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Thoughts on the whole racism = prejudice + power thing

Guest blogger Nora, here; bienvenidos. I’ve been chewing on the definition of racism lately. Those of you who are more versed in anti-racist theory, bear with me. I’m still learning. Thought it might help if I shared this process with others here.

It started with a book I read about another minority: Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White. It’s an historical text that examines the fluidity of race as a social construct through the lens of Irish American history, detailing how they were first oppressed in their home country as Catholics and how this gradually became a systematic ethnic oppression. Then the book followed Irish immigrants to America. Here they were at first reviled for their ethnicity too, until in the mid-1800s when Irish-American political and community leaders realized there was something to be gained from siding against the movement to abolish slavery. This set the pattern for a number of other political decisions detailed by Ignatiev in which, for the most part, the Irish chose to side with Anglo, Protestant, and largely upper-class whites against other oppressed minorities. I’m glossing over the details here — which included riots in which Irish mobs attacked black and Chinese communities to kill indiscriminately, collusion by Irish workers to exclude blacks from coveted skilled-labor jobs (which ironically helped birth the labor union movement in the US), and so on. Basically, Irish Americans made a conscious choice to stop being an (oppressed) religious and ethnic minority and became part of a (dominant) racial majority.

I’ve also recently read Beverly Tatum’s books Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which I mentioned here in a previous post, and Can We Talk About Race?. I also skimmed Charles Clotfelter’s data-dense After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Most recently I’ve read Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams, which does the same thing as Ignatiev’s book for the disparate peoples of East and South Asia — though the conclusion is very different in this case. Asian Americans don’t have the choice available that the Irish Americans had, after all; none of us brown people could “become white” even if we wanted to. Zia’s book explains how, on realizing this, successive Asian immigrant waves to the US have chosen to “become Asian American” instead. There’s still a kind of choice involved in this: Zia shows how for many years these groups followed the home-country pattern of identifying themselves ethnically, or in other ways — Northern Chinese as opposed to Southern Chinese, for example. But here, they eventually adopted the American paradigm of race as the predominant defining social characteristic.

One of the reasons this is necessary, Zia explains, is because all other American ethnicities subscribe to this paradigm, treating all Asians the same regardless of where they’re from, cultural differences, class differences, etc. In example of which she talks about the nationwide friction that existed in the 1980s between African American communities and the Korean American immigrants who opened markets, liquor stores, etc., in them. It’s an ugly part of the book, and an ugly part of my own cultural history that I’d never seen in quite this context before (even though I remember seeing all this stuff in the news back in the 1980s). Zia cites protests, killings on both sides, and other events which the press hyped as a virtual race war, culminating in the Rodney King trial-related riots in Los Angeles. For those who don’t recall, despite PoC anger toward whites and the police at that time, it was poor black and Latin@ communities that bore the brunt of the violence — and the Korean-owned businesses that operated within them. Zia specifically touches on an incident in New York’s Flatbush community at this time, triggered when a black woman made a (later proven false) allegation that a Korean market-owner had beaten her. The resulting boycott shut down the market involved and a number of nearby markets, divided the community, and resulted in the murders of some Vietnamese locals — killed because they were mistaken for Korean.

Zia depicts this as racism on the part of African Americans toward Asian Americans. She doesn’t name it with that specific term, but she makes it clear that at least some of the instigators of these events were motivated by racist ideologies, used racist epithets, etc. For example, the main instigators of the Flatbush protest wasn’t actually from Flatbush; they were basically an activist group radicalized by Jewish/African-American tensions and incidents leading up to the Crown Heights riot. They were pretty blatantly prejudiced against whites, Jews, and damn near every group encroaching on what they saw as African American territory. There have never been many groups like this in the black community — hate groups, I’ll go so far as to say — but the ones that existed frequently combined prejudice with what power they had to influence black communities. The result of such groups’ rhetoric, combined with the usual nationwide anti-Asian rhetoric (remember, this was in the days of the Japanese bubble, when there was a lot of anger against them for outpacing the US auto industry and buying a small stake in Rockerfeller Center), was a wave of anti-Asian hatred in nearly every major American city that had a sizable black population. (There was some of this in Latin@ and other communities too; like I said, it was a nationwide problem. Zia focuses on the African American/Asian American strife to illustrate it.)

So this is why I’ve been contemplating the definition of racism (prejudice + power) used on this site and in most anti-racist scholarly literature. A lot of people here at ABW have challenged this definition, and given what I’ve read I can understand why. At least within black communities, don’t black people ultimately have power? And if we choose to use that power to attack other oppressed minorities in our midst, are we not then ourselves… racists?

Framed that way, the answer is a clear yes. But as Ignatiev, Zia, and Tatum’s books all illustrate, that’s the wrong way to ask the question.

