“Dr. Bill” Johnson II on institutionalized racism, and what it is—and isn’t—to be racist.
Now, I don’t see race … People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums … When I say I don’t see race, I mean I don’t see Black people … but I can spot a Mexican at a hundred paces. —Stephen Colbert
Despite an international effort to reduce racial subjugation, racism has prevailed as one of the most subtle, but devastating, social problems in the modern era. There is also reason to believe that the manifestation of racism over recent years has changed. Specifically, research on racism has been dominated by recognition of the reduced acceptability of blatant expressions of racial prejudice and the increasing prevalence of more subtle expressions of racially prejudiced attitudes.
Within this new form of oppression, an individual might engage in discriminatory behavior while at the same time denying that race played a role in his/her decision. For example, acknowledging that most head coaches in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Football ranks are white, while rejecting the notion that race has an impact on the recruitment of qualified head coaches or mentoring of assistant coaches.
Consider this comment:
The truth is Bill, I’m not racist, I mean I don’t have a racist bone in my body, but I have serious issues with the Indian (Asian) culture as a whole. Like standing so close, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been in close proximity to them and they stand so close to you, but then I realize that they come from a country where there are literally millions of them (occupying relatively small areas) and so they’re use to standing so close to each other, but it bothers me.
These were the comments of a colleague (and close friend) of mine as we discussed race relations within Australia. Prior to his words I was explaining my experience in Australia and how I felt on numerous occasions that I experienced racial marginalization both inside and outside of work. My colleague initially acknowledged that he felt there is a racist undertone within Australian society. However, as the conversation shifted from an abstract conversation about racism, to discussing how our individual behavior perpetuates racial subjugation, my friend then began to critique individuals of Indian descent, generalizing from his personal experience.
My response? I asked, “Are you sure you don’t have any racist bones?” After staring at the ground for a long moment he walked away.
However, the conversation lingered in my mind the remainder of the day, so much that I felt compelled to share my experience with close friends and even family members. So affected was I by the incident that I became emotional while simply discussing it that finally, when I had talked with everyone willing to pick up their phone, I went home and had a good cry. Why did the conversation have such a potent effect on me? First and foremost I felt guilt because I was not stronger in my confrontation with my friend, that I was not more overt in confronting his oppressive statements. Secondly, I felt disappointed in my friend for echoing words of ethnocultural subjugation. Third, I was also concerned that I had fractured our friendship by choosing the ‘road of high resistance’ as opposed to promoting his internalized racism. Every now and then I think of the totality of racial oppression systemically as well as my won daily experiences with it, and feel a sense of hopelessness as I doubt whether I have the strength to endure. Thankfully, I have experienced this enough to know that it only lasts the night.
In the first paragraph of this paper I quote the words of my colleague, which began with “I’m not racist.” It’s as if using those words, seemingly as a disclaimer, provides a license to express whatever racist jargon comes to mind. This is not the first time I have been been witness to a colleague or friend denying being racist while in the same breath disclosing highly offensive stereotypes. As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a school of thought that says if you begin your sentence by denying possessing bigoted thoughts, then you are free to express any racist ideas you feel without fear of being confronted. Just so we’re clear, saying that you aren’t racist does not make it true. And it certainly does not inoculate you from having your ideas confronted.
I believe that our reluctance to acknowledge internalized beliefs is partly due to the lack of an understanding of the definition of racism. When we think of a racist person the image of a skin head or Klansman might come to mind. Before exploring what it means to be racist, I want to be clear about what it does not mean (necessarily).
Does not necessarily mean that you ‘hate’ anyone.
Does not necessarily mean that you promote the values of neo-Nazi or skin head groups.
Does not necessarily mean that you are a bad person.
Does not necessarily mean that you are unkind, or unloving.
Does not necessarily mean that you are evil, sociopathic or otherwise pathological.
Does not necessarily mean that you won’t have dinner with diverse ethnocultural groups.
Does not necessarily mean that you don’t have a “best friend” or “close friend” of a different racial/ethnic background than yours.
Does not necessarily mean that you haven’t (or won’t) date someone from a different racial/ethnic background than yours.
Does not necessarily mean that you dislike President Obama; likewise, disliking our current President does not necessarily mean that you possess negative racial attitudes.
Does not necessarily mean you are in favor of hate crimes, or segregation or any blatant racial oppression.
In other words, good, loving, caring people may also perpetuate racial subjugation; also, such behavior does not have to be intentional in order to be oppressive.
In order to begin confronting internalized racist attitudes, understanding racism is an excellent beginning place. Let’s look at a few descriptions of what it means to be racist.
Systematically speaking, it means one is a product of a society which gives differential privilege based on skin color. In the Australian (and some would state international as a whole) context that skin color is white. It also means that as a function of living in such a society one has been subjected to an abundance of information reinforcing the superiority of white people.
One author described micro racism as any policy, belief, attitude, action or inaction, which subordinates individuals or groups based on their race.
Taken together these definitions provide a useful starting point in a dialogue about the way racism manifests in every day interactions.
Don’t just take my word for it. I recommend that you explore these ideas for yourself. My own process of growth in this area involved reading: sitting in isolation while reading literature by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Helen Neville, Derrick Bell, Patricia Collins, Peggy McIntosh, Mark Anthony Neal, Beverly Green, Allen Johnson, Kevin Powell, and numerous others who have written extensively about issues of power and privilege.
I would also suggest engaging in discussions with those around you about race and racism. It may not be enough to restrict your talking partners to your inner circle especially if it is relatively homogeneous. In this case it may be helpful to extend your dialogue to include diverse ethnocultural groups. Those same differences may serve as the catalyst or conduit through which authentic relationships are formed. Additionally, you may find that just as your differences can serve to deepen intercultural intimacy.
Keep in mind that this is a journey and by its nature does not have an endpoint. There is always more to understand about racism; I have spent decades trying to understand and confront racial oppression in others as well as within myself, yet blind spots remain. I believe the difficulty is remaining open to your own oppressive behavior when being confronted, and working to make changes which will reduce negative racial attitudes. I try to view these new blind spots as opportunities for additional growth and learning.
Read more On Race.
Image credit: brokentrinkets/Flickr