Category Archives: 101 Series

Racism 101: This Shit Doesn’t Go in Reverse

There are multiple misguided, and straight up wrong, ways white folks decide to interpret racism. Racism can be best understood in this way: it is a current and historical system of power relations, meaning one race has social, political, and economic power over another. This system exists in institutions, social divisions, access to opportunity, lived experience, and the actions/thoughts of individuals. Simple dictionary definitions (written by white folks) are exactly that: simple, and therefore insufficient. Racism is not judging any person based on their race, it is one race having dominance over another and limiting social opportunities of members of the dominated race by classifying them as inferior. If white folks question which race has maintained dominance in the US, we only need to consider how many white male presidents we have had, how many white male Supreme Court justices we have had, how the constitution was written by white men at the exclusion of people and women of color, and how federal and state legislation continues to work to our benefit. The legacy lives on, even if the historical moment is “over.”

So let’s think about this contradiction in terms called “reverse racism.” There have been no laws segregating or exiling white folks, no laws against white men marrying white women, no laws preventing white men from voting (preventing white women from voting was sexism, not racism), no laws that expressly state white folks cannot become citizens, no laws banning the social and cultural histories of white folks in school, no laws that have forcibly removed us from our land (which was never ours to begin with), no laws supporting discrimination against white folks on the basis that they are less than human, and the list of US laws white folks have never been governed by could go on and on.  What does this legal privilege say about how accurate our ideas are about experiencing racism? It says they are not accurate at all. Ever. White power is not just a bunch of white hoods and burning crosses, it is the power we have in government, law, housing, education, employment, policing, social status, citizenship status, and our ability to define race in ways that have uplifted our whiteness. Racism is not just a few insulting words or conflict between individuals, it is an inescapable reality of oppression that white folks never experience.

A professor of color once explained to one of our classes that the word “cracker” came from the slave master cracking his whip in the fields, which meant that even if a slave master was called a “cracker” he was still in a position of power as a slave master.  Today this remains true, although the circumstances have changed—even when white folks are called this word, we are not stripped of our long-held power and privilege as white people. If white folks think racism can be reversed, then we have to think about what is being reversed: we would have to reverse history, colonialism, systems of oppression, every racial theory ever published, every racial law ever passed, and a whole host of social, political, and geographic events. To get a basic handle on what this would look like, here is some historical satire written by one of the mods several months ago. The point is to understand that this never actually happened.

Five hundred years ago colonialism emerged in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa, resulting in the invasion, conquering, raping, and enslavement of Europeans. The Mexica (the Aztecs) brought their guns, canons, blades, and Indigenous cosmologies to dominate and convert the European “natives,” and to extract their human labor and natural resources for capital gain.  All East coast American Indian tribes of what is currently called the US expelled their “radicals” to begin colonies in England, decimating entire villages with their imported diseases as they “discovered” the territory of this “new world” before they displaced and/or massacred most of the remaining population. Indigenous Africans scouted for Spaniards to work their plantations as chattel slaves while trading them as property, raping Spanish women to produce more bodies to sell, earning the name “cracker” for their ruthless whip cracking in the fields. At the same time, an entire ideological justification, which produced volumes of hateful literature and doctrines of invented science, was developed in order to prove the inhumanity of the colonized and the racial superiority of the colonizer. For Europeans and any other white “natives” from the “Global North,” their fate would include genocide and the theft of land, generations of legal and social segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, forced sterilization, political repression, continued poverty and state abandonment, increased subjection to violence and hate crimes, unpunished homicides committed by law enforcement, employment discrimination, cultural genocide, higher mortality rates, education almost entirely representative of colonizing cultures, and so much more. Essentially, that is what “reversing” racism would mean.

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Affirmative Action 101: Critical Questions

Sometimes critical questions yield faster results than absorbing information, and they’re always good to ask no matter what subject is being considered or read about.  They are especially important when white folks create and/or confront myths about affirmative action.  White arguments against affirmative action tend to share the same basic formula and they follow a noticeable pattern, so many of the most common ones (although there are more) have been reproduced below in quotes.  Some of them are paraphrased from conservative editorials/articles, and some of them are from actual conversations with white folks. This shit is seriously useful, whether you’re asking these questions of yourself or others.

“A person of color got this job because of affirmative action and I’m more qualified than they are.”

—How do you know that?

  • It’s straight up racist for white folks to assume we are, as a fact, inherently more “qualified” than PoC, or to assume affirmative action gets them hired over well-deserving white folks simply because they aren’t white.  This is not what affirmative action does.  It removes racial barriers that have been in place for centuries in order to create access to institutions and opportunities that have long been reserved for whites.  Whites cannot be disenfranchised when they own the franchise. Furthermore, think of it this way: how many job applicants personally know fellow job applicants, let alone the credentials of fellow job applicants?

“People should only get hired based on achievement, not based on race.”

—Why do you assume someone was hired simply based on their race?  Why couldn’t a person of color also be hired based on their achievement?

  • Again, it’s straight up racist to assume PoC can’t get hired based on achievement, because this thinking suggests only whites achieve and PoC do not. Racism in this particular context of employment involves histories of prevented access, discrimination, and segregation that benefited whites as much as it oppressed and disadvantaged PoC. We white folks have been privileged to enjoy access to institutions based on our race for centuries, and affirmative action seeks to disrupt this system.

“A student of color who performs at a lower standard shouldn’t be accepted to a university over a white student who got better grades.”

