What is “Racism”?

I’m so grateful to welcome Dr. Laura Morlock to Any Good Thing today. Laura holds a PhD in Religious Studies: Religious Diversity in North America from the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada). Based in the Greater Toronto Area you can find her there writing about fabrics and Supreme Court decisions, permanently urging her children to dress warmer, and consuming unnatural amounts of tea.

Hello fellow white people. I’m talking to you.

This message isn’t for Black people, Indigenous people, or people of colour. I’m not here to speak for you or to you, because you don’t need me to, and there’s nothing I can tell you from years of study and analysis that you didn’t already know as a small child from lived experience. Other than that I see you, and I’m sorry.

Okay, so, white people. Like me you’re probably finding all your social media feeds full of commentary on “race” this last while. I’ve been watching and listening to the conversations, and, from what I’ve seen, I think we need to go back a bit to a more basic question: what is racism?

You might be like, “okaaaay Laura, we learned this in Kindergarten, I think we’ve got this.” But you know what? I don’t think we do. I think there’s a very large gap between what most people think “racism” means, and what it actually is. And it’s simply not possible to address or fix a problem if you’re looking in the wrong place.

Before we go there, let’s talk about who I’m writing to. If you are part of any avowed white supremacist organization, this isn’t for you. If you don’t belong to any organizations, but you do think that the white race is just generally “better” than other races or cultures, then this isn’t for you. If you think that interracial relationships are wrong, this isn’t for you.

On the flip side, if people tend to see you as “white,” but you belong to different culture or heritage, this isn’t for you either. We’re going to talk more about this in a moment, but it’s important to remember that a lot of people others assume are “white” are in fact Indigenous, Arab, Persian, Turkish, Latinx, etc. Their identities are complicated, experiencing both the advantages of being assumed white and the prejudice against their communities, often being told they’re not “enough” of or “really” either. I’m not going to talk about that today, but you can read a great reflection on the experience from someone living it.

I’m talking to people, like me, who would describe ourselves as “white” and who would check the “yes” box when asked if they believe in racial equality. You know who you are. Remember Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if …?” Well, this is sort of like that game (and no, I’m not saying all white people are rednecks, it’s just a convenient pop culture reference).

You might be white if you learned about “race issues” in school.

You might be white if your parents never had “the talk” with you.

You might be white if you think “the talk” refers to sex.

(Here is a short helpful video on what “the talk” actually is.)

You might be white if you think “racism” or “being racist” means you think your race is better than anyone else’s.

That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a friend that went something like this. He’s a gregarious guy who works with youth. He posted on social media looking for a sombrero. At this point I should note that he is white, and that he lives in a Canadian 95% white community with a tiny Latinx community perhaps in the single digits. (White) people enthusiastically responded, some also offering ponchos and moustaches. I didn’t know what he was planning to do with these items, but I thought it pretty safe to assume it was going to be him publicly dressing up, probably for a youth event.

Let me say right here that this person is a wonderful human. He works hard to be caring, compassionate, and respectful to everyone he meets. His entire life is devoted to helping youth for very little appreciation or compensation. I’ve always known him to listen to critique and be willing to consider another’s perspective. So I figured he, like many people, probably just didn’t know that his plan was harmful. And like most Canadians, is removed from the lived realities of Latinx people and those conversations in the United States. (I’m not going to get into culture appropriation, stereotypes, or brown face, but here is a good explanation of why this costume in particular is hurtful.)

So I reached out to him. He was open to listening but didn’t agree that it would be a problem. I referred to a recent scenario I’d seen at a local public event, where a group of white people were dressed up in sombreros, moustaches, and ponchos to go with their “Mexican” booth theme, and commented that I’d been shocked that something so overtly racist was still considered okay in our generally liberal progressive city.

His reply encapsulates what I believe is the very core of our issues around race today. He said, “I’m surprised you would use the word ‘racist.’ Do you really think that this person actively believes that his race is superior to anyone else’s?”

No. I don’t. In fact, I believe that if I asked him that question he would be shocked, perhaps offended, and vehemently denounce that ideology. In fact, I think that’s true of most white people in North America.

Full points for that. You absolutely should vehemently denounce the idea that the white race is the superior race. I think we can all agree on that (and if you don’t agree on that, see earlier point about who this conversation is for).

But believing the white race is the superior race is only a tiny corner of what this big thing we call “racism” is. And as long as the majority of white people believe that A: not being racist is enough, and B: “not being racist” means not believing in this horrific ideology, then nothing can change.

Because “racism” is so, so, so much more. How so? Let’s back up even further.

What is race?