Ignatiev demonstrates that every ethnic group coming into this country faces a dilemma: how to fit into the racist social system. To do so is to perpetuate racism in and of itself by reinforcing the notion that we should be defined more by our physical characteristics than our nationality, culture, or anything else. But as Zia’s book vividly shows, choosing not to fit into the racist system isn’t really an option for some of us: others will do the defining for us if we don’t do it ourselves. Asians in the US began to consciously adopt “Asian American” as a label in the 1960s, but up to that point there had been continuous attempts on the part of the US government to define the group as “Mongoloids”, “Orientals”, “Aryans” (but not white), “the Yellow Peril”, and so on. Those Asian ethnicities which attempted to separate themselves from their fellow groups by trying harder to assimilate — as Japanese Americans did in the 1700-1800s — eventually got smacked down for their presumption, as the Japanese American internment during WWII showed.

Tatum’s books illustrate this as well. African Americans, long the quintessential example of “non-whiteness” in the US, even today struggle to define ourselves in some way that doesn’t cross the line into “acting white” — and even by thinking this way we perpetuate racism. (Zia noted an Asian version of the same phenomenon, though there’s a different nuance to it for recent immigrants.) Latin@ Americans — illegal or not — and Arab Americans are getting some reinforcement of this hierarchy right now. So we end up with tension between “native” African Americans and Caribbean Americans and more recent African immigrants — some of which came into play in the Flatbush incident. And we get beef between black and lighter-skinned Latin@s, and between Native Americans and African Americans, and between Arabs and blacks of all kinds, and so on, and so on… ad nauseum. It’s a complicated game of musical chairs, as each group attempts to grab itself the (second) best seat at America’s racial table.

This is what I keep coming back to, as I ponder the question of whether people of color can be racist: why are we trying to sit at that table at all? Why are we playing this stupid musical-chairs game? This is what racism truly is: a single, over-arching system that pushes everyone involved to obey the same rules and utilize the same tactics. And this system, regardless of (or perhaps because of) how it pushes various people of color into conflict with each other, has a single over-arching goal: to keep whites in power.

And it works. Ignatiev details how the rhetoric of Irish leaders went from support of blacks’ fellow humanity to labeling us as subhuman and innately inferior — a complete about-face from allies to white supremacy over the span of a few years. Tatum illustrates how schoolkids of color absorb the messages of racism and use it to sabotage themselves and their fellow kids of color. Zia explains how the “model minority” stereotype — a calculated media/political creation — used Asians as both a bludgeon to shame other PoC, and a convenient scapegoat when those PoC got mad and struck back. In the LA riots, for example, the police ignored the frantic calls of Korean American shopowners and even those African Americans who tried to help the Koreans, instead concentrating their efforts on protecting white communities. A police commander is quoted as basically saying something like (paraphrase — sorry, had to return the book to the library), “let them all kill each other, as long as they aren’t after us.” Somehow I suspect this was, and still is, a common sentiment.

My mother and I used to go crabbing when I was young. (Yes there is a point to this.) She used this to teach me about “crabs in a barrel”, something I’d heard her mutter over the years — usually whenever I complained of getting teased because I “talked proper” and had good grades. I don’t know if this is a uniquely African American cultural lesson or not — I suspect every culture has its own variation on the idea. But for those of you who haven’t heard this one, or who have never been crabbing, the metaphor is simple. Go get some live crabs. Put them in a barrel, bucket, etc., and watch. Since crabs, unlike most animals, have the ability to grasp and lift more than their own body weight, in theory the crabs could easily escape. Some of the crabs could, on the backs of their fellow prisoners, reach the rim of the barrel and then reach back to help the others out. But in actual practice this never happens, because the moment some of the crabs start to climb on top of others, the ones on the bottom reach up and pull them down. Sometimes the ones on the bottom will tear the ambitious ones apart. In the end, only one crab in a blue moon manages to escape. Usually none do.

I saw this for myself on those long oceanside afternoons: we never had to try very hard to keep the crabs in the flimsy styrofoam cooler we tossed them into. They took care of that themselves. Much later, as an adult, I visited an Asian supermarket — the only place in Boston to find (you guessed it) my favorite live blue crabs. The market owners didn’t even bother with a barrel, just a shallow metal container maybe six inches deep. It would’ve only taken two crabs, working together, to get out. They almost never did.

So. Back to that definition of racism.

If we view racism as a series of incidents, then there are plenty of examples of people of color acting on their prejudices against each other. In a very few cases, where the instigators are in a position of power and using that power to oppress others, I’d even go so far as to call them racists. But I call them this not because of the specific incident, or their role in it, which is small-potatoes in the scale of things; I call them racists because they’ve bought into the system and are acting as its agents. And when this happens, “are these people racist?” isn’t the only question that should be asked. We should also ask, why does this PoC vs. PoC hatred exist? Where did it come from? What messages and policies perpetuate it? And above all, who benefits from it, and who does it truly harm?

I say all this not to excuse or dismiss racism committed by one group of PoC against another. Some reprehensible stuff has gone down, and it shames me to realize how many of my own people have been involved in it. We’ve also been on the receiving end of some crap from other PoC, and none of this is irrelevant. But it’s my nature to look for patterns and/or the “big picture”, and I see a lot more going on in these incidents than angry black people, or angry Native Americans, or angry Latin@s. I see all that anger seeking the nearest and handiest outlet, which is irrational and dysfunctional as hell but not all that surprising when you think about it. I see people who should know better — including me — making excuses for that anger when it goes wrong, because they’re not sure how else to deal with it. And I see that anger sometimes being encouraged and manipulated by outsiders with their own agendas. So I think we need to examine the root causes of all this anger — not to get rid of it, mind you. Anger’s healthy. But we need to make sure we’re pointed in the right direction when we let it loose.

