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…)