Random Thoughts on Race

The issue of race has shown up in a number of news stories the past week or so: the Paula Deen case, the George Zimmerman trial, and Supreme Court cases involving voter rights, affirmative action in education, and the rights of Native Americans. I’ve ended up in a few debates about them. However, I am not a debater, for a lot of reasons. Yet the points that I would like to make to those I have been in discussion with are very close to my heart, and I think it may be worth it to put those points in the public record. (Just a note, the perspective I’m offering here is from an American living in America, though I’m sure most, if not all, of the principles here are transferable to any culture.)

There is such a thing as white privilege. White privilege means that you have been afforded special opportunities through life merely by the color of your skin. In many cases, this affects what you don’t have to go through in life, for example, police and security-guard harassment, and employer mistreatment. The list goes on.

The thing with white privilege is that, if you are white, you can navigate life successfully without once ever having to think about privilege. I’ll talk later a bit about how to overcome one’s own white privilege.

There is such a thing as institutional racism. This has to do with the cumulative effects of centuries of racism. For two centuries, natives of Africa were forced away from their homes and into ships, on which many died, and driven into grueling labor and abominable living conditions. They were stripped of their names and their culture, and afforded absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. The United States fought an ugly civil war for four years in which the issue of the personhood and equality of these abused millions was one of the driving forces.

None of what I have said to this point is not anything you’d find in the average high-school history textbook, though the more gruesome details are usually glossed over. The trouble is that our history books don’t detail what happened after, only little bits if at all. There was a brief bright point during the Reconstruction after the Civil War in which the newly free made gains economically and politically.

Many white folks did not like this, so they started enacting laws to curb the gains African Americans had made. We hear about the separate-but-equal laws that were put in place–African Americans were forced to go to inferior schools, and were to use inferior restrooms, water fountains, bus seating, and so on. This was all intended to send that message that the black man had better know his place.

But the story is far uglier than all this. First, we isolate these stories as a Southern narrative, ignoring the history of racism in the North, where it played out more in housing and employment. This wrongly absolves Northerners of their subculture’s role in perpetuating racism in America.

Second, our textbooks touch briefly on “sharecropping” without ever explaining what it was. In sharecropping, African Americans were allotted land on which to raise crops. The white landowner collected a (large) share of the crops raised as a form of rent. Sounds like a good deal, right? Until you find out what the history books don’t tell you–that it was against the law for the sharecroppers to leave the land, often unless they paid a large sum of money to the landlord. You’ll notice that the sharecroppers didn’t earn money; their payment was crops. Sounds an awful lot like slavery to me.

Then there was debt peonage. Suppose a sharecropper decided to escape. Or suppose an African American citizen who owns his own land crosses a white person. Then the African American could easily find himself in court on trumped-up charges that he owed the white man some money. Much of the court system was structured more informally a century ago–today, we would see some of them as “private courts” without legal standing and with huge conflicts of interest. And thus the African American was ushered into the debt peonage system, in which he would “work off” the debt. This brought about the “chain gangs” working the roads, and also, less commonly known, the vast majority of the mining labor that brought about the steel-industry boom in the South. Prisoners under debt peonage were forbidden any contact with their families, not even letters, and many died from the back-breaking work.

And we like to think that we wiped all of that away with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. But, just as people looked for ways to worm around the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, so too today the law works against African Americans and other minorities. We structure our school financing such that those in minority communities have nowhere near even the basic resources for their community schools. If they are lucky, they live where the law allows them to travel far from home to a school with no connection to their neighborhood or their culture. If they aren’t lucky, their school–often lacking even basic resources like functional plumbing and enough textbooks for each student–has draconian security measures in place such that students serve jail time for offenses that would merit a suspension in a white school, what is popularly known as the school-to-prison system.