Or to put it more simply: when the crab on the bottom of the barrel pulls down the one near the top, which wins? Neither; in the end somebody eats them both.

(Damn, now I’m craving crabs. Mmm, Maryland spiced crab…)

42 thoughts on “Thoughts on the whole racism = prejudice + power thing”

  1. Michael says:

    Interesting and very well written! I see so much PoC on PoC racism and tension in my part of the world (Texas). Especially living in a city with a very large Asian and Hispanic community. I’ve never seen it addressed though….bravo! Anger is indeed healthy, it can be a very motivating!

  2. baby221 says:

    Yeah … I’ve been rethinking my definitions, mostly because I’ve been looking a lot into the ways in which women contribute to their own (and other women’s) oppression, especially in the context of abortion (i.e., how is it that women can want to force each other to give up bodily autonomy?).

    Mostly I’ve come to the conclusion that women can be sexist (and poc can be racist) when they are actively participating in the system in order to bring some “other” variation of their social identity down. The woman who slut-shames, not as a matter of course but because she wants to raise her own status as a nonslut, is sexist; the poc who marginalises other poc in order to raise his own status is racist; etc.

    But you’ve made a much more informed post than I could have — so thank you for sharing. :)

  3. nojojojo says:

    Baby221 (and Michael),

    Well, again, I would ask the same questions in the case of sexism. It isn’t enough to simply conclude that women can be sexist, or PoC can be racist, and leave it at that. The deeper questions must be asked. Why do women oppress each other? Who benefits from a system in which women act as the enforcers? What societal or community messages are causing women to act this way? And so on. It must be acknowledged that the people who help to enforce the system are also its victims, mentally in addition to physically, economically, etc. They need to be censured/punished for what they’re doing, but it also needs to be understood that they’ve been brainwashed. “Hoodwinked, bamboozled”, whatever. And the way to fight this kind of “ism” isn’t simply to point at the perpetrators and declare them racist/sexist. We must acknowledge the real complexity of the system, and just how insidious it is. This is why I get so annoyed when people try to derail conversations about this stuff by saying there’s better/more important ways to fight racism — that having conversations like this is useless. That’s bullshit. When you’re dealing with a psychological problem — a collective psychosis like racism — you need to both treat the symptoms and deal with the root cause. PoC on PoC racism is a symptom, as is woman on woman sexism, but focusing on that alone will not solve the problem long-term. You have to acknowledge and talk through the disease that causes it.

    Whoops, was trying not to get preachy. =)

  4. funambulator says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lately too. In my city (Louisville, KY, home of the lovely recent SCOTUS decision, so yeah, we have issues here) there’s a certain part of town with a large international community. Over the past year or two, there have been incidents of seemingly unprovoked and senseless violence between African Americans and Latin@s, as well as some between Somali-Bantus and African Americans. The same neighborhood also has quite a big Vietnamese population.

    I sometimes think it’s like the dynamics of an abusive, dysfunctional family played out on a bigger scale – the man is cruel to the woman, who is cruel to the children, who are cruel to the smaller children, who are cruel to the pets. Everyone wants a little taste of what it’s like to be the oppressor for once, instead of the oppressed.

    Great post – It’s a difficult issue.

  5. Lmary says:

    I also think another problem is when certain people of color try to play ‘we are the world’ when it’s convient yet when THAT group is coming under fire say ‘you’re on your own’. I’m referring to when people who aren’t black always say ‘if this were the blacks’ or ‘if this were black people’ are they FUCKING RETARDED?!! Yeah because we certainly don’t have ANY racism of prejudice issues to deal with fact is there are a number of POC’s who don’t give a rat’s ass about anybody but themselves then have the nerve to want black folk to play ‘mommy and daddy’ when the shit gets too hot for them. And if one more shitheel says ‘if this were the blacks’ I ripping their spine out through their eyeball.

  6. Oyce says:

    Thanks for the very good and thought-provoking post! I don’t have many intelligent comments to make, save that I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself, largely sparked by reading Zia and Emily Bernard’s Some of My Best Friends on interracial friendships. And of course it’s in context of my own life and trying to become Asian American in a political sense but also trying to balance learning more about Asian Americans with learning about the history of other races in the US. I’ve also been struggling a lot with this in terms of my own LJ — what kind of a space do I want to create? How can I make it inclusive not only of Asians, but of all POC? When I focus on Asian issues, how much of it is necessary knowledge to survive here, and how much of it detracts from my talking and thinking and writing about interracial issues? And of course, the giant overarching question, how do I act and behave mindfully so as to not continue uphold the current racial hierarchy and the whole barrel of crabs?

    Sadly, lots of questions from me but no good answers.