Essentially, race is something we, as a society, made up. Academics call this a “social construct.” But this does not mean that race isn’t very, very real. Take another example – money. We’ve all agreed as a society to pretend that this imaginary thing, a “dollar,” has value. Most of our economy’s dollars don’t even exist in the real world, only digitally. We can’t eat them, they don’t keep us warm, and yet I don’t have to tell you that dollars have very real effects in our everyday lives.

“Race” is sort of like that. Essentially, many years ago white people invented the idea to justify the way of life they were building. You can’t really be okay with stealing people from their homes and enslaving them, or taking their homes and murdering them, or forcing them to give up everything they hold dear to adopt your way of life if you see them as “the same” or “as good” as you. So began the pseudo-scientific study of “race” by European thinkers and governments trying to explain the world they were increasingly encountering. To be clear, it’s not that people didn’t know people had different skin colours before this, or that people didn’t ever treat those they considered “others” badly. It’s just that what made you an outsider was based on other things. The Bible, for example, talks a lot about foreigners and strangers, and there is lots of discussion of hospitality and slavery, but our ideas about race are just not there — although they’ve been read into the Bible plenty. (If you’re interested in learning more about ethnic diversity and/or Black people in the Bible, this is a good place to start.)

This does not mean that before the invention of our modern idea of “race” everything was hunky dory. Yeah, no. We humans are really good at finding ways to divide ourselves. But it does mean that the idea of race was invented, and it was invented for a purpose. This is why the terms currently en vogue are “racialized” and “minoritized” rather than “race” or “minority,” because it acknowledges people at the centre, to whom something has been done. That person is a racialized individual, not a race. (Of course, terms change, and there are always disputes about best practices.)

So what was that purpose? Why invent a complex racial hierarchy? The purpose, unambiguously, was to give advantages to the white people who invented it and were in power, and to disadvantage everyone else, but to varying degrees within the hierarchy of the races (yup – that was a real thing with laws to support it and everything). This sounds extreme, I know, but this is not a matter of opinion, this is legit historical fact. It’s not disputed (well, okay, everything is disputed, but this is in the same camp as we live on a round planet and we did land on the moon, so take it as you will). Are you familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem The White Man’s Burden?

Yeah.

That.

Now, again, I think most of you will agree that colonizing other people’s countries, taking their precious items for our museums, enslaving them, stealing their resources, starving them, raping them, and stealing their children, are horrible things to do and you wouldn’t be in favour of it, right? (I certainly hope so, anyway.)

But, because most white people think that racism is just individually consciously believing you’re better than other people because of your skin colour, or that colonialism ended with a colonial nations’ independence, we mostly don’t see that the whole invent-race-so-that-the-white-people-who-invented-it-keep-receiving-the-benefits switch was never turned off. It’s not hard to understand if you step back for a moment and look at it – every corner of our society was built on the groundwork of a time when those ideas were absolutely mainstream and commonplace. Our education system, our medical system, our housing systems, our cities and neighbourhoods, our religious institutions, our literature, our ideas about what makes someone or something “beautiful,” what social cues we look for to gauge whether another person is smart, likeable, safe (we decide this unconsciously within seconds) – the list goes on and we could be here all day talking about the intricate ways these ideas around race were intrinsically woven into every fibre of our society. If you plant a garden on a bed of weeds, those same weeds will re-emerge every dang year unless you intentionally do something to root them out – no matter how many beautiful flowers you plant in that bed.

So what does racism actually look like, beyond the white hoods, and why do people keep saying that just being “not racist” isn’t enough? There are literally libraries of books written on this and I highly recommend you check some out (I’ve included some below), but let’s break down some basics right here.

“I don’t see colour.”

But Laura, didn’t you just say race is a social construct? Wouldn’t not seeing race be a way to push back against that?

I see where you’re coming from, and I get why trying to see a person’s humanity first and bypass their skin colour feels like it helps to fight racism. And in a perfect world it would. But, I’m sorry to say, the truth is the opposite. “Not seeing colour” is a privilege of not being racialized – of being white, and choosing to actively fight racism as a white person means using the privileges you’re given as that same white person to tear down and rebuild all those thousand corners of systems that disadvantage BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). In other words, BIPOC individuals don’t have the option of not seeing colour. Every corner of this society we live in is literally designed (see earlier discussion) to remind them of the amount of melanin in their skin.