Then we set up our legal system so that it favors whites. One of my Bible-college professors was a sort of guru when it came to race relationships, and he deeply influenced my understanding of race. In a lecture, he related the story of a racial-reconciliation conference he attended. The speaker asked all of the white attendees to raise their hand if they had ever been driving and the police pulled them over for no reason at all. Not only did no one raise their hand, they were astonished as to why the question was even asked. Then the speaker asked the African Americans in the audience if this had ever happened to them, and every single one of them raised their hand. And then they shared their individual stories of how this had happened to them. (I’m going to touch on this later, as well.)

For another instance, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine have identical effects on the body. The only difference is that powder is primarily sold by whites and crack by minorities For a long time, the punishments for selling crack were far more severe than those for selling powder. Only last year were these laws changed. Similarly, minorities face much stiffer punishments than whites for marijuana possession.

And so we have all these ways for minorities to enter the criminal-justice system, and then we make it so that it’s harder for ex-convicts to find employment and education. Job applications require you to indicate if you have a felony record, and though there is the statement that a record cannot solely bar you from employment, it is also generally accepted that an employer can avoid hiring someone for any reason not covered by law. So an ex-con can have an exemplary record otherwise, but the employer can look at the application and decide she doesn’t want to hire him just because he “smells funny” or what have you, and doesn’t ever have to give the reason why she’s not hiring him.

And then there is the issue of higher education. If you have a drug offense, you are not allowed to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which virtually all universities require for entry. You can be convicted of murder and go to college just fine, though. And, as I already indicated, if you are in possession of or are selling drugs, you are more likely to face felony charges as a minority than as a white.

And so it all feeds into itself. Minorities have trouble accessing the sort of education that increases their chances of attaining higher education and thus improving their employment prospects. In fact, there is a chance that even being at school will mean jail time. They are more likely to face prison time via an unequal legal system, and once out of prison, struggle to attain gainful employment. Thus you have a generation stuck in a socioeconomic class where the goal is to survive, not to thrive. Without good jobs pushing a community to the higher tax bracket that will ensure a better-funded school, the choice is to either stay in the community school or take a chance at bussing or open enrollment–if those are even legal options in that state.

And that may sound like a simple choice, but to choose a school that is not a part of your community or culture can look like an act of treachery. There are also more complex sociological considerations. Consider the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was thirteen, my mother, three siblings, and I found ourselves in a public-housing complex. It was not a good place. You had the option of going outside and getting in fist fights all the time or staying inside all the time. Very few people graduated from high school. More commonly, you’d drop out of high school, have a baby, and apply for your own apartment in the complex, thus ensuring three generations knowing little outside that environment. My mother did not consider this the life her children should have, so ultimately, we stayed inside all the time, worked hard on our schoolwork, and worked to graduate from high school. And almost everyone in the neighborhood, even property management, looked down on my mother for raising her kids to think they’re better than everyone else. My mother thought everyone was better than that place and didn’t understand why people weren’t trying to get out. Oh, and did I mention that, in a city that was nearly 90% white, the percentage of whites was considerably lower in our complex?

And it’s all far bigger than all these legal issues. Look at our media. How often do you have a positively-portrayed minority main character? Why are shows featuring African American casts–a group that makes up 12% of the United States population–relegated to secondary networks and get little notice even when they are well-written? The days of The Cosby Show seem so very, very long ago. Why are Latinos, nearly 20% of the United States population, barely on television at all, and it they are, they are cast as either maids or criminals? One of the main answers, of course, is that these decisions are made based on which populations have the most buying power–and a big reason whites have more buying power is all the reasons I described above.

And did you notice that in the amazing year of 2002, when African Americans won Oscars for both best lead actress and best lead actor, they were for the role of the wife of a prisoner, and the role of a corrupt police officer? And, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to convince me that if that’s the only way you ever see people who look like you portrayed in the media, that it will have absolutely zero effect on your self-image as you grow up.