  7. baby221 says:

    nojojojo — I’d agree with all of that :) Sorry for not making it clearer; I’m not trying to just say “well women can be sexist too” and leave it at that, specifically for the reasons you mentioned. I’m not sure though that I’d necessarily call it “brainwashed,” at least not in every case, because there are plenty of times when women are aware that they’re participating in the system and they do it anyway — “brainwashing,” to me, means that they’re still unaware of the ways in which they’re contributing to their own oppression. There’s a big difference between internalisation (“brainwashing”) and working the system, you know? Which is ultimately what led me to think that women could possibly be sexist in the first place.

    (Does that make sense?)

  8. nojojojo says:


    I think I get your point — that “brainwashing” implies that the Agent of Racism is an involuntary victim and not a conscious, willing collaborator. That’s a good point, actually; I don’t mean to absolve the AoR of responsibility for his/her actions. But I *do* think there’s a certain amount of external influence involved that can’t be denied. Society condones so many “little” incidences of racism — stereotypes in film, racist jokes, etc. — that contribute to the overall idea that Racism is OK in certain contexts. We constantly hear racism rationalized and excused with the idea that Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist (yeah, I went to see Avenue Q awhile back… ugh, remind me to bitch about that sometime), which makes us more prone to accept the idea that Racism is OK. Everybody does it, right? Then how could it be wrong to act this way? Why should we resist something so ingrained, so natural? Why not just go with the racist flow?

    And when people of color are on the receiving end of certain kinds of racism from white people, and systems of justice, etc., in this country enable those oppressive acts, that sends the message that this is the American Way; we’ve all got to behave like this if we’re going to survive here. For literally centuries, African Americans have been violently driven out of white communities. *Especially* when we represented an economic threat. From “sundown towns” to out-and-out pogroms like Rosewood, to the marginally more subtle practice of redlining, we’ve been bombarded with the notion that what’s ours is ours and what’s theirs is theirs, and never the twain should mix… or somebody’s ass is going to get kicked. So in the 80s when Korean immigrants opened businesses in black neighborhoods, it doesn’t surprise me at all that those neighborhoods reacted the way they did. Ignatiev’s book talked about the same thing happening in 1800s Irish neighborhoods when black craftsmen and artisans opened businesses in them; Zia’s book talked about the same thing happening in Hawaii between native islanders and white and Japanese immigrants. This is a script that’s been acted out again and again in US history, in dozens of variations. (And Zia notes that this was part of the problem in the 1980s incidents; the Korean immigrants mostly came here after the 1960s and didn’t know the racial history of this country. If they had, they might’ve realized the potential danger.)

    Again, this is not to excuse what happened. The people who chose to act on their internalized racism still knew they were doing something wrong, however much they might’ve rationalized it. But it was striking to me that in the Flatbush incident that Zia described, it was a black group from Harlem that instigated the worst trouble — i.e., African American non-immigrants, the descendants of slaves, who’ve had generations to absorb the ideologies and tactics of racism the hard way. But the Flatbush community itself consisted mostly of recent African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, and while there was some hate on their parts (the woman who claimed to have been beaten was Haitian), they were also the ones who ended it before things could go completely out of control. (A group of neighborhood schoolkids and their teacher broke the picket line.) IMO, this shows the long-term effect of racism; people who haven’t been here long haven’t got as much of the toxin in their systems. And that means that those of us who *have* been here for generations need to be extra-vigilant. It’s easier for us to become Agents of Racism because we understand its tactics, and its power, so much better than a more recent immigrant ever could.

  9. baby221 says:

    Point gotten, taken, and agreed upon :) Yay for communication!

  10. nojojojo says:


    ::pointpointpoint:: You! It was you who recommended Asian American Dreams to me! I remember now! Good rec, thanks. I’ll probably check out the Best Friends book eventually, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed on race nonfic right now, so I think I’ll divert myself with politics or something for a bit first. =)

  11. nojojojo says:


    The abused-family thing is probably a good analogy. But not all abused people turn abusive themselves, mostly because they know what they’re doing is wrong and they recognize the pattern of behavior and it shocks them when they start lapsing into it. So hopefully the same thing can happen on a grand scale someday.

  12. bellatrys says:

    A few years ago when I started blogging I coined the term – swiped and revised from a poem by Yeats about the failures of the Irish rebellions in Ireland, where pulling each other down was so common that there are all kinds of slang terms there for it – “to hurl the little streets against the less”, as a descriptor of what the Privileged do to the rest of us – everywhere, everywhen in the world. It’s a more specific form of “divide & conquer” because it explains who gets divided and how they get used to conquer; it came to me years ago when I was contemplating the amount of energy and money poured into promoting the idea that it’s the poor Mexicans who are destroying our jobs, when the fact that some shlep is getting paid sub-minimum wage to cut lawns or wash sheets has nothing to do with my boss choosing to lay me off for two part-time just-out-of-college kids instead of paying me benefits and what my experience is worth in a tech sector job…

    (The original is a lament for a revolutionary who wouldn’t be his girlfriend, whose energies were devoted to trying to “hurl the little streets against the great/had they but courage equal to desire” – so it’s also considering why we have neither the courage nor the desire to all pull together, like the crabs, all us workingclass folks of whatever color like back in the early “Bread & Roses” days…we are outgunned by the Plutocrats.)

