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Monday Debate : What is Racism?

My new idea for getting other people to say interesting things on my blog: Monday Debate. This is where I invite folks to come in, sit a spell, and have a discussion on a contentious topic. The main reason for doing so is to try and solve some unsolvable problems and answer some unanswerable questions. Lofty, right?This week’s Monday Debate is about Racism. Many months ago, I posted:

Racism = Prejudice + Power

Whenever I get into it with someone who calls me a racist, I point to that post and tell them that I cannot be racist because I have no power. Prejudiced? Oh yes. But not racist. In America, I say, black people cannot be racist.

However, it has come to my attention recently that there are people who feel that this definition of racism is incomplete, perhaps even completely wrong. They deny that Racism and Institutional Racism are the same thing. They deny that minorities are exempt from it. They often wield the dictionary as their rhetorical weapon of choice.

Here is the dictionary definition:

  1. : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
  2. : racial prejudice or discrimination

[Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary]

And another:

  1. a belief or doctrine 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.
  2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.


The point of contention here mainly comes from the last definitions: racial prejudice or discrimination / hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. These make no reference to society, culture, or systems. Just discrimination based on race.

Other definitions of Racism found on the web:

A form of discrimination based on race, especially the belief that one race is superior to another. Racism may be expressed individually and consciously, through explicit thoughts, feelings, or acts, or socially and unconsciously, through institutions that promote inequality between races.

[Source: Kids.Net.Au]

The inherent belief in the superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance.

[Source: Audre Lorde via University of Idaho Lexicon of Appropriate Terms]

The belief that one ‘racial group’ is inferior to another and the practices of the dominant group to maintain the inferior position of the dominated group. Often defined as a combination of power, prejudice and discrimination.


Some of the points I want this debate to address:

  • Which definition of Racism should be used in discussions about race?
  • Is the dictionary definition sufficient? What argument can be made as to why the dictionary definition is irrelevant/outdated/etc?
  • Is “Institutional Racism” the only real Racism?

Feel free to bring up/make your own points.

Also, the related topic of Sexism as Prejudice + Power may also be discussed because it’s another -ism that some feel requires institutional power for perpetration. However, let’s keep the main focus on Racism.


I’m hoping this will be an actual debate and not just groups of people screaming at each other. I don’t expect that this will be a problem considering the excellent regulars here, but I’m putting that out there for new folks who drop by. While I am normally all snark all the time, I’m turning off the snark for now. I am interested in exploring this issue with an open mind. I’m asking that anyone who comments do the same. Though humor is, as always, welcome.

When you make statements, make it clear if you are spouting an opinion or a fact. If a fact, back it up as well as you can. Unsupported ‘facts’ are opinions. If your ‘fact’ is supported by personal experience, that doesn’t invalidate it, but it does make the ‘fact’ one based on limited data, thus it does not carry as much weight.

Anonymous commenters, please provide us with some kind of handle to call you by. And don’t come and post under lots of different handles to make it seem like lots of people agree with you. I’ll know. And I’ll smite you.


I’ll say this: I am being extremely optimistic that a debate on this blog can settle anything. But we have to start somewhere, right? If this question is to be settled somewhere at some time, then the discussion has to happen somewhere at some time. Part of it will happen here and now.

P.S. The discussion of racism on Karnythia’s LJ is very eye-opening and a good primer for this debate.

51 thoughts on “Monday Debate : What is Racism?”

  1. Central Content Publisher says:

    The problem I have with this argument is two-fold.

    First: there’s a problem of selective scope, and measurement of power. If we take the world as a whole, white people are about to loose their ability to be racist to asian power, but even today, the distribution of power by race shifts around depending on how you measure it. If we limit the scope to the United States, black people have more power than asians do, so asians can’t be racists, but black people can be… but only to asians. If we shrink the scope to the neighbourhood I grew up in, where I was pretty much the only white kid, I couldn’t possibly be racist there (which was true in my situation, but ya know). If we limit the scope to my job, where my boss is black, again, only he can be racist.

