had linked to his blog.










The next day, Guillermo posts an article on his blog that includes his interview with Margaret Cho. You can read it here, and you should. Although I am not mentioned by name--I've been called worse than "Asian American English professor in Wisconsin"--Guillermo mentions the details of our tweets and some points from "How to Win Friends of Color." You can read the tweets and the blog for yourself. He gets some of things I say wrong, but I'm positive that he didn't mean to misrepresent my position. He does say that I "over-intellectualize" the debate. [What you are reading is responding to what I believe is an earlier, unrevised version of his post and not the one that is now on the blog, which softens the original criticism of "over-intellectualizing."]

As a professor, I'm not crazy about legitimizing the concept of "over-intellectualizing," but I do know what Guillermo means when he uses the word. Academic discourse can be alienating for those with no desire to do what I do for a living. (In retrospect, I would have found another way to say "Power saturates," but I'm pretty comfortable with everything else.) I started this blog on racism because I deeply believe in the need for an accessible, public intellectual resource for those wanting to learn more about the basic nature and dynamics of racism. So it matters a lot to me when I am told that I obfuscate what the dominant society obfuscates so well to its advantage--the meaning of racism. My rhetorical style for my blog is much more informal than what you'll find in my academic writing. As I said in "How to Tell If Something is Racist," antiracism is not an academic enterprise. The stakes are simply too high for anyone to be left out. So, yes, personal reasons first motivated me to write this response because the image and message of this blog mean a lot to me. Because racism means a lot to me. I wouldn't want those reading Guillermo's blog to think that I'm making racism worse, at least not without hearing more of the story.

I was also motivated to respond to extend the conversation about racism. Guillermo and I disagree about the nature of racism and its relationship to free speech. I believe that satire can hit its mark and make those in the "West" that much more contemptuous of North Korean leadership, yes, but I also believe that it matters that it can and will impact other relationships too (please read this powerful commentary on Cho's performance from my friend and award-winning Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang). I don't know how successful I was communicating that in 140-character chunks. In the end, readers will have to decide for themselves whether the performance made white supremacy stronger or whether it had no relationship to white supremacy at all. I am not talking about censoring anybody but contending that it is possible for the Golden Globes to troll North Korean officials and give the Korean American kid in Nashville a funny feeling about going to school the next day. The two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive (what I meant by my egghead "Power saturates" comment). Satire is a grenade, not a laser.

As for free speech, I'm not going to blame that Korean American kid in Nashville for "self-censoring" when she doesn't tell her peers to go screw themselves after they ask her if she eats dog. Or blame her when she buries her face in a book as soon as her history teacher asks the class to share what they know about North Korea. Live to fight another day, little sister. I wish everyone had the same access to free speech that Guillermo believes we do, but marginalized groups just don't. And I'll have to wag a finger at all my book smarts for making me think that. Or maybe just living my life made me think that. At the risk of sounding too academic, allow me to quote from Richard Delgado's and Jean Stefancic's Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, a text I sometimes use with my undergraduates:
[R]ights are almost always cut back when they conflict with the interests of the powerful. For example, hate speech, which targets mainly minorities, gays, lesbians, and other outsiders, is almost always tolerated, while speech that offends the interests of empowered groups finds a ready exception in First Amendment law. Think, for example, of speech that insults a judge or other authority figure, that defames a wealthy and well-regarded person, that disseminates a government secret, or deceptively advertises products, thus cheating a large class of middle-income consumers.
Speaking up for what you believe in can be noble and courageous, no doubt, but doing so is easier for some of us--say, with bylines or tenure--than others. When those without power hold their tongues on an issue, I don't blame them for not being more like me. I blame whatever made them so scared, because whatever that thing is, it just isn't as frightening to the others in the room.