  13. bellatrys says:

    Tiers of benefit are also important – one thing to remember is that the current PTB are great believers in the hierarchical worldview of Plato’s Republic (dear Mr. Bennett has even been sponsored on PBS to promote this, in a quasi-covert way, to American children) and this requires that there be a small circle of cognoscenti at the top who draw the greatest benefits and who alone know the real scoop, a middle tier of semi-rational who are the enforcers who draw a lot of benefits and think themselves in the top tier even as they’re being manipulated, but never realizing they’re tools, and “the masses” who are below full human consciousness, the people of the belly (rather than the head or the heart) who must be lied to and shepherded, or even violently coerced, into doing what’s “best” for them and “the community” – which always translates into the tiny circle at the top, somehow, with some trickle-down to the middle tier of the pyramid, the emotion-driven enforcers…

    So there is real benefit of certain kinds, from purely material (someone else will pay your bills, this is NOT a small deal) to the emotional payoff of not having to stress over being an autonomous agent, but not having to think of yourself as a “tool” either – to being an Enforcer against your fellow sub-group. I say this as someone who once bought into the whole anti-feminist conservative Catholic spiel, and broke out of it, and spent considerable mental energy resisting the idea that I could have been a tool, and even more mental energy contemplating the whole sticky attractive spiderweb of it all, btw.

  14. marmelade says:

    “when the crab on the bottom of the barrel pulls down the one near the top, which wins? Neither; in the end somebody eats them both.”

    One of the most extreme examples of this was Jewish leaders in Poland (and elsewhere) who helped Nazis with organizing and exterminating the Jewish getto communities . . . I think that those Jewish Nazi facilitators (could you call them Nazis? I don’t know) probably had very complex rationales for doing what they did. They got increased food and safety (at least for a time), increased status within the power system, and probably thought that they were making the situation better for the Jewish communities. Some of the facilitators probably thought that they were acting in a noble fashion (if they cooperated and sacrificed some people, then the rest of the community might be treated better). Humans have a wonderful facility to create socialistic justifications for doing what we want to do (i.e., what will benefit us personnally).

    Similarly with women who support legislation limiting access to abortion and birth control . . . they may believe that they are helping women work with the system as it exists (and who’s to say that they’re not right). Like a mother who trains her daughter to look/act pretty and feminine in order to get access to male attention and money.

  15. transgressingengineer says:

    I’ve struggled with how to define racism as well. The prejudice + power definition has always seemed a bit odd to me, especially after reading a lot about whiteness and privilege. It just seemed to clean and clear-cut of a definition to really fit all that can be put under the header of racism. Talking about racism is a messy proposition, so I didn’t understand how folks could define it in such a simple manner.

    So I started exploring how I define racism. The whole power and prejudice thing didn’t work for me in that definition because it left out somethings that are fundamental to racism in the US: 1) the privileging of whites through existing policies, procedures, laws, etc, and 2) the hidden normalness of white. The power and prejudice definition lacked grounding in the ways the US participates in the institutionalized racism and confirmed dominance, in my estimation.

    That lead me to think of racism more in terms of this institutionalized racism and the hidden normalness of whiteness. I see racism not as ‘individual acts of meanness’ (thanks to Peggy McIntosh for that phrase), but at a higher level than the individual- at the institutional/government/etc level. The term that I have come to use to label those individual acts of aggression against people of other races is prejudice. In this term, anyone can be prejudice to anyone.

    Given this, Nora, I really liked how you defined people who buy into the game of racism and perpetrate stereotypes as racists. That seems to fit with how I think of racism at the higher organizational level. The reason that I like this is that it gets at the hidden normalization of whiteness in the US. By playing into stereotypes, etc, folks participate in making whiteness even more invisible and powerful.

    As a side note, I understand needing to get out of the race theory books right now- but have a rec for you for when you do get back into reading theory (though be warned, this is a heavy read- it took me reading it several times to really let what the authors were saying to sink in): Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s (second edition).

    Also thanks for the overview on the Asian American Dreams- I hadn’t heard of that book, but will be visiting my library tomorrow to check out a copy!

  16. nojojojo says:


    Hmm — but institutionalized racism and the “normalization” of whiteness *are* examples of power in my book. In fact they’re the ultimate expression of power via racism; the whole system works to support the notion that white is right and nothing else is quite. On this scale the racism = prejudice + power definition really works, and I don’t question that.

    It’s on the micro scale that the definition starts to get blurry to me. It doesn’t work in the case of one individual harassing another, unless there are complicating factors thrown in — like if the harasser has physical or employment/economic dominance over the harassee. In most day-to-day interactions in which prejudice shows, that’s not the case. The white guy who gets called names by poor PoC in a neighborhood he’s helping to gentrify, the kids of one PoC ethnicity who get taunted by kids of another PoC ethnicity… there’s no real power differential in either of those cases. (Well, actually, given that the white guy is helping to instigate a phenomenon that will cause the PoC to lose their homes, *he’s* the one with greater power in the aggregate… but let’s just ignore that point for now.) And though these interactions might escalate to one-on-one or small-scale violence, that’s still not much different from any other case of assault, despite the racial component. Not every guy who attacks a woman is seeking to sexually harass or oppress her — he might just want her purse, or think she’s been sent by Them, or whatever.

