Racism 101 – a brief overview

One of the biggest problems that I have encountered over the past few years has been that people (okay white people) don’t know what racism is. (The worst is when people believe that reverse racism and/or racism against white people exists but that’s another post for another time…)

So here it is. A racism 101 post. None of the things below are new concepts and there are so many resources out there that deal with this topic.

**I am writing this as a white person and I’ll probably fuck up. I’m not trying to talk over people of color but instead, trying to better understand the issues at hand. Please feel free to call me out on any mistakes. And this is seriously just a brief overview and is most definitely not my final post on the issue**

There are some that will argue that racism is something like a dictionary definition of “a belief that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.” That’s kinda but not really what racism is.

One really great definition of racism is “discrimination based on the color of one’s skin for the purposes of subjugation or maintaining subjugation… One cannot be a racist unless he has the power to subjugate” (thanks checkprivilege on tumblr for that!). One has to have systemic and institutional power in which to be racist (ahem fellow white people) and one doesn’t have to be aware of the ways in which you benefit from racism to be racist.

Racism is the belief that one’s race is superior to others and the systemic and institutional ability to maintain your superiority. (That AND in this definition is important to understanding what racism actually is.) Sara Luckey wrote a great piece on reverse racism and stated that:

“Racism exists when prejudice+power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties of a group of people. Racism is systemic, institutional, and far reaching. It is the prevalence of racism within social structures and institutional norms, along with implicit and explicit enforcement by members of a group, that allows racism to run rampant and unchecked.”

Racism is more than prejudices and beliefs – it’s also the ability to systemically and institutionally oppress others (even if you aren’t trying to or meaning too).

Now, what does the ability to systematically and institutionally oppress others mean? Among other things, it means that whiteness is seen as the beauty ideal, with skin bleaching being an actual thing that happens (Vera Sidika from Kenya for example).  Another example is that Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that those with white sounding names were more likely to get callbacks on jobs than those with black sounding names. The two did a study by sending out resumes for jobs and wrote a paper called Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination and you can read about the study here. The New York Times also wrote about the issue that people of color being compelled to whiten their resumes.

Similarly, the war on drugs has had some serious racial injustices, in which there are more arrests of black people than white people when dealing with marijuana. PolicyMic has a piece on this issue that not only discusses the racism involved but also includes several visual graphs that further spotlight the differences of arrests between races. Michelle Alexander wrote a book titled “The New Jim Crow”, which highlights the racial injustice that exists in situations like this. The “Stop-and-Frisk” policy from New York is another example of racism, in which racial profiling has resulted a good portion of those stopped are black or latino.

There are incidents of subtle, everyday racism as well. One example comes from a Latino friend of mine, who went to the same university I did. He told me one day that he occasionally gets asked (especially at fancy university events) if he works there, as if he doesn’t belong as a student. Racial microaggressions (including slurs) are another way in which racism is perpetuated.

White people, especially within the US, have that ability to systematically oppress other races, even if you don’t realize it. Even if you have the best intentions and aren’t trying to be racist, you (as a white person) still benefit from racism and white privilege. There is an incredibly well researched list on tumblr that deals with how it’s hard for white people (myself included) to see racism. Warning: not all the links are still active. Many of the posts deal with the concept of white privilege and how being white gives someone a lot of advantages in today’s society.

I’m going to leave it there for now, but there is so much more that goes into this topic and this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as racism goes. There are plenty of other examples of racism so don’t think that this is the end of the discussion. If you are interested in more, I do tag related posts on my tumblr that deal with racism and there are so many other resources that deal with the basics of racism.


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