A scholar/activist friend put it well, “In this society, men don’t have gender, straight people don’t have sexual orientation, and white people don’t have race.” Of course he didn’t mean this literally, he meant that people in those groups get the privilege of not having to think every day about how that part of their identity shapes their whole lives, or how other people will treat them because of it. Does being white, straight, or a man shape the life you live? Uhm. Yeah. A lot. But mostly in ways you’re probably unaware of, unless someone or something forced you to. White kids learn about the effects of race in school. BIPOC kids learn about it before they can give it words. But don’t take my word for it.But don’t take my word for it.

This leads well into the next part of this discussion – the hot button white privilege.

White Privilege

Is it real? Does it exist? Well, yes. See earlier discussion about the history of the idea of race. Again, literally designed to advantage white people. Also, never “turned off.” Although what this looks like has shifted a lot in the last century.

So what is white privilege? How do you experience it in your everyday life? Here are just a few ways:

  • You don’t have to specifically seek out media or toys that look like you or your kids.
  • You don’t notice that everyone, or almost everyone, in that promo picture/that ad/on that panel/in that show is white. Think of the Netflix hit reality show Selling Sunset – ever notice that every person on that show, except for one new character in Season 2 who is biracial, is white? In LA? This is not the exception.
  • Society treats you like an individual, not a group. If a white man murders a group of people he is a psychopath. If an Arab Muslim man does this then he’s a terrorist and part of “Islamic Terrorism.” If a white man abuses his wife he is a jerk and should be arrested. If a Black man abuses his wife then it becomes part of the discussion on “angry Black men” and “the problems in Black families.”
  • Women don’t clutch their purses when you walk by.
  • No police officer has ever asked you what you’re doing here while walking through your own neighbourhood, or asked you, “Is this car stolen?” in a standard traffic stop.
  • You’re not followed every time you’re in a retail store.
  • You’ve never wondered if your race is the reason you were hired for a job you worked so hard to earn.
  • Similarly, you’ve never felt like you were the token X in a photo, on a panel, in a group, at a school.
  • No one has ever implied (or said straight out) that your race is why you got a job, into the school, onto the panel.
  • No one has ever included your race in “complimenting” you or your children.
  • When you’ve worn your hair its natural way, you’ve never been asked if your style is “political.”
  • You’ve never been taught by a parent, a teacher, a mentor, how to come across “less threatening” in public.
  • You don’t have to culturally commute between your home/family and the world beyond your front door. Change your clothes, change your hair, or change how you speak so that you become “more professional/acceptable/nonthreatening.”

Now please listen. This part is really important.

  • White privilege does not mean that your life hasn’t been hard.
  • White privilege does not mean that you haven’t experienced prejudice or bigotry.
  • White privilege does not mean that you haven’t experienced poverty or abuse.
  • White privilege does not mean that you want to have that privilege.

White privilege means that your race is not part of what makes your life harder.

White privilege simply means that because all of these systems of the world around us (schools, entertainment, fashion, law, etc.) were literally built to benefit us, they, well, benefit us. You cannot be white in North America and not have benefited from being white. Even if you really, really want to. There are all kinds of clinical studies that confirm this.

Okay, think of it like this. Imagine your father was a mega drug lord. You have more money than you could spend in ten lifetimes. Your father dotes on you. Sends you to the best schools, buys you dream-worthy toys, takes you on magical vacations. You’re a good person. You have a special place in your heart for impoverished people and actively work to help them, donating millions of dollars to food banks and paying for kids to go to school. Then you learn that your father’s money – all the money you’ve ever used for your own pleasures, your own education, and your own good causes — came through narcotic crises within and violent atrocities against the very people you’ve worked so hard to support. You’re horrified. You say, “But I don’t use drugs! And I don’t want to be a drug trafficker! I’m not part of that world!” You mean this. You’re heartbroken. You’ve seen the damage these drugs do in the communities you care so much about.

But you still benefited from your father’s drug money.

The question isn’t whether or not we, as white people, benefit in this system. We do. The question is what then do we do about it once we become aware?

Why Being “Not Racist” Isn’t Enough (or a Real Thing)

The answer to this is pretty simple, and has two parts.

#1: Because just not being something isn’t enough to stop that something from continuing. If white people stopped at “not purchasing enslaved people” and did nothing to end the system of slavery, simply put slavery could not have ended. If men had only believed that women should have the right to vote, but the men in government never voted for change, women would not have gained the right to vote.

This does not mean that enslaved/formerly enslaved people or women were not the driving engine behind these changes. It means that it’s not enough for those who benefit from unjust systems just to think they’re bad. You have to do something about it or it can’t change – again, because the system was literally designed to be that way.

#2: I say this with as much love, compassion, and gentleness as I can: if you think you’re not racist then you are wrong.