And throughout all of this, I’ve primarily portrayed the experiences of African Americans. I have not really even touched on the experiences of Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, all of whom have had to deal with racist barriers in society unique to their own groups. You can see how long I’ve gone just describing one group, and frankly, I don’t have enough time today to get into all of them.

Quite simply, we have to undo five centuries of white supremacy in the United States, and we are fools to think that one swipe of a legislative pen or one march will undo all that damage. It will take a hell of a lot of work for many generations.

[Much of the content in this section came out of the fantastic documentary, Slavery by Another Name, which I highly recommend you watch. It’s worth all 90 minutes.]

There is a difference between prejudice and racism. The trouble with using such loaded terms as “prejudice” and “racism” is that we are not all always on the same page in terms of their definitions, and this causes all sorts of problems in trying to discuss these very real issues. So, in discussing these issues, I rely on definitions that are commonly accepted in academia. Yes, I’m going to trust people who have dedicated their lives to the study of a subject in which I am not an expert (and I am indeed an expert in precious little, if anything).

So, using this rubric, prejudice has to do with preconceived notions about a group that cannot possibly be true for every member of the group. “Blacks are criminals”, “Asians are freakishly intelligent” and “Whites can’t dance” are all common prejudices, and all are easily dismissed. There are, of course less common prejudices. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, we are all prejudiced in some way. I know that one of my biggest prejudices is assuming that, if I see a random white person on the street, that they are relatively well off, which, not only isn’t true, but is also kind of bizarre when you consider that I am a white person without a lot of money.

Racism, however, is when a group takes advantage of prejudices and uses them as justification for the creation and justification of laws, both in government and in culture, that ensure that one group cannot advance, over a long period of time. This is why it is said that nonwhites can’t be racist. It cannot possibly be said truthfully that nonwhites have, over a long period of time, asserted their authority in both government and culture to assure that whites are collectively lower than nonwhites.

It’s okay for blacks to say the N-word but not okay for whites to do so. When whites say the word, they are recalling a history in which that term was used by whites towards African Americans as a means of ensuring that African Americans “knew their place”, that they were inferior to whites.

When African Americans use the word in reference to themselves, they are doing what has been called in sociology circles as “reclaiming the word”. I have a ready parallel in my own experience. The F-word that is used to denigrate gays and lesbians is one of the ugliest words I know, and has been used for very much the same purposes as the N-word in terms of pushing people to second-class status. However, I know some gay men who use the word on occasion in reference to themselves or to other gay men. When they are doing this, they are making a statement. They are denying the power that the word has had in demeaning their lives. They are taking the torch meant to incinerate them and turning it into a celebratory bonfire. But a person who is not gay or lesbian cannot possibly use the word in this way, because they have never had their feet held to the fire.

Not all gay men believe this, or use the F-word in this way (for example, I don’t). Likewise, not all African Americans believe in using the N-word this way. However, it is the general standard as it has evolved in American culture. Which leads me to my next point…

If I don’t belong to a group, I do not have the right to determine the standards of that group. I have got into numerous debates about the use of Native American names and imagery in professional sports. (It’s a big issue in collegiate sports, as well, but I’m better versed in the issue at the professional level.) I’ve done some study particularly around the name of the NFL team in Washington, a name so offensive that it’s on par with the N-word and I refuse to say or type it. If you dig into the numerous court cases surrounding the use of the name and imagery, the arrogance is shocking. What it comes down to is that Native Americans confront the white owner of an athletic team that uses an offensive name and a stereotypical image that is meant to symbolize their entire set of cultures. (News flash: Native Americans in the past dressed lots of different ways. They covered the entire continent and collectively were as diverse if not more so than Europe.) The white owner says, “But I am honoring you!” The Native Americans say, “If you were honoring us, we would feel honored, and we very much do not.” The white owner’s reply: “Well, I just don’t understand why you don’t feel honored, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And you know what? As I am not a Native American, I really don’t have the right to an opinion about how Native Americans should feel they are represented. To assert otherwise, to insist that another group must think and feel differently about themselves is, guess what, an exercise of white privilege.