    But a neighborhood is a system. As the Flatbush incident showed, there’s real economic power to be found when the people in a community decide to work together, for good or for ill. And inasmuch as that system has power over the individuals and small businesses that exist within its borders, racial interactions at that point begin to have real power to oppress.

    Hmm… maybe that’s the key. It can’t be just power that makes the difference. After all, there’s a power differential between nearly any two people at any given time. Size/strength, age and knowledge, which one’s on home turf and which one can call out a posse of relatives/friends to assist… it’s hard to say who’s got more power in these small-scale interactions. But where one group starts to have a significant economic, physical, political, etc. impact on the other group… where one group has the power to oppress the other… that’s where it stops being just a bunch of people hating each other and becomes a system of its own, and part of the greater system called racism.

    So maybe the definition needs a few more words in it:
    racism = prejudice + the power to oppress.

  17. the angry black woman says:

    transgressingengineer – You might want to take a look at the “More on racism” link under Required Reading in case you missed that particular debate. We get into much more detail about the meaning of racism and power and prejudice and determine that, obviously, simple definitions will not do. Though I do feel that the prejudice + power equation is an excellent shorthand and starting off point for deeper understanding, I also get that it’s not the entirety of the definition.

  18. transgressingengineer says:

    ABW- thanks for pointing me to the ‘more on racism’ link… that discussion happened before I started reading your blog. Very interesting discussion- what struck me was something you said in one of your posts on that link, that people see racism from different world viewpoints, as a social phenomenon or as interactions between individuals. I think that is what I was trying to express in my post above- that what I call racism is a social phenomenon (in which individuals are embedded), but still at a higher level than the individual.

    nojojojo- I get what you are saying about whiteness as the ultimate form of power and don’t disagree. I think my issue with the definition, upon further reflection, is that looking at racism at the institutional level, I can see whiteness acting on policies and procedures producing racism without the interaction of prejudice coming into play. What I mean by this is that acts of even the best intentions, when put into play under a system that has grow up under the normalization of whiteness, can come out reeking of racism. While I don’t discount the idea that power and prejudice do equate to racism, I think there is so much more to racism that just what is in that simple definition.

    Both nojojojo and ABW- I know that I am sidetracking the conversation and that, as ABW pointed out, this discussion of definitions has already been covered in other posts, so I won’t be offended if you want to end this discussion and move on.

  19. LM says:


    This is EXCELLENT. Gracias.

  20. Amber says:

    yall need to wake up ok bc i had major disfunciton last week with the jena 6 thing at work ,I have black friends and they were making fun of white folks in front of me? so what kinda respect is that? ITS NOT ANY!
    someone that was my friend for two yrs that i worked with let me know she cant trust me bc im white ?
    she told me that bc im white she cant trust me?
    what kina shit is that?
    that is what breaks down bounderies to ANOTHER level.someone i thought i could trust cant even trust me cuz im a different skin color then her?
    its brought some crazie thoughts to my head.
    this is the first time i have ever been through anything like that with any race.. LOVE AND PEACE but think about how we feel..come on now its TWO SIDED and takes two folks or even races in this case to tango…

  21. Michael says:

    Amber, really sorry to hear that. But there is a refusal in the AA community to accept responsibility for that.

    When you understand that POC are taught this at a very early age, you can actually never trust your relationship with a AA. At some point their real hatred of whites are always revealed, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes not. I know its hard, but you are simply not going to be able to trust your relationship with a POC, the value of your freindship is secondary to them, especially when it comes to affairs of race.

    Good Luck to you, I can assure you thier are many people that will be a true friend.

  22. Ico says:

    Michael, you do realize that what you’ve just declared is incredibly hypocritical, and as prejudiced as anything Amber’s friend said to her?

    Amber’s experience is unfortunate; but one incident of prejudice doesn’t mean “you can never trust your relationship with a AA.” I mean, Christ, that’s so closed-minded and bigoted.

    And Amber, what your friend said to you does sound terrible, but as her friend, I think the kindest thing you can do is to try to understand where she is coming from. If a battered woman tells a male friend she can’t ever truly trust him, does that mean he should be offended and take it to mean all women are unworthy of real friendship? No — there’s a *reason* she feels that way. There’s a history there and even if it doesn’t justify mistrusting him, it does explain it. Negative experiences from any race/gender/etc inevitably leaves its mark.

    If your friend is telling you she can’t trust white people, she’s obviously had some bad experiences to drill that mistrust into her. I think the best thing you can do is try to listen, try to understand where she is coming from. Prove to her that she doesn’t have to feel that way about white people by being the friend that you claim to be.