    Your theory simplifies power to a totality which doesn’t exist in reality. Saying that a white man in the gutter can be racist, but his black congressman can’t be: is logically flawed.

    Second: This definition of racism implies that only members of the most powerful race can misuse their power; that all institutions are controlled by one race; and that all other forms or arenas of power are non-existent.

    I don’t have a problem with identifying racism as prejudice plus power, but you should give some thought to the diversity and scope of power structures.

    (apply the same argument to sexism)

  2. Amananta says:

    I guess one could argue that there is a sort of “little ‘r’ racism” vs “big ‘R’ Racism” you could point out, wherein the first would be a marginalized group being angry at all white Americans and thus maybe being rude to them in the subway or something, and the second would be government policies decided upon by an almost all-white group that hurt pretty much all non-white people. The first one exists, but how can anyone say a personal snub is on the same level as job discrimination, the legacy of slavery and genocide, the risk of being arrested and going to jail for having done nothing at all, or anything else that institutionalized racism has brought us?
    So in other words, I don’t think a mere dislike of the ruling class can be compared with the undeserved punishment visited upon those who are not a member of that class.

  3. sokari says:

    This is an excellent idea (wish I had thought of it myself? ) not just the debate but it’s a way to explore our own ideas, feelings and to learn from each other.

    Before commenting no which of these definitions is the most appropriate I think it is useful to look at how the use of the word has changed. BFP alluded to this in her post on racism in the blogosphere and you also touched on it on your post on white privilege. What I see happening is that more and more the term is being distorted and devalued as white people use it to describe what I term prejudice or discrimination. Its as if for example in the UK black and whites live next door to each other and blacks have jobs as lawyers and doctors not just janitors and labourers racism has ended.

    I am not sure whether white people don’t get it or they are just playing a game – maybe it’s a bit of both but the numbers who are willing to reflect on their privilege and their unconscious thoughts and action towards people of colour are few and far between.

    About 9 months ago I was visiting the us (I lived here for a few years some many moons ago) and wrote a piece on my observations on race in 2006 America. A number of people commented off post and on saying that race was no longer the issue but class. I disagree. Which comes to your statement that prejudice + power = racism. The assumption being that because there are black people in the upper strata of society, professionals, millionaires and what have you, that somehow or other racism is no longer an issue. Now we need to look at the meaning of power. Who has it – are these black millionaires, lawyers etc people with power. Maybe relatively speaking but the reality is no they don’t. It reminds me of the scene in Crash where the Black movie director and his wife are stopped – she is sexually abused and he is humiliated (I wont go into their characters as that’s a whole other discussion). In terms of class they could be said to be in positions of power but as we saw it is simply a façade – him in the studio and both of them on the streets are subject to white power at any given moment.

    To wind up. At first glance I would go with

    “A form of discrimination based on race, especially the belief that one race is superior to another. Racism may be expressed individually and consciously, through explicit thoughts, feelings, or acts, or socially and unconsciously, through institutions that promote inequality between races.”

    However I note that the definition misses the “right to dominance” which Audrey Lorde’s definition points out. So I would say the above together with Lorde’s point on dominance – in fact dominance is a key word in defining racism.

    On whether institutional racism is the only “real” racism. No I think individual racism and institutional racism work off each other and side by side – after all institutions are made up of people, society is made up of people.

    I’m not sure if I have kept to the rules here – but I’m not anonymous and the above are my opinions. I would say that the way racism is expressed, its form differs from country to country. For example there are differences between the way racism is expressed in the US, in the UK, Spain where I live and in Africa.