And, to cut off this inevitable train of thought at the pass, this same standard does not apply to, say, the Boston Celtics or the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As an American of about one-quarter Irish descent, these depictions do affect and reflect me. I don’t find them offensive, and the consensus of Irish Americans is that they are not offensive. And though there is a nasty history of oppression against the Irish in America’s past, an argument that such oppression is happening today, let alone that these depictions have in the recent past been used to denigrate and disparage Irish Americans, is most difficult to support.

The word “cracker” is not racist. Go back to my previous explanation of the difference between prejudice and racism. The word “cracker” has not been used to denigrate European Americans over an extended period of time to ensure that they will be subjugated in society. Whether the word reflects prejudice is another matter, but perhaps might best be taken on a case-by-case basis.

A racist action does not equal a racist person. The charge of racism is so loaded that the one action you can be certain will shut down any change is to call someone a racist. I argue that, in order for a person to be racist, they must exhibit focused acts of racism over an extended period of time. By this definition, there are indeed racists, but I would argue the vast majority of people are not racist.

On the other hand, I think most white people commit acts of racism. Many of these acts are unintentional. We mirror attitudes and behaviors that racist cultural artifacts have handed down to us. But if we do not correct our actions, we contribute to the continuation of racism.

So the next time someone tells you did something racist, I suggest you follow this course of action: Stop, apologize, consider how the act was racist, and work to avoid doing the act again. It takes a measure of humility and effort, but the long-term benefits to society are immeasurable.

The people who can provide the most honest account of a group are the people who belong to that group. If I want to know the views of women, I ask many women. I don’t just ask one, because no one person should ever be expected to represent an entire group, but I can gather a general consensus if I ask many. The same goes for any group, majority or minority, whether by race, sex, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, politics, on and on. No group is homogeneous. We are, in the end, all unique.

The converse is also true. I don’t want white people telling me what African Americans or Native Americans think or feel. I don’t want men telling me what women think or feel. On and on. For someone to assert an authority voice for a group to which they do not belong is the height of arrogance and, often, privilege.

Overcoming white privilege takes much time and effort but is worth it. First, you have to recognize it exists. This is not easy since, as I said before, if you are white, you can go through life just fine without ever having to think about it. To recognize it means upending some paradigms that have been handed down to you in your culture.

Then you have to identify how it works in your own life. As you go about your day, think about what you don’t have to deal with as a white person.

Next, you have to be willing to listen. Like I said, the only people who can bear proper witness to a group’s experience are members of that group. Again, this will upend some paradigms, and you must remember that listening is just that, not contradicting, not arguing. Later you can suss things out, on your own. For example, a neighbor of mine railed against public education not teaching that the Greeks stole their entire culture from Africa. On an objective level, not only would he be hard-pressed to provide verifiable evidence, but the statement expresses a misunderstanding of what culture is. But on the subjective level, he was rightfully pissed off that the African American perspective gets cut out of our history textbooks.

Then consider what you can do to disrupt the racist structures in society. Only you can say what you can do–whether it is a small action or a big action, it will contribute to the betterment of society. But inaction equals compliance, so goes the activist creed.

All of this has been milling about in my head for a long time. They are issues I am passionate about and are close to my heart. It’s just that they all spilt out today.


About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 2 July, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve been looking for a way to clarify the difference between “cracker” and the N-word for ages, and you finally pinned it down. The difference is the issue of prejudice vs. racism you described here. You’re absolutely right. Prejudice is something we’re all guilty of. It’s just the way we work as humans. But racism is systematic and institutionalized. This is a wonderful post, and I wish everyone (particularly on the internet) would read it.

  2. This was a very thorough examination of several related issues. You handled the topic with respect and sensitivity. I have some examples from personal experience to add to various points you made, but I’m having difficulty articulating tonight, so for now I simply wish to thank you for your thoughtful exploration of race issues, both current and historical.