Margaret Cho is hilarious. I admit that I'm sad that she thinks poorly of me because I've always respected how she publicly advocates for those whose voices just aren't heard in our society. For a long time, I showed the first minute of the clip above (from I'm the One that I Want) in my survey of Asian American literature. My students laughed their asses off. It's a great way to introduce the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype to them. (Keep reading, there's only a little bit left. Cho can steal the scene in a minute.) Her bit about being interviewed by a racist TV host is priceless. Because that's how you have to begin teaching about racism to college freshmen--most of my wonderful students are white--who have never really learned about it before in a class setting: you get them to laugh at someone else being racist to drive home the point that the only reason that a perpetual foreigner joke is funny to them is because that stereotype dwells in our consciousness too, like a virus. Like bloody shingles, rising to the surface when you're stressed, to revolt those around you.

But what puts me on the floor are Margaret Cho's impressions of her mother. Because I have an Asian mother too. And my Asian mother is going to worry when she reads this blog because Asian mothers worry about their kids in sweet and funny ways like that. (Sorry, Mom.) She's going to worry that Emil Guillermo disagrees with me and that Margaret Cho does too, at least vicariously. There's nothing I can say or do to get her to stop worrying about the things that I say and write. Believe me, I've tried. In the beginning, I tried to convince her that she's being too sensitive, that whatever she thinks is worrisome is not a big deal. When that didn't work, I reminded her that her situation is not unique. Parents have worried about their kids forever, you see, and they always will. Didn't she know that mothers in ancient Greece worried about their kids too? To pull out all the stops, I turned the tables and said that I was the real victim of worrying: "Do you ever stop to think how I worry about you?" But none of my intellectualizing worked.

So I'm going to make her a deal.

When she tells me that she's worried about me or my family, I will believe her. I don't want to win anymore, I guess because I realize that we aren't competing for the same thing. I'm going to do what I do, and she's going to be worried. And I'll learn to be okay with that reality because, well, we're family, aren't we?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to Win Friends of Color

The title of this blog entry is not a tease. Well, just a little bit. I needed it to be a bit punchy; it should read, "How to Have More Authentic Friendships with People of Color." And it applies to white people and people of color alike. I should know because I didn't have many authentic friendships with people of color for a good portion of my life. This is because the degree to which you internalize white supremacy is the degree to which your relationships suffer, particularly those with people of color. As readers of my blog know by now, the white supremacy that I tend to write about is not the "master race" and "hate group" variety but the vernacular kind that is more difficult to recognize. It is still possible to decolonize your mind of this kind of white supremacy, albeit slowly. I regret that this blog cannot lay out a process that is as step-by-step efficient as this magic spell that tells you how to fall in love with anybody. After all, mixed-race marriages have a divorce rate ten points higher than marriages within race, with the black-and-white rate higher still. Having authentic relationships--friendships, marriages, filial, you name it--with people of color demands a lot of a person, and what it demands can be the most difficult part of yourself to let go.

Recent events give us insight into how difficult it can be to let part of yourself go in order to improve relationships. Like many, I have been closely following the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. As well, I witnessed Margaret Cho satirizing a North Korean official on the Golden Globes. But this entry is not about these texts; it is about what happens when we interpret them and texts like them. Both texts have given rise to vocal online communities explaining why we should not be offended by images of black people as monkeys or by Cho pretending to be a white person pretending to be Asian. We are told that our feelings are off the mark, you see, because we are not French and do not understand the full cultural context of the Charlie Hebdo drawings or because we do not understand the literary trope known as satire. We are told that upholding free speech is in our best interest (until, well, it is not). Trust me: people of color know the relationship between satire and free speech. Only when we are with one another do we freely dare to satirize the racist white people we know, usually by pretending to deny the existence of racism: "Hmm, that doesn't seem racist to me." If you want to have better relationships with people of color, consider this: when they tell you that something is dehumanizing to them, don't sally forth to explain to them why you think they are wrong. It is paternalistic and backward.

Better than anyone I have read, James Baldwin has articulated the insidious nature of white supremacy and its progressive dehumanization of white people. From The Fire Next Time:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling . . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents--or, anyway, mothers--know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
Baldwin is saying that black people gave birth to white people, in more ways than one. He is saying that most black people and other people of color have a better grasp on reality than most white people. (I told you this would be difficult.) This is what I think Ta-Nehisi Coates meant when he said that it is a privilege to be black. "But the burden of whiteness is this," Coates writes, "You can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously." Let me be clear: I do not mean that people of color have a better grasp on their own realities than do white people; I am saying that people of color, on the whole, have a better grasp on reality in general. And youth is no solution when white Millennials may be even "more deluded about their own beliefs" than their parents. Now, is there any better reason than self-interest for wanting friends of color?