  4. al says:

    i think what people are missing a lot of the time, when they say that POC can be racist, is that is most frequently not the point of whatever is going on/being discussed. it’s been said that the worst thing you can call a white person, from their perspective, is racist. so it seems to me when they are saying “but, but black people can be racist too, it’s just a different sort of racism” they are really just deflecting what they see as an extreme affront to their self image and it really has little to do with whether they actually -think- racism can come in different flavors. by widening the scope (or having a wide scope) of what racism is, they can chalk it up to ‘the human condition’ and make “institutional” racism, or whatever they want to call it to differentiate between POC on white prejudice and white on POC oppression simply a matter of scale.

    but ultimately, that doesn’t matter. if POC can be ‘racist’, that really only means that racism can come in mild forms. it means that it doesn’t make the racist systems that priveledge white skins and cultures any less virulent or wrong. and it doesn’t mean that when little r racism is expressed by a white person it isn’t still worse than any little r racism expressed by a POC because that white person still has big R racism backing their shit up.

  5. al says:

    sorry, that second paragraph, the second sentence, “it means” should -not- be there. sorry for the extra comment here too.

  6. Sailor X says:

    I came here today because I was invited so please bare with me. I know I’m not the best with words and this can often lead to huge misunderstandings so I’m going to keep this short and simple.

    It’s my firm belief that rasicm comes in all colors.

    A person does not have to be in power to be racist, they just have to hate people of another color.

    Power, only gives those people a greater chance to oppress the people they hate.

    So there you have it, there’s my opinion.

  7. Sailor X says:

    Shoot, Sorry I’m not sure I was supposed to come here or not. The comments on lj aren’t lining up.

    So if I wasn’t invited, I’m sorry for intruding. I really think it lines up to another person, truly sorry about that.

    Plus… I spelled racism wrong and it was bugging the heck out of me. Sorry for double posting.

  8. the angry black woman says:

    Sailor X – No worries, this is a public blog and everyone is welcome to comment. If you’re interested in continuing the debate, please stay.

    (also, I’ll fix your typos if you like)

  9. sly civilian says:

    i agree, strongly, that power has to be in the defintion. what that doesn’t resolve is where and how.

    i don’t tend to think of power as have/have not kind of property, but one of degree, extent, and source. The basic problem i see here is status conflict. I think any explanation of racism has to account for, in some way, the way in which individuals have both priviledges working for them, and prejudices against. My white dude of middle class america priviledge is at times interrupted or conflicted (but never erased or nullified) by expressing a queer idenity… Condi certainly has influence on the world stage (i’m trying to leave out “power” here to avoid self-definition), but is white america *really* ever going to forget the color of her skin?

    Now, certainly i’d put the blame for the racist/imperialist Middle East policy right at the feet of McCowboy and his Overlord Dick, but to the extent that folks are in america (and this doesn’t mean they’re *equally* in america if that makes sense) they do have some level of power over Iraqi citizens who are subject to our exported violence.

  10. debbie says:

    The definition of racism (and other forms of oppression such as sexism) is based on an understanding of institutionalized/systemic oppression. I actually wrote an faq about systemic/institutionalized oppression for the lj feminist community that I used to moderate.
    I really like how Paul Kivel explains systemic/institutionalized oppression:
    “prejudice is certainly one result of racism, and it fuels further acts of violence toward people of color. However…. racism is the institutionalization of social injustice based on skin color, other physical characteristics, and cultural and religious difference. White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land, and material goods favoring white people. Another way to state this is that white racism is a system in which people of color as a group are exploited and oppressed by white people as a group.”
    The faq can be found here

  11. Amananta says:

    Actually, now that I’ve had time to read a lot of that other discussion, I see what I meant by “litle ‘r’ racism” probably is better defined as prejudice. Just to clarify.

  12. petitpoussin says:

    Earlier today Bitch Lab posted an excerpt from an article called ‘Whites will be Whites’, which speaks towards privilege as a byproduct of institutionalized racism. I think my definition of racism (which matches best with the last given definition, if I had to choose) could use this as an example:

    Further, in the Affirmative Action dialogue, Whites support and engage in a rhetoric that casts White non-recipients of contracts, school admission, and jobs as innocent victims. In contrast, the recipients of these are cast as “takers” of something rightfully belonging to Whites, or the dominant body.