  3. I apologize in advance for the length of my reply, but your post touched on several things I experienced.

    I went to what was considered an “all-black” junior high. There were only two or three other non-minority students there, and there was a small Hispanic population, in a school of about 900 kids. Most of the kids lived in the housing projects nearby. My elementary had been very diverse, well-funded, accepting, and progressive. This school was nothing like that.

    I was bullied relentlessly. Kids often grabbed me by the hair. I was physically assaulted and threatened so much, the teachers began locking me in a classroom for protection at lunch time. I was baffled as to why these strangers hated me. Eventually I learned that most of the students at that school had *never* interacted with a white person, which I thought was impossible. (In retrospect, these kids and their families didn’t have cars or the money to leave their immediate area; most interacted only with neighbors and went to small local shops, and there were no white families or white-owned businesses there.) While I listened in shock I’d hear such things as: Never trust white people, all white people hate all black people, white people are all rich, white people think they’re better than everyone else, white people stink, all white people own cars, white people have cats instead of dogs, white people are heathens who worship the devil and perform witchcraft (I was “saved” on a daily basis at that school). I was told that I lived in a mansion, so I was stuck up. When I protested that I lived in a small rented house and that I was poor, they didn’t believe me, so then white people were liars. I also learned they had never seen hair like mine, which is why so many people grabbed it, so they could feel it. Over time, my behavior and words challenged their prejudices. They began to talk more openly with me about these things, and eventually they would ask me questions to confirm or refute what they’d been told, which is how I learned that all most of these kids “knew” about other ethnicities were stereotypes.

    I think a lot of white kids, especially those who are middle class or rich, grow up in a very similar situation in terms of ethnic and economic isolation. Living among people who are quite like themselves, and having no interaction with the poor or minorities, the white kids grow up believing only the stereotypes they hear. In my experience, racism grows from these misconceptions that become prejudices.

    As to the underfunded schools you mentioned, I can definitely agree. We didn’t even have books in most of our classes at that school, and there were 36 to 40 kids per class. The school didn’t have the funding for anything better, but because the people were poor, the problem was ignored, because at the time the people in power were all rich and white. The cultural and ethnic disconnect allows such an imbalance of power. So many injustices to go unnoticed or unchanged because of it. It saddens me.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story.

      Isolation does have a great impact. In my mind, this is more a problem in the North, where the standard is ghettoization and ever-spreading suburbs to avoid people different from you. (I used to live in the St. Louis area–you won’t have to dig deep to see how this has played out there.)

  4. I’ve experienced most all cultures; i’m in my mid 50s; i take every one in to my conversations color blind. I am white.
    Let me begin that any black america is AN AMERICAN…. not always apparent with otther races.
    I (think) though that black men need to be told at every opportunity how american they are.
    I also think the “man” is out to get anyone no matter their color. Prove me wrong.
    I’ve been falsley charged by an all white police dept on a felony.and no billed by a grand jury go figure. They (a texas police dept.)hated me.i”m white…been & done everything….extreme exiliration to the depts including overwhealming depression and the metal cages of jails.
    It’s mostly all attitude. If i was in a crowd of white people and used the N word; most would attack me in different ways. Blacks are not always hated. And they are my American brothers.
    Luck is i haven’t experienced Prison

  5. WHITE PRIVLEDGE. is a myth.

    Blacks are afforded the same rights and privledge as whites.

    Please be a “Black American”. My heritage is irish english…I am a white AMERICAN ONLY.

    I’m sorry to say beating a dead horse; but Clarence Thomas “United States Supreme Court” has done “as i should have” as a white male used diplomacy…not disrespcted athourities…etc….and i wouldn’t have ended up in jails ….mental wards…treated by “white police officers” brutally….and maybe lead a much more; as you call it a white privledged life….Haha

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