But how can I say that if I don’t even know you? Because you’re a person in our world. I can also say that I know you’ve been hurt in your life. I know you’ve loved in your life. I know you’ve been mean to somebody at some point. I know you’ve heard the words, “it, and, tree.” I’m not a magician, I know this because you’re alive in our world, and these things are so common and so universal and so perniciously woven into who we are we can’t just not experience them. I will be the first to raise my hand and fully acknowledge that I, Laura, having spent most of my life trying to learn about these issues and act for change, even going so far as to earn a PhD in diversity, am racist. Am I proud of this? No. Do I want to keep being racist? Of course not. But to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s possible to ever truly be completely, 100% free of all internal racism. Is it ever possible to find, recognize, and unlearn every single super subtle racist message you’ve ever been taught? I don’t know. But I do know I haven’t done it. And after all of these years in this line of work I’ve never met someone who has.

Again, remember that racism isn’t just white hoods or segregated schools. It’s benefitting from, and as a result unconsciously absorbing, all the millions of ways our society is built to make “white” the ideal of beauty (fashion), familiarity (media), intelligence (European-based education systems), and safety (think what villains look like – Ursula, Cruella, and Jafar wear black for a reason).

So What Do I Do?

There are no easy answers to this question. As a white person in anti-racism spaces your presence is … complicated.

I do believe there are two pivotal roles:

#1: This is not about you. Don’t make it about you.

#2: Listen first, listen most, and never stop listening.

Hear me on this. I promise that as a white person you cannot know what it’s like to be a BIPOC person in our society. You may be very close to people who are. You may be married to someone who is. You may have children who are. Your best friend in the whole world may be.

If that’s the case, you probably have greater awareness than the average bear.

But it’s still not the same.

Put in a different light, my spouse is an ardent male ally. His ears, eyes, and heart are open, he catches things, he uses his position as a man to call out sexism, he mentors young men to be allies, he empowers our daughters, and he is my full partner. But he has always been a man in our society. And there are things that happen that he misses. More than once I’ve had to take him by the hand, turn his chin, and metaphorically say, “Look over there! Look what happened. That was sexist. That was so upsetting and I’m so hurt by that.” And he didn’t see it until I told him.

Fortunately, there are all kinds of things you can do to use that very white privilege we just discussed to actually be anti-racist.

  • Instead of striving to “not see colour,” strive to see how race shapes lives.
  • What do you do when someone makes a racist joke or comment?
  • Use your voice so that it’s not just left to the BIPOC people at work/in your parents’ group/at church to call attention to things that aren’t right.
  • Teach your white children about how race affects them, their friends, and every child in your country.
  • If you’re at a protest or vigil, put your white body close to a BIPOC person (but not in a creepy way) because your white privilege will help keep them safe.
  • If you witness a racist encounter, calmly make your presence known and film it. Do not escalate the situation because this makes it more dangerous for BIPOC people. Do not leave the racialized person alone (unless they want you to).
  • Teach your white children that racialized children are statistically disciplined more often and more harshly than white children. Teach them that if they see this to say, “It wasn’t just so-and-so. More kids were part of this.” Teach them to go with a racialized child when they’re called in for discipline. Like your presence at the vigil or with public racist events, their presence is likely to mitigate the harshness of the other child’s discipline.
  • Teach your white children the difference between being a supportive ally and being a white saviour.
  • Listen to their thoughts and feelings if they share them, but don’t ask your racialized friends to explain things to you. There are literally thousands of books, articles, blogs, documentaries, created for this purpose for you by racialized people. GTS (Google That Sh…tuff)
  • Remember that when you get overwhelmed, hurt, or tired from all of this, you can opt out. BIPOC never can. This does not mean self-care isn’t important. In fact, it’s essential to anti-racism work. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Keep your eyes open – always ask yourself, “who’s in the room?” The board room, the teacher’s lounge, the all office meeting. How many BIPOC people are present? How many decision makers in the room are BIPOC? Are they speaking up? How are other people responding to their ideas?
  • Instead of saying, “I’m not racist” ask yourself hard questions and start noticing the thousand subtle and subconscious ways you respond differently to a large Black man or a tattooed Latino man in your personal space than a white woman, or the assumptions you hold about how well a Black woman will sing, or how smart an Asian student is (we could have a whole other post on how so-called “positive stereotypes” are still harmful), or why you find Apu on The Simpsons to be funny.
  • Where do you spend your money?
  • What organizations are you donating to?
  • Who are you voting for?