    This whole idea of playing the ‘race card’ – read it somewhere on that LJ thread, ‘whites have the whole deck’. We need to recognize that, institutionally, the default setting is white in the U.S.

    I would hardly say that institutional racism is the ‘only’ racism, but I think people can be more hesitant to the idea of ‘built-in’ racism, rather than one individual racist that everyone can just ignore. So I might claim that it’s the more dangerous form (because of its longevity).

  13. Kristina says:

    Hmm. I think that there are a couple types of racism being discussed here. In Comment #9, sly civilian talks about “white dude of middle class america priviledge.” I see this as racism, the institution. I am not saying that sly civilian is racist, but that I think that white privilege is a part of Kivel’s definition of racism as an institution (rather than a by-product. I hear by-product and I think of something that occurs incidentally, and I don’t think white privilege is an accident or unplanned at all).
    I think there is another type of racism, though. Accounting for “priviledges for, and prejudices against” is part of the process of navigating (and oppressing or being oppressed in) daily life in society. I realize that technically, it’s referred to as being discriminated against, but the word “discrimination” can be applied in many contexts, and I think is too ambiguous. Angry black woman’s central premise is that black people can not be racist. To oversimplify (and please correct me if I am way off base), if a POC is discriminated against by a white person, the process is racism. If a white person is discriminated against by a POC, the process is not racism.
    I understand that racist is also an adjective for a person, place, or thing that exerts power, prejudice, and oppression over another (person, place or thing) based upon immutable characteristics (skin color, sexual orientation, etc.).

    By way of explanation, I am taking the LSAT in approximately 2 weeks, and one of the most common logical fallacies is to label two different things as the same. While it may appear like I’m splitting hairs, a process and an institution are very different things. As an anology, I am reading (for a class) about how to define globalization: as a process, an institution, or both?
    Thanks for creating this open forum. I found your blog through Feministing.

  14. Eric Bresin says:

    I happen to agree with Sailor X. Any one of any group can be racist. You don’t need to have power in order to be racist; though, I do think “power” is a major part of the equation. Not because power makes you racist or creates racism, but because power gives you more opportunity to act on your racism with less fear of repercussions.

    But power-relationships can change depending on your environment. Pardon the racial epithet, but I always recall in these debates that quote from American History X where Guy Torres’ character Lamont says to Edward Norton Jr’s white supremacist character: “Just remember, in here, you the n***. Not me.”

    This same line can be extended to whites living in non-white communities. I’m not trying to create an “Oh, poor White man” sympathy argument, however what I am trying to say is that power-dynamics aren’t simply some amorphous thing hanging in the nether that is the “entire country” and institutionalized like some flat brick-wall of rules and restrictions. There’s bends and shifts that play out differently in different regions and different population make-ups.

    As far as the question of whether Blacks can be racist…

    What does one make of an African-American not directing their anger at whites, but at other minorities?

    Click here for Campaign Video

    What does one make of the well-documented anti-Semitism of certain African-American groups? Are you going to tell someone of Jewish heritage that these groups aren’t “racist”? (even though, we just happen to use a different word to describe it).

    The Strange Phenomenon of Black Anti-Semitism

    Searching for Common(sense) ground

    Taye Diggs and Idinda Menzel Hate Letters

    (Interesting, when they reported this on the news back in New York, they mentioned that the letters specifically pointed to Menzel’s Jewishness rather than her whiteness and called the letters anti-semitic in nature.)

    Not to mention I once saw a map of various known locations of racial organizations across the country: neo-Nazis, KKK, Skin-heads, but there was also a fourth group included in the demographics of an all-Black group (with a name that I forgot) who hated whites and specifically Jews. Wish I could find the map, but my searches on the net have been fruitless ever since that one time. Are these Blacks belonging to such a group not racist?

    Also, what does one make of blacks accused of being racist towards their own culture?