  23. nojojojo says:


    I think you need to get out of “it’s all about me” mode for a minute. I’m not going to try and interpret your black friends’ behavior secondhand and without context. But let me ask you this: have you asked yourself *why* they’re acting this way? Have you asked them? Have you sat them down to talk about it, and let them know how the jokes and lack of trust makes you feel? Maybe they just think the jokes are funny — people who tell racial jokes often think that they’re “no big deal” and are amazed that others actually find them offensive. Also, since you can’t control their behavior — what steps have you taken to examine your *own* behavior and attitudes? Have you acknowledged your own white privilege, for example? Maybe you’ve been doing or saying things that annoy them, and their jokes and comments are in reaction to this. Have you considered how your own actions — like ranting about this to total strangers on the internet rather than talking directly with the people involved — may be contributing to the problem?

    Think about that, and maybe try educating yourself about how racism works by reading the stuff in the “Required Reading” section of this site. And then try talking with your friends, and listening to them (especially listening to them). I bet that will help.

  24. nojojojo says:


    Thanks *so* much for reading the minds of 40 million African Americans and telling everyone how we think. It’s *so* refreshing to know there are psychics out there like you, who can access our collective unconscious and interpret it for clueless white people everywhere. With people like you around, we’ll lick that pesky racism problem in no time!

    P.S. You should get a show on the Sci Fi Channel. You could call it, like, “The Black People Whisperer”. I’m sure it would be a hit!

  25. Ico says:

    OMG! “The Black People Whisperer!” XD What an awesome response! You made me start laughing out loud in my office.

  26. Michael says:

    Love the sacrcasm, but it doesn’t change a thing. AA children are taught at an early age to distrust whites. So it doesn’t take to much mental gymnastics to understand how this manifests itself in later life. I’ve said before, nothing changes unless you own up to your part in this mess.

    I teach a business course at a local college and have a very large mixed race class profile. I ask the questions, and all are very proud to give me the answers. It does indeed confirm my point. Its amazing in this day and age that a AA person can say “that white person wasn’t so bad”. You have no idea how many times I hear that.

    So here’s a exercise for you Nojo. Go through the posts on the topics through this blog and look at how many times legitimate points by whites are simply discounted, disavowed as even being possible, or even considered remotely possible. A trend will be evidenced. And that trend is a comprehensive denial that the AA community is complicit or even marginally repsonsible for any of our country’s race issue. Try it, you’ll see what i mean. Matter of fact I have several student sdoing a study of race and black denial, and the self-wounding nature of the civil rights movement and how that has lcontributed to an increase in the level of race discontent. And these students are white and AA…imagine that! .

    Now, I have to call you on the comment of “reading the minds of 40 million African Americans” Very hypocritical considering the broad brush whites are painted with on a daily basis. me thinks you and the AA community could use a good long look in the mirror.

    Good discussion. Now the haters can jump in….and I can predict the responses. Go ahead, make my point for me:-) Interesting discussion

  27. nojojojo says:


    Actually, I think most of the people on this blog will recognize you for the troll you are and ignore you. There are grains of truth in your comments, yes — but they’re buried so deep in reeking piles of irrationality and bias that it’s not worth the effort it takes to pick them out and respond to them.

  28. nojojojo says:


    I’m learning from ABW — sometimes the only thing you can do in the face of blatant bigotry is laugh. Glad I could share it — at least that way something positive has come out of this weird turn the convo has taken. =)

  29. Amber says:

    Thank you so much for your responses.
    They really mean ALOT to me,and I really do mean that.
    I am a pretty shy person at work? And try and work hard so does my friend that is why became so close..
    So yes i was just shocked last week and she seemed vulnerable with everything going on ,So I didnt wana really like continue asking her why she felt that way towards me bc I was white.
    I mean I should be glad she was honest with me .
    Been kinda lost this week but you are all right about the understanding part for sure.
    I am going to work on that and just try and be there for her in general we both have a relationship with God.
    I believe that can bring us closer together too-
    Again Thank you for all your comments they really helped me out!

  30. Michael says:

    “Vulnerable”? She seemed “vulnerable? Whar you actually saw is a rare glimpse into her actual feelings and motives regarding whites. Be careful with the whole “relationshio with God” thing, While most POC profess a strong faith in God, thier actions sometimes prove that it’s a surface level cloak. I commend you for trying to be her friend, but ultimately, it will not work out, sorry to say. Black’s hatred of all thing white will prevent that in the long run. She has already proven to you that she is a racist, you got a peek at it. So just understand, you are only a “friend” while she is with you, once back with her friends, you are fair game. And as far as “understanding”. Understanding what? That she has chosen to co-opt a history she was not a part of and therefore you have to show deference? The best thig you, as friend could do is to pull her of of the victim-hood and the white hating that her parents taught her and help her break away from the POC that suppot that hatred and separatism. Good Luck, you are indeed bigger than I. I’ve tried that before to no avail. Its as if hating whites is a comfort food. Or actually a better analogy, it almost seems its in the DNA. Good luck! I’d like to hear how that goes. I discuss race with my students quite a bit, and this is something that comes up often.

