Saturday, May 1, 2010

Let's get real about what racism is

I realize from how OT started off that a lot of white people involved with Tibetan issues probably haven't spent a lot of time thinking about race, racism, and what most people trying to do anti-racist work actually consider racism to be. So this is my take on “racism 101”. As a white male I'm far from the best authority on the topic, so I encourage readers to go type “racism 101” into Google (or click here if you're that lazy) and see what others have to say on the topic.

A really common white mistake is thinking that any discussion or consideration of race is “racist” because we're “supposed to be colorblind”. A lot of white people even consider racism to mean “racial discrimination” in the strictest sense of the word discriminate: to recognize or perceive the difference. Of course a definition that makes it impossible to even talk about race and racism without “being racist” has no place in serious scholarship or activism about racism, which brings us to looking for some slightly more sophisticated definitions.

Racial prejudice refers to making an judgement about a person based on that person's race. The judgement could be about their worth (for example, whether to hire, whether to accept into college, etc.) or just an expectation of how the person will act, what they will like or dislike, etc. Racial prejudice is a part of an individual person's judgement and decision making process.

Racism is not the same as racial prejudice. In short, racism = prejudice + power. The longer explanation is that racism is a phenomenon that appears as part of a large-scale system (“society”) when there are imbalances in power between racial groups, and the prejudices of a privileged group serve, intentionally or unintentionally, to keep other groups in a position of disadvantage.

For the most part, in our globalized world there is no such thing as “racism against white people”. There may be environments in not-primarily-white countries where whiteness is not privileged in the local environment, but in the vast majority of these cases, white people have the privilege to leave and go somewhere else if they so choose.

Consciousness of race-correlated trends is not in itself racial prejudice, but can quickly become racism when applied by a racial group with institutional power in ways that disempower people of other races.

Some examples:

“Because John is white, I expect him to look down on black people.” - This is racial prejudice, and might be consciousness of a race-correlated trend (if there's good reason to believe a majority of white people look down on black people), but it's not racism.

“In the United States, murderers are more often sentenced to death when their victims are white.” - This statement is consciousness of a race-correlated trend, and shows awareness of systemic racism taking place at the hands of the justice system, but the statement itself is not racist nor racially prejudiced.

“Asian students are really good at math and science.” - This is racial prejudice, and stated from a white perspective, it's racist.

“Most of the Hispanic bikers don't wear helmets.” - Stated from a white perspective, this is racist. For one, it's extremely likely that the person making the statement is selectively noticing examples which reinforce a stereotype while ignoring examples that refute it, especially since it's hard to tell someone's race when they're wearing a helmet. And secondly, it comes across that the speaker is judging a whole race as reckless.

As a last thought on the meaning of “racism” and “racist”, it's a lot more productive to talk about racist actions and behaviors than about racist people. You can't know what's going on in somebody else's thought process but you can see the effects.

Any treatment of “racism 101” would be incomplete without mentioning privilege. Privilege refers to unearned advantages an individual enjoys purely by belonging to a group he or she had no choice to join or not to join - for example one's race, nationality at birth, physical features, sex, sexual orientation, etc.

The classic resource on (white) privilege is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.


  1. thank you for summing it up nicely. it sure has been a long time coming, nice blog!

  2. One interesting thing that happened while I was writing the article - at first I didn't write "In the United States" with the death penalty example. I later realized I was just assuming this context based on my own background and excluding the "other" to the point that the statement was blatantly false: worldwide, the vast majority of murderers sentenced to death had Chinese victims simply because of the prevalence of the death penalty in China.


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