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."


  1. Is it possible for white people to be the victims of racism? Of course, if they live in a society where they are in the minority. It happens regularly. The question should be "Is it possible for minorities to be the objects of persecution."

  2. Hi
    I come from a multiracial but Muslim country where racial discrimination is the norm towards darker skinned people.I moved to Canada primarily to not suffer the mental and emotional fatigue of enduring the religious and social disparity.Anyway last week, I popped into a doctor's for a consult on my carpal tunnel. I am of Indian origin and my husband, a Caucasian. The Libyan-born doctor,apparently renowned here in Ontario, sat in front of me and took my hand to examine me,quickly glanced at at my husband, and asked- you the husband? I said yes.He looked at me- U have kids?. I thought nothing of his question and answered yes, 2 boys.He grins at me and remark- Hmmm..must be chocolate in colour then.

    And he is from Libya, and a doctor in a country that is very politically correct.
    I was very perturbed with his comment but not my husband though ( I suppose cos he has never ever been color discriminated-infact in Asia he was 'revered' because he was 'white'. He feels I am making a mountain out of a molehill.
    I feel very violated.I dont know why.perhaps because he too is an immigrant and yet he felt he could make that remark because I am darker skinned?

    1. The important thing to remember here is that the doctor's remark offended you. You aren't lying about being offended; you felt it immediately and shouldn't apologize for it. The doctor was surprised by the fact that two people of different races could be married and have children. This is both an individual and social problem--he wouldn't have this attitude if such a partnership were not remarkable in some societies. But his remark also demonstrates how clumsy (and offensive) seemingly well-intentioned people can be when it comes to having a conversation about race. And make no mistake, that was the conversation he initiated by talking about skin color--not culture, not ethnicity. Not a hateful remark by any means, but inappropriate and one that reinforces the idea that mixed-race children are unusual and fair game for interpretation by strangers.

  3. I believe the white man with the white boy could've have said what he said due to fear. He could've have been a descendant of a slave holder and fear of revenge could have been instilled in him. The hurt is still there.

    1. The point of the example was to illustrate how all of us are socialized to have anti-black stereotypes in our consciousness whether we want them or not. A system put them in our heads. But there are no stereotypes of white inadequacy or lack of intelligence circulated by institutions in our society. Remember that institutions do not have to have overtly discriminatory policies as they could before 1968; their policies simply make it more difficult to have black people in classrooms, on medical staffs, or even playing doctors on TV. Those white people ridiculed for their lack of intelligence are targeted usually because of stereotypes of their class status (e.g. poor) or region (e.g. southern US) and not stereotypes of their whiteness alone.

    2. I think your hospital example is unfair. Because in the part when you put a black man with a black child in the hospital, you make up the results and their explanation to fit your narrative. Is your story typical of reality, or only of your imagination? I think in this way you are making an unsubstantiated claim: "white supremacy", and reinforce it by acting as if it is true. and it is unfair towards us the readers.

      If you were to tell the story, but have police instead of hospital in it, it is very easy to imagine the black man having a fear of cops. Events in the media teach us that many blacks have prejudices against cops, which are part of our common culture, and that negative stereotypes of cops people are a part of the person's consciousness whether they want them there or not.

      I think your point in this tale is, that a white man fearing blacks is something you can think of, but a black man fearing whites is not. I also think that in both cases, whether that thoughts appears or not is your doing. you make your students think about reasons for a white to fear blacks, and then you dismiss, gloss over or just skip the part where they come up with reasons for blacks to fear whites.

      At which point you make up whatever cause you want for the different scenarios, ignoring that both of them are an artifact of your own doing.