—What “standard” are you using as a point of reference, and why should grades or “performance” be the guiding criteria for the opportunity of education? Why is the white student the only one that deserves to learn?

  • Even if whites make the assumption that all students of color have “bad” grades, their grades say nothing about their potential talent as university students.  Even if whites make the assumption that all white students have “good” grades, their grades say nothing about their potential talent either.  Depending on the high school a white student attends, their grades could have everything to do with being skilled at memorization and test-taking, or the opportunity to take SAT courses that are only available to the privileged few.  “Bad” grades can be attributed to everything from missed attendance due to caring for family, to homelessness, to lack of transportation, to violence, and a whole host of other social issues that white privilege shields from the majority of white folks.  For white students, it is not a matter of having an excess of intellect; for students of color, it is not a matter of failing to possess intellect.

“Affirmative action allows ‘unprepared minorities’ into positions where they may not succeed.”

—Doesn’t this argument presuppose that all “minorities” are “unprepared” and doomed to failure? Are you suggesting white folks are always prepared and never fail?

  • Never should we ever as white folks sit back and decide what PoC are or aren’t capable of. This is racist bullshit. We have designed and upheld systems of oppression in employment and education by excluding PoC for centuries, and affirmative action provides the intervention to create change in these systems. When affirmative action policies attempt to prevent racism in hiring and admission processes, they should give fully prepared applicants of color a chance that did not previously exist.  The focus here should be on the chance, not the applicant.  These policies are about changing the system, not about creating preferences.

“It is unfair to allow anyone to get special treatment because of their race.”

—Like the special treatment white people have been giving themselves for centuries?

  • This question should answer itself. But if that doesn’t satisfy, then it should be understood that a few laws passing that make discrimination illegal doesn’t come even remotely close to “special treatment.”
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White Privilege 101: Starting with the Knapsack

This is a reproduction of Peggy McIntosh’s list of examples of white privilege that was originally published in her 1988 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which you can read fully by clicking the title.  Although it isn’t a good place to stop, seeing as so much critical race theory has been done since then, it is a good place to start in terms of thinking about instances where white privilege is experienced but not necessarily understood in that way.  It’s basic and doesn’t get into more complicated details, but it still has relevance to white privilege in the contemporary moment—that’s why it’s part of the “101” series.

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  12. I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
  22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
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Race 101: Unpacking “Race is a Social Construction”

If you have ever taken a course in the discipline of Ethnic Studies, or communicate with people who just know this shit, this is the most basic fundamental you will learn.  So what does this mean?

  • Race is not biological, and there is no scientific evidence to support this idea.  Syracuse University created a US version of an exhibition investigating the alleged connections between race and biology, and no connections were found.  Skin color is only genetically significant in terms of melanin, migration patterns, and geography.  There are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than there are genetic differences between ethnic groups.  The excerpt below was taken from one of the exhibition panels:

    “Some of our physical differences give the impression that it is possible to divide us into races. But when these physical characteristics are subjected to detailed study, that cannot be concluded at all. Instead it becomes obvious that our physical diversity reflects continuous changes from one extreme to the other of the continents. To place any boundaries within this continuous diversity would be, therefore, completely arbitrary. Human diversity is in fact infinitely more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it. This is why attempts to make racial classifications don’t yield any coherent results; there is nothing scientific about “races”. The science of genetics teaches us that it is impossible to attribute physical resemblance to genetic resemblance.” [bold and italics added]

    There is some seriously problematic shit about that exhibition, and that website, in terms of how the ideas are presented and what doesn’t get addressed… which leads us to another bullet point.

  • This quote uses a seemingly neutral word that erases huge amounts of historical specifics: “… more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it.”  By “we” the author meant elite white European men during the Age of “Enlightenment.”  In 1735, Charles Linnaeus published The General System of Nature in which bogus ideas of racial hierarchies began to be theorized and formed.  By then Europeans and friends, who had colonized most of the planet, needed a justification for killing, raping, conquering, enslaving, and displacing Indigenous peoples.  The concepts of race, both the invented superiority of white Europeans and the invented inferiority of Indigenous non-white ‘others,’ were created to make such a justification possible.
  • These hundreds of years of history lead to these ideas being concretely rooted in institutional and social practices in the present day US (since we’re writing from the US, these are the race relations being discussed).  Some examples include, but are not limited to: genocide, slavery, segregation, boarding schools that “civilized” American Indian “savages,” Japanese internment camps, higher rates of imprisonment, lack of access to education/housing/healthcare for POC, and much more.  What these practices reveal is this: while race is an invention, an illusion, and something that cannot be scientifically proven, it is also a social fact.  It is something that has a function, something that is taught, learned, and enforced.  It is experienced and it is present.  It is, to this day, still used with its original intention of uplifting whiteness and oppressing POC.
  • Constructions of race have material consequences.  No one can biologically prove that white skin is superior to different skin colors, but this is how whiteness has been constructed socially—meaning white folks created this nonsense and we perpetuate it, which is reflected in all of the laws and movements that had to pass/occur in order for POC to gain some access to institutions that were exclusively reserved for white folks.  That is why all white folks and folks with skin privilege (moderators of this blog included) still benefit from this legacy of race; we still reap the rewards and consequences of slavery even if we don’t own slaves in the current moment in time.  Safety and privilege for white folks are the consequences of white supremacy, just as racism and oppression are the consequences of white supremacy for POC.  The meanings that are assigned to race are fiction, the social experiences of race and corresponding advantages or disadvantages are fact.
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