  31. Ico says:

    Ah, more great words of wisdom from the Black People Whisperer! I shall take them to heart and break off friendships with all PoC. My black friends, my Latina friends, my Asian friends — clearly PoC hate white people (According to the Black People Whisperer: “hating whites is a comfort food…it’s in the DNA”), and nothing I do will pull them out of their victimhood and white-hating. Best thing for you and me to do, Amber, is to surround ourselves with loving white people who won’t judge us by skin color.

    But wait… I’m half PoC, myself. Aw, DAMMIT! Half my DNA is out to get me! Woe is me… what now?

  32. Michael says:

    ntrstng C, hlf f y pst ws m wrds. Bt thnk y shld s sm ntllctl hnst rthr thn smpl bbblng smrtss nchrnc. Nvr dd s brk ff frndshps. M pnt s nd stnd b t, s tht blcks r blcks frst, nd ll th htrd, sspcn f ll whts, mltnt hstrncs, c-ptng f th pst nd prnt -tght bgtr ds nt llw thm t smpl b frnds wth whts. Ds t hppn? Sr n rr ccsns. Dn’t blm m, th rc hstlrs hv dn ths t ll f s. Mck m, cld cr lss, m pnt s prvn vr d. Hwvr, ‘d lk t s y dscss th ss rthr thn smpl rpt m wrds nd thrw n lttl srcsm. nd f crs, nvr sd tht nyn s “t t gt” nybd. ts smpl ssrtn, frndshp btwn rcs s tgh rd, nd mst ftn mpssbl. n sm rcs, tht s b dsgn, thrfr nt wrth th ffrt ntl th hv shwn thmslvs t b fr f th htrd.

  33. nojojojo says:

    I’ve had enough of this. Michael, you have been disemvoweled. I’ve also warned ABW that you’re back, despite the fact that you apparently said you were done with this site. Wow, a racist *and* a liar. Go figure.

    I suspect ABW is planning to ban you, but it’s her site and I’m just a guest editor, so that’s her call.

  34. Ico says:

    Friendship between races is a tough road as long as people like you make assumptions about racial hatred underlying all interactions and relationships. It boggles my mind that you can’t see the fact that what YOU are saying (“blacks are blacks first” and cannot “simply be friends with whites”) is as problematic as what you criticized Amber’s friend for. You are saying the *same exact thing* she did (black people can’t trust white people as friends), but backwards. And you are not even saying it as a member of a race that faces systematic oppression, but as a privileged individual who benefits from that oppression.

    You can’t see your own hypocrisy or your own privilege. What is there to discuss?

  35. Ico says:

    Whoops, I meant that post to be a reply to Michael, not to you, Nojojojo. =D Though that’s probably pretty clear.

    Amber, glad to hear you’re going to try to work things out with her and be understanding. =) Good luck. I’m sure things will work out just fine.

  36. the angry black woman says:

    Yes, Michael is banned. and now I’m pissed. see latest post.

  37. Amber says:

    yeah my friend and I had a deep talk today =/
    I had broght some food into a back room where we were working she was talking on her cell to someone she said to me “girl where did you get that food”
    i replied “all you people are asking me that!”
    i even said it with a smug/smile look.
    she told her friend on the phone “oh i guess she is referring to colored folks by saying you people”
    and so after she got of the phone i sat her down and we talked a long while ,i told her you people ment my friends her and my other friend had both said hey were did ya get ur food lol.
    so she made a joke oh ur friend is black too aint she (and she was joking cuz my other friend i was referring to was white) anyways she said when she hears the phrase “you people” from a white person that ,that automatically makes her think they are referring to blacks? and so then i just flat out told her i said look you need to relize that RACE does not matter to me I am not ONE Of those kinda ppl.
    you can always come to me etc I am and will always remain the same.
    You see me as ur work associate im sure but I see you as more then that my friend too.
    Then i brought up what she said last week about trusting white ppl,she said what she ment is she didnt trust ppl in general and has always had real issues with trusting ppl.
    i shook my head and listened to her ,she said she had been really burnt by an older lady she had given money too in the past and that ever since then she has been really distant in trusting and confiding in ppl.
    so listened and told her i understand and i do……
    trust is something earned… regardless of our outside appearence and michael if you believe wtever ur reading you are brainwashed dear.
    Folks can always change,without change we would have never had advanced technologies.
    WE WOULD NEVER EVOLVE we would stay the same..

  38. Ico says:

    It sounds like you two got a lot of things out in the open. Glad to hear it. =) Keep being there to listen and understand. I think as long as you are honest and kind, she’ll see that and you can build back that trust in one another.

  39. Angel H. says:

    Amber, I’m so glad that things worked out with your friend. I’m especially glad that by sitting down and talking to her that you realize that it’s not always a “black & white” thing.

    I wish you both all the best.

  40. m Andrea says:

    This was interesting, thank you. I see the link for that other post, but I just wanted to say that hate is not dependent upon power. You can hate someone and do them harm without having power over them. The “power of privilege” only comes into play if the person gets caught.

  41. m Andrea says:

    Sorry, I should have said

    The “power of privilege” only comes into play if the person gets caught for the harm they caused.

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