The sad reality of the state of our relationships is that people of color can be denied their own version of reality by those who are, in Baldwin's words, slightly mad. When we are told that what we know in our gut to be racism is, in fact, satire, a clash of epistemologies is taking place. One party asserts that its way of knowing is superior to ours, which therefore must be misguided, naive, even disingenuous (the so-called "race card"). As Allan Johnson explains in Privilege, Power, and Difference, members of advantaged groups are socially conditioned to believe that they know what is best for the less powerful, to pronounce what members of marginalized groups ought to be thinking, feeling, or doing. Women should be flattered by catcalls, not offended or threatened; gay people would have no problems if they didn't act gay all the time; poor people would be better off if they didn't spend their money on smartphones or broadband. White people are not always aware of their ventriloquism, but people of color are. Unfortunately, some people of color internalize this dynamic, second-guessing and burying their felt experiences (if you are a person of color who wants more white liberal friends, here is a tip: like what they like). But others are right to be annoyed or angered by the didacticism, by the assumption that we do not have the mental or cultural capacity to understand what is being done for us (civilization, salvation, democracy) or how it is delivered (satire, religion, war). This is no way to make friends.

White people should also know that people of color may want to be around them but may not want to be their friends. In her excellent Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and president of Spelman College, cites Troy Duster, a researcher who studied diverse student groups at UC Berkeley and discovered that groups had different goals for interracial contact.
White students wanted to make friends with African Americans, but they wanted to do so in informal settings, and were less likely to want to participate in special programs, courses, or activities that structure interethnic contacts. African Americans were far more likely to want special programs and activities and were less interested in developing cross-racial friendships and social activities. Both groups wanted interracial experiences but on different terms.
What does it mean that black students prefer not to "do lunch" or to watch a football game with white students, that they aren't as interested in becoming friends? Tatum notes that black students begin to self-segregate (in the cafeteria and elsewhere) at adolescence. One important reason is a shared attitude toward racism. "Not only are Black adolescents encountering racism and reflecting on their identity," Tatum writes, "but their White peers, even when they are not the perpetrators (and sometimes they are), are unprepared to respond in supportive ways." Unsupportive ways include denial, minimization, or changing the subject altogether. So how do I believe that friends can support of people of color?


Making and keeping friends of color requires the suspension and gradual eradication of interpersonal impulses borne of white supremacy. One begins by understanding that white culture is actually white supremacy culture. People of color have always had to know white culture better than white people themselves; past and present, their lives and livelihoods depend on making the white people around them comfortable. Most people of color are socially conditioned to give comfort to white people (smiling, removing hands from pockets, not talking about racism), which is one of the reasons why some white people overreact so dramatically when their assumptions about the relationship are confounded. But what if white people entered into friendships with people of color knowing that the relationship would have to be uncomfortable much of the time? Clearly, divorcing yourself from white supremacy culture generates quite a lot of discomfort, a feeling that arises from committing to the belief that your friends of color have a better grasp on reality than you do. For how do you correct them--much less try to help them--from a position of ignorance? What is left for you to do but to listen without conjuring a response? Listen like you are being read to, for there is no greater intimacy between two people. Listen closely like you are a child again, nervous about a new tale. "The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover," wrote Baldwin. "If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see."