Here, let’s keep it really simple. As a white person in North America, always ask yourself “why?,” keep your eyes and ears open, keep your mouth mostly closed except when you can use your voice to amplify (not speak over) BIPOC voices, and always keep striving to learn. Because this journey is never over. You will never arrive at some magical city at the end of the checkerboard road where you will earn the badge “Not Racist.”

But you can use your one beautiful life to do what you can, when you can, to be consciously and actively anti-racism.

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

  • Edward Everett Hale

 

Image previewDr. Laura Morlock is a speaker, scholar, and lecturer in diversity, gender, religious dress, and human rights at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion in Toronto, Canada. Her book, Seaming Canadian: Religious Dress, Multiculturalism, and Identity Performance in Canadian Society, 1910-2010, uses debates over Muslim, Sikh, Indigenous, and Mennonite dress in public spaces as an examination into the ways minoritized communities use clothing to communicate their goals to the dominant society, advancing human rights for all Canadians in the process (McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming). She writes and speaks regularly in both academic and public settings on the ways material religion, gender, history, and identity constructions intersect with human rights laws and policies.

Further Resources: A Very Incomplete and Primarily North American List

Books

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Novel, United States and Nigeria)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill (Non-Fiction, Memoir, Canada)

 The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (Historical Novel, West Africa, United States, and Canada)

Borderlands / La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa (Non-Fiction, United States and Mexico)

 Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by Tanisha C. Ford (Non-Fiction, United States)

Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto (Non-Fiction, Memoir, Canada)

Funny, You Don’t Look Like One: Observations from a Blue-Eyed Ojibway by Drew Hayden Taylor (Non-Fiction, Humour, Memoir, Canada) 

How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Non-Fiction, United States)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (United States)

I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by David Chariandy (Non-Fiction, Canada) 

Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman by Sheema Khan (Non-Fiction, Canada)

 So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

They Said This Would Be Fun by Eternity Martis (Non-Fiction, Canada) 

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele (Non-Fiction, United States)

White Fragility by Robin J. Diangelo

To Watch

“Black In Bend: Being an Extreme Minority in Suburbia” | Anyssa Bohanan, TEDx (United States)

“Can Art Amend History?” | Titus Kaphar, TED Talk (United States)

“Color Blind or Color Brave?”| Mellody Hobson, TED Talk (United States and Canada)

“The Color Line: Black and White Aesthetic Values”| Barbara-Shae Jackson, TEDx (United States and Italy)

“The Cost of Code Switching”| Chandra Arthur, TEDx (United States)

“The Danger of a Single Story”| Chimananda Ngozi Adichie TED Talk (United States and Nigeria)

“Dear White Girls in My Spanish Class”| Ariana Brown (United States)

“Dear White People” on Netflix

“Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea” | Chelsea Handler on Netflix (United States)

“More Observations from a Blue-Eyed Ojibway” | Drew Hayden Taylor (Canada)

“No. You Cannot Touch My Hair!”| Mena Fombo, TED Talk (United Kingdom)

“Performing Race and Gender”| Naila Keleta-Mae (Canada)

“To Code Switch of Not to Code Switch? That is the Question” | Katelynn Duggins, TEDx (United States)

“We Teach Life, Sir”| Rafeef Ziadah (Palestinian-Canadian)

“Where are You From? The Game”(United States)

“Where Are You From? The Game” (United Kingdom)

And also …

Outsmarting Human Minds, an anti-bias project from Harvard University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “What is “Racism”?

Add yours

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful expositions of the topic I have read in a long while. I am wondering if Dr. Morlock would be amenable to my translating this into French and reposting it on my own blog (with attribution, of course).You can let me know in responding to this comment.

  2. Re: “Based in the Greater Toronto Area you can find her there writing about fabrics and Supreme Court decisions, permanently urging her children to dress warmer”:

    John Cleese once said that he liked Canada, he just wished that they’d move the country a few thousand miles south.

    Re: “So began the pseudo-scientific study of “race” by European thinkers and governments trying to explain the world they were increasingly encountering.”

    There is NO genetic (and hence scientific) basis for race. It is ALL cultural.

    Re: “You cannot be white in North America and not have benefited from being white. Even if you really, really want to.”

    I got a “whupping” from something I posted a week or two ago, that my family never owned slaves — my ancestors didn’t come to America until after 1870 — so I shouldn’t have to pay reparations. The main point out of all of this was that the benefits of white don’t have to be *direct* in order to be real.

    In addition, the language English has racist / sexist / etc.ist terms in it. As someone said, the whole system has been infected.

    Re: “I know you’ve heard the words, “it, and, tree.” ”

    Yes, but not put together like that, and Google didn’t clarify things. A little help?

    P.S. The image at the top of the page is a dead link.

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