But I’m Not Racist! Part I: Defining Terms

Discussions of racism and privilege are often hit by the Derail Train when people start arguing over semantics and can’t get past that first point, so I’m going to define my terms as we go. This post comes as a resource related to my talk at TOFCon 2013. (This is an expanded version of something I posted on Storify ~4 months ago.)

Stereotypes, Prejudice, Discrimination, Oppression

Since so many people get stuck on the definition of racism and there are many varying definitions out there, I’ll sidestep that issue and focus on oppression instead. While I’m at it, we’ll tackle some other related words.

  • Stereotypes: “are attitudes, beliefs, feelings and assumptions about a target group that are widespread AND socially sanctioned. Can be positive and negative, but all have negative effects. Stereotypes support the maintenance of institutionalized oppression by seemingly validating misinformation or beliefs” (defined by The Portland Community College’s Illumination Project)
  • Prejudice: “is favorable or unfavorable opinion or feeling about a person or group, usually formed without knowledge, thought or reason. It can be based on a single experience, which is then transferred to or assumed about all potential experiences” (defined by The PCC Illumination Project). Hepshiba clarifies: “You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your [prejudice].”
  • Discriminationdefined by hepshiba as: “what takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice.  This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation.  Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against “unattractive” women, for example).  You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against.  White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.”
  • Race-Based Oppression: Carlos Hoyt Jr. (in his article “The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse”) explains it as “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner against people on the basis of a supposed membership in a particular race or races—which can manifest at an individual (micro) level if it is perpetrated by a person who, motivated by racist beliefs, uses superior power and force over another person, or at the institutional (macro) level, when policies or resources are shaped and channeled to advantage or disadvantage racialized groups.” For my purposes here, I want to establish/clarify this is NOT a “one-off” thing (because I can tell some people are going to come at me with “well X white person was a victim of race-based oppression when Y black person was mean to them”).
  • Institutions: “are fairly stable social arrangements and practices through which collective actions are taken. Examples of institutions in the U.S. include the legal, educational, health care, social service, government, media and criminal justice systems” (defined by The PCC Illumination Project).
  • Institutional race-based oppression: Also defined by Hoyt, is “the network of institutional structures, policies, and practices that create advantages and benefits for the dominant social identity group, and discrimination, oppression, and disadvantages for people from the non-dominant social identity groups.” This is, according to PCC’s resource, “a matter of result regardless of intent,” and the barriers are usually invisible to those being favored by them. Regardless of if individuals within a system or institution are being oppressive individually, the institution itself can be overall oppressive.

In more ways than you even realize.

White Supremacy, White Privilege, & Light-Skin Privilege

White supremacy: “is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by White peoples and nations of the European continent for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege” (from the Chestnut Hill United Church Antiracism Resource Packet).

In other words: being part of a white supremacist system means directly or indirectly upholding the ideas that white folks are better, “normal,” and somehow more deserving of certain resources on the basis of race.

White supremacy’s not just cross-burning and the KKK, y’all. Though few people identify as white supremacists or members of the Klan, many people do things that intentionally or unintentionally uphold white supremacy & privilege. Furthermore, we often focus on extremes of race-based hatred, like lynchings and hate crimes (trigger-warning for that link, btw) and things that show up on the news (if we’re lucky), but that’s not what MOST people are going to be perpetrating. MOST people are going to be part of and/or witness to the subtler things and those are the ones the escape most people. (P.S. Hipster racism is still racism.)

White privilege“refers to the concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that whites receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a racist society” (definition from the Racial Equity Tools website).

In other words, white privilege = unearned advantages and good stuff, as well as the LACK of certain bad things, on the basis of being white and/or being perceived as such.

Light-skin privilege: is the phenomenon where people who are lighter (but not necessarily, or not JUST, white) have certain advantages as outlined above. This happens most obviously within, say, Latin@ communities, who are united by a particular ethnicity, though the “racial” makeup can vary widely. This is also related to colorism.

NOTE: The above definitions don’t mean White people face no oppression or struggles (we are all beautiful snowflakes with many intersecting identities), but it DOES mean that they don’t face systematic problems due to their race and/or skin-color here in the United States.

An example of white supremacy and privilege that I cited in my TOFCon presentation? The hot mess surrounding Paula Deen and her planning her son’s wedding to be that “true southern plantation style” celebration. From the Daily Beast article:

Deen objected to the accusation that she used the N-word to describe the waiters. Asked whether there was any possibility that she may have slipped and use the word, she said, “No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.” Still, when asked why nicely dressed black men would be a part of a “Southern plantation wedding,” she said it reminded her of southern America “before the Civil War.” After being reminded that black men serving people in the South before the Civil War were slaves, she agreed, but said she “did not mean anything derogatory” by her comments.

WHAT?! Exactly. Folks on Twitter had a field-day, coming up with the amazing and snarky #paulasbestdishes hashtag. (Though, uh, some non-black folks making additions to the list is super awkward because some are using slurs and it’s seemingly giving certain people “license” to say messed up stuff they wouldn’t otherwise be able to say publicly.)

Paula Deen's Best Dishes

Other examples?

#pauladeensbestdishes

It seems like there are way more allegations against her, and that this recent issue is not the only one. Surprising? Nope. Also filed under “Unsurprising” is her pretty crappy apology letter. Man, if you can look back on the pre-Civil War era South and just get the warm n’ fuzzies, it’s pretty likely you’re a white person. For a more reality-checked version of “the gallant South” and what black people faced, watch the videos below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

This is one of the most haunting songs ever. And if you want to hear Nina Simone’s rendition, I got you! Click below and take a listen. Then stay tuned for Part II of my “But I’m Not Racist!” series.

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