Alas, there is no magic spell for making lifelong friends of color. But there are some best practices, and the most important one may be this: unless people of color regularly come to you for advice about their lives, assume that your first reaction to a story about racism is wrong. Humor me here. You may not always be wrong, but you can practice being wrong less often. You can practice decolonizing your mind of white supremacy by doing what must not feel natural for the privileged: assuming that your interpretation of something is dead wrong. Of looting. Of #AllLivesMatter. Of #IllRideWithYouOf The Interview. Of LBJ and Selma. Of who satire punches. Of French civilization. Of the bad day your friend of color had. Assume that you are, indeed, slightly mad. Know the very real possibility that your first reaction is hegemonic and borne of white supremacy. This is the most difficult part of yourself to let go: your trust in yourself when it comes to anything, even what you don't experience. Too many of my own first reactions are still wrong, to my deep disappointment. I was Charlie, too, riveted to the TV for a few brief moments. But then I remembered this is because I was also Charlie when my father's white business associates asked if I was his "number one son." And I was Charlie when my ninth grade classmate told me that I'd better not be Vietnamese because he hated the Viet Cong. I was never any of these Charlies, all of them fantasies and phantoms of white supremacy. I know that now thanks to my friends of color and writers like James Baldwin, all of whom did nothing less than save my life by teaching me how to live outside the world of myth and, finally, to be a grown-up.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Tell If Something Is Racist

Lately there have been a number of news stories about people who deny that any event, action, or feeling has anything to do with racism. Even the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives addressing a white supremacist organization did not rate as a racist event for most people in his party. This story and others are covered in this helpful article, the kind of end-of-year recap that ought to become an annual tradition, in my opinion, to be called, say, "The Year in Racism Denial." While the article has us facepalming at the gross level of racism from those it profiles, it doesn't actually tell you why something is racist. And we can all imagine that someone in our lives who would also claim that longing for a white Annie or tossing your keys to Barack Obama is not racist in the slightest. My students often ask me to help them process a troubling event from their lives or from the headlines, something that they know in their gut is wrong but whose nature is difficult for them to articulate to others, particularly to those hostile to a perspective other than their own. They want to be able to explain to others why something is racist, in other words, not just depend on the strength of their conviction to win the day. What is the reason why something is racist?

The reason is quite simple, actually. However, understanding it depends on knowledge common to all parties that can't really be counted on in any given situation, even in academia. This is the knowledge of white supremacy. One unfortunate outcome of the Steve Scalise story is the perpetuation of the idea that white supremacy should only be associated with people like David Duke, that it is about hatred and hate crimes, white hoods and swastikas. Those images and events are indeed manifestations of white supremacy, but there are so many more. This is because the essence of white supremacy is not about racial and cultural hatred but about racial and cultural superiority. Hatred is an outcome of white supremacy, to be sure, but one of the second order. Only after one group has been deemed superior does it become possible to hate others for their difference from it. (As this fine documentary put it, "Were Africans enslaved because they were deemed inferior, or were they deemed inferior because they were enslaved?") It is difficult for genuine deniers to see something as racist because they look for only hatred. White supremacy is a dominant ideology that leads us to perceive white people, experiences, and culture as superior, yes, but also as just plain normal or objective. With that definition, here is a rule of thumb for telling if something is racist.

Does it uphold white supremacy?

That's it. This rule depends upon the definition of white supremacy given above, one that recognizes it as a consciousness that goes beyond dominant associations with discrimination and hatred. Of course, the rule works for discriminatory and hateful things such as racist jokes and images. But it also explains why even seemingly positive exchanges can be racist as well. Consider, for instance, "microaggressions," those less overt, everyday instances of racism that nevertheless cumulatively add to the oppression of people of color. A microaggression that usually targets Asians and Latinos is the statement "You speak English very well" when it is spoken by a white person. Many people would not regard it as racist, and when I was a child, I even welcomed it as a compliment. But it is racist. The statement upholds white supremacy because the white speaker must be the de facto judge of whether someone's English is any good. "Where are you really from?" is a related microaggression, with the white person again arrogating the role of cultural gatekeeper. Just imagine how odd, how irrational it would seem for a middle-aged Latina to say these things to a young white woman.

Sometimes my students ask if it is possible for white people to be the victims of racism. My answer is that it depends, but usually not. There is a fair amount of confusion at this point, particularly with white students. I explain that prejudice is not the same thing as racism, that there needs to be a social system in place--a white supremacy system, for example--for that prejudice to have social meaning, to become powerful. This is not to deny that white people cannot be targeted by people of color because of their race. White people can have their feelings hurt by prejudice, and they can be killed because of it. However, these events are not systemic issues; that is, they are not outcomes that happen regularly and predictably over time to white people. Moreover, the social system in place will most likely lead to justice for white people, whereas the same cannot be said for people of color victimized by prejudice. When prejudicial feelings are created and sustained by a system of institutions, they look a lot less like personal idiosyncrasy and a lot more like common sense. Here's a story I tell my students to clarify the concept even further. I completely made up this story several years ago.