    The Multiracial Activist (TMA) Says “Send The Racist Boondocks Comic Strip Back To The Boondocks”

    Boondocks Vs. Harlem River

    Mulatto community discussing Boondocks comic strip

    (P.S. the above views are not mine, I happen to like the Boondocks comic strip and TV show for a variety of reasons.)

    To sum up, if you hate someone because of their race or ethnicity whether you have institutional power or not, it’s racism. You don’t need to be in or have power to kill someone because of their color or ethnicity, you don’t need to be in or have power to vandalize a Synagogue or a mosque or some other physical establishment those committing such a crime might relate to a particular ethnicity, you don’t need to be in or have power to commit a crime in the name of racial hatred. Tell the victims of these crimes that they didn’t experience racism.

    I find the very idea that only the racial group with more power can be racist to be a tad disturbing to say the least. If Group A in charge of the government were to kill mass numbers of Group B in ethinc cleansing, and then Group B suddenly managed to take power in said country and started killing their Group As in retaliating ethnic cleansing (although having these same hatreds before they took power and same exact thoughts of committing mass slaughter but without the power to enact them), is it only racist after they seize power and not before?

    Substitute whatever group you choose in for Group A or B, black, white, Shiite, Sunni, Jew, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian.

  15. Laura says:

    Nice discussion; thank you for hosting it, ABW. (I’m pretty sure I’m a first-time commenter here, by the way, but I’m a huge fan.)

    I think in some sense, “Does a person have to be in power to be racist?” (paraphrasing Sailor X) is the wrong angle to take, because the discussion winds up boiling down to different dictionary definitions, and missing–or discussing only by vague implication–what I perceive to be the real meat of the issue, and what I think ABW’s questions pointed to, which is about whether certain concepts are worth isolating and separating from other concepts they are often lumped in with.

    So the question I’m interested in is, “Is prejudice+power a fundamentally thing from prejudice without power, and does it make sense to discuss the former specifically and by its own name?” And I guess a secondary question you could ask there would be “When might it be useful to think in general terms about racial (or sexual, or FITB) prejudice, without specifying whether the person exercising the prejudice has social power behind it?”

    To the former of which I say yes, yes, oh hell yes (opinion here!); but it doesn’t matter to me personally whether the word we use for that is “racism” (or “sexism,” in that context) or something else, and sometimes I think it would be more useful to adopt new terminology for prejudice+power, rather than trying to attach that meaning to terminology which has already been so widely co-opted for more generic usage. On the other hand, maybe the new terminology would get reappropriated too quickly to be useful anyway, and there’d still be no avoiding this argument.

    With regard to the second question I posed, I’d say (more opinions!) that it is sometimes useful to talk in power-neutral terms about prejudice (or bigotry, or discrimination, or whatever), but that this is the case far, far less often than people who are in denial about the whole concept of privilege seem to believe.

    OTOH, I’m white, so I try to take my own opinions about racism much less seriously than I do the opinions of people with first-hand experience on the without-power side of things. I’m largely extrapolating here off of my thoughts on the analogous “what is sexism?” topic (where I consider myself entitled to more opinions, although still mostly only where class-privileged white-people sexism is concerned).

  16. David Moles says:

    Arguing about what words mean is usually a great way to avoid discussion of actual problems.

  17. Anna in Portland (was Cairo) says:

    The sociological definition of racism which uses the word only in a power construct means that it has much more meaning and is much more useful as a word.

    This will anger people who would like it to be vague enough for them to be able to use it in all sorts of situations so that all sorts of prejudice can be seen as equally wrong or reprehensible and discussions about power dynamics can never really happen.

    This has also happened to the word “terrorism” which is exclusively used for official enemies when states the US supports use similar or worse techniques against their enemies.

    In a situation like that, either clearly redefine the term (e.g. the sociological definition of racism) or stop using it (what I have pretty much done with the word terrorism). Other than that, it is being used as rhetoric or as an emotional buzz word, which is dishonest and not debate.

  18. Cocacy says:

    Excellent blog! Look forward to reading more of your posts!

  19. Shamus Scottus says:

    Racism is subcategory of prejudice (to hold a belief without warrant or reason) where the unfounded beliefs are based on race.

    Racism does not equal prejudice plus power. Oppression can be dictated by race as the case has been in the United States but they are two mutually exclusive categories.

    History in the United States, citing extreme examples for what is deemed as racism refutes your definition in that there are countless times when the poorest of whites attacked and terrorized blacks in an assumed fear of losing jobs from potential cheaper black labor pools.

    Although these whites certainly had more protection under the law, even for their abhorrent behavior, power, in the grand scheme of things was certainly something they lacked.

    If you make any irrational judgments based on race, whether it be Asians do well in school because of their race or black people are lazy because of theirs, you are being racist.

    If you ban all the little Asian goody goodies from schools so they can’t get more educated than your own race, then you have oppressed them based on racial distinction.

  20. Eric Bresin says:

    Uhm, isn’t using the term “little Asian goody goodies” a bit racist? Why use the adjectives “little” and “goody goodies?” Are they necessary to get your point across? I don’t mean to infringe on your freedom of speech, but those words seem pretty damn racist to me, and well, I thought I would point it out to you and let you decide if you agree.

    But this does bring back the interesting question (well, interesting to me anyway) of what happens when you remove the word “racism” from the White/Black dichotomy and start looking at it from the angle of another “non-white” group oppresing another “non-white” group.

    Also, this line you wrote is “White Privilege” incarnate: these whites certainly had more protection under the law. Why should ANYONE have more protection under the law?

  21. Shamus Scottus says:

    I don’t mean to sound prejudice but is the comprehension of satire completely devoid in post modern debate or are the little Asian goodies the only ones that did well enough in school to be able to detect it these days?

    White privilege is a very vague term. Why would white authorities take on the burden of protecting people that are not even allowed to vote (not by law but by practice in thwarting it) when those people’s interests are seen as a threat both to those whites in power and those whites who have no power and might see black folk as getting a step up?

    If you want to understand the nature of politics (that is power) then interests are quintessential.

    Whites, those that gain at the expense of or off the back of other colors and creeds do not do so because they are privileged but because they have forced their gain at another’s expense. Meaning to keep others down is work. Hard work at that. They earned it by being the brutes that they are.

    At base if you are not being all tootie fruity idealistic, if you want what they got, then take what you want the way they did. But you better be a grain above the better for they got stops and traps to thwart–that you may not be privy to.

    They don’t play your game of lets hold hands and meet for a picnic down by the lakeside. I wish they did, but you know…

  22. theohzone says:

    I like what you said, Eric: “power-relationships can change depending on your environment.” plus the fact that you were sensitive about encroaching on somebody’s first amendment rights despite the fact that they think vocalizing “asian goody goody” is hysterical…

    ANYWAYS, power certainly can be defined relatively, because there will always be oppressor/oppressed. I don’t think it’s fair to say you have no power, ABW. Don’t you think that’s presumptuous? Surely everybody inhabits some realm of power/powerlessness. Although I do take petitpoussin’s point that white IS the default setting and that necessarily puts POC’s in a minority position – hence oppressed, by history and numbers. But how are the hierarchies between oppressed people’s relevant in the case of understanding ABW’s lack of power and resulting prejudice? Am i being clear or is this fuzzy? forgive me, it is very late as i write this.

    (BTW, i’m appreciative of Sailor’s X’s directness and politeness. rare in these bloggy times.)

  23. theohzone says:

    I’d like to add that I agree with Sailor X that any POC can be racist. Internalized racism, for example. I often laugh at my “own people” the Koreans. I have no power over them but I have been accused of being racist. That’s my own issue, but I do believe this is something that afflicts everyone.

  24. chronodm says:

    …or are the little Asian goodies the only ones that did well enough in school to be able to detect it these days?

    Well, since grammar seems to have eluded our Caledonian brethren….