Let's suppose that a white man bursts into the reception area of a hospital's emergency room. He is carrying a white boy, six or seven years old, who appears to be bleeding from the head. "Help me," the man pleads with the admitting nurse. "My son has been hurt and needs treatment." The nurse begins to ask for more information when the man interrupts her. "One thing. I don't want any black people treating my son. No black nurses or doctors, do you hear me?"

I ask my students if they have any idea why this man would make such a request. I add that it's fine if they themselves are horrified by the request, but the important thing to consider is whether they know why a person would say such a thing. Slowly, one by one, they raise their hands. "Because he believes that black doctors aren't as intelligent as white doctors." "Because he believes that black doctors are unqualified." "Because black doctors are there only because of affirmative action." I tell my students that even though they themselves would never say such a thing, they know why this man did. They know because his prejudices are a part of our common culture, and that negative stereotypes of black people are a part of their consciousness whether they want them there or not. They are there because a system of institutions put them there: schools that underestimate black students and intellectuals, TV shows and films that typecast black actors, courts and prisons that isolate black bodies from the public eye.

At this point I ask my students what they would think about a black man carrying an injured black boy into the ER. He requests that no white nurses or doctors treat his son. Does anyone know why he would make such a request? Prejudice is there, no doubt. But what else is there to make his prejudice anything more than idiosyncrasy, anything more than the unreasonable request of a disturbed individual? Nothing. There is nothing because there exists no system of institutions circulating stereotypes of white people as unqualified or unintelligent. (This is not to mention that his request would be rejected out of hand because of how difficult it would be to avoid white health professionals in a hospital.) The black man's request makes as much sense as a request that no green-eyed surgeons operate on his son. It has no social meaning, only personal meaning. So the black father's request is prejudiced but not racist. After telling this story for a few years, I learned that it actually happened to a nurse named Tonya Battle. Apparently, hospitals regularly get requests of this nature, even accommodating some of them. Individual white supremacists somehow convinced institutions to follow their lead.

At the end of class, I share a story from my own life, about a time when I witnessed two people of color being racist to one another. Two middle-aged people, a Chinese American man and a South Asian American woman, were yelling at each other in public. The man started by criticizing the way the woman looked. "Look how dark brown your skin is," he said. "So ugly." The woman shot back in a clean Indian English, "I can't even understand what you're saying. You can't even speak proper English!" I ask my students to consider a few questions. Where did each party learn these ways to value a person's humanity, the color of their skin, the fluency of their English? What is the provenance of those insults? Which group is empowered by them? For this man and woman, the objective markers of full humanity were white people, experiences, and culture. Racism is such an efficient system that even people of color willingly maintain it. No white people were present for the argument, but white supremacy was clearly upheld. The rule of thumb applies here, too.

The rule of thumb applies whether racism is intentional or not, interpersonal or institutional. The lack of mainstream media coverage of the NAACP bombing. Standardized tests such as the ACT. Penn's Phi Delta Theta Christmas Card. Selma being LBJ's idea. Don Lemon asking a Muslim American human rights lawyer if he supports ISIS. The list goes on as long as you have the stomach for it. However, the rule probably won't win you many arguments or converts; the same deniers of the reality of racism will turn around and deny the reality of white supremacy. At the same time, the rule is not a tool for bro humor or intellectual games of ethics among bored people. We must call out something as racist once we know it to be so. What good is knowing that something is racist if we do not act on that knowledge? Antiracism is not an academic enterprise. I learned this many years ago, when we began antiracist training in our College of Arts and Sciences. I mentioned to our out-of-state trainers that a number of us professors had extensive knowledge of racism already and that, perhaps, unlike their clients in industry and nonprofits, we "got" racism. One trainer, a black woman who would become a good friend, nodded, allowing me to finish. "David," she said. "When you truly 'get' racism, you will be out there organizing against it."