  25. the angry black woman says:

    I’ve been hanging back on this one to allow folks the opportunity to make their arguments and discuss and such. So far, I’m really happy. I’ve seen some amazing comments. I even have some responses written, but not typed. As soon as I’m done with work today, I am all over that.

    However, I need to insert myself as a moderator here and say to Shamus: You are on very thin ice rght now. If you choose to comment again, think carefully about your words and attitude. You only get one more chance.

    Thanks, all!

  26. Shamus Scottus says:

    Y ‘prjdcd’ ff th bt; I plgz fr th rrrs n grmmr s I ws typng n hst. t rlly s  sr n th y.

    I dd thnk crflly bt my wrds nd tttd, jst nt th grmmr s I dn’t knw wht y r tlkng bt. f y r thrtnng m, prhps y shld thnk mr yrslf? t wld b  shm fr y t s yr PWR s mdrtr n nncssry wys, r r y  hypcrt?

    I knw I m smtms. nd y nvtd m hr n th frst plc?

    h nd Chrndm, I hnstly (nd I rlly mn t) dmr yr ttmpt t wt bt Sctts s  mddl-gd Ltn trm tht dnts smn f rsh dcnt, nt Scttsh.

    Lks lk I cld s t brsh n my grmmr nd y yr Ltn, bt tht’s fr dn’t y thnk?

  27. Shamus Scottus says:

    After reading all the comments though I am more confused about the way the concept of power is being discussed more than the concept of racism?

    Unless I’m banned next or something?

  28. suzie says:

    I think you’re on thin ice ‘cus of your “asian goodies” comment and assuming we wanna hold your hand by the lakeside, not ‘cus of your grammar. Grammar ain’t the issue – respect is.

    Although I do respect the fact that you’re obviously trying to say something here and that you feel strongly about the subject – but your expression best be done without the condescension.

  29. the angry black woman says:

    Still working, on a lunch break, here just for a second to nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand.

    Shamus, this conversation isn’t about you and I won’t allow you to make it about you. Read suzie, she’s smart, she knows what I’m talkin’ about. You’re on moderation now, hon. Not banned, just reigned in. I did invite you here, but I also told you to follow the rules. So far, you’re not.

    Also, I’m devoweling you.

  30. ken says:

    Hi Tempest,

    Sufficient time has passed since my rather spectaclar foaming at the mouth over this issue to make a comment.

    First off, total apologies for the seriously wretched rascist comments when last we discussed this. The crazy button got pushed that day, for sure.

    From my perspective, this issue of what racism is, exactly, is part of what is holding every one back from making any significant strides toward ending it once and for all.

    In my opinion, the definition is not accurate for the purposes of holding mutual and beneficial discussion on race.

    Racism, in my opinion, is not prejudice + power. Racism is a support structure of Power, and I think the distinction is an important one.

    I think the distinction is important in terms of how racial minorities view themselves and their actions, how racial majorities view themselves and their actions, how the different sides talk about the issues, as well as important in terms of what kind of solutions both sides come up with.

  31. suzie says:

    Maybe we should make a taxonomy here. I’m getting lost on equations, byproducts, and support structures.

  32. ken says:

    Oops. Just so you have an accurate email. If you send one not sure if it will deliver with the “google” in the middle or not.

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  35. the angry black woman says:

    The difference in the way people think of and/or experience racism probably comes down to whether or not you experience or see racism as a social/sociological phenomenon or only as interactions between individuals. It’s easy for people who do not experience racism on a daily basis to not see it as a social function. There are no more segregated buses or water fountains, no Jim Crow laws. But that’s doesn’t mean that there’s no more segregation, or that society as a whole has put aside racist practices. As I and others often say, it’s just become more subtle.

    So, on one hand, when people argue over definitions of racism, they are really arguing over worldviews. “I don’t see things that way” is a legitimate excuse for past views, but not a legitimate way to go forward. Once someone who actually lives an experience comes along and tells you how things look from inside their skin, the proper response is not “You must be delusional” if the only comparison data you have is your own experience or that of other people just like you.

    One of white America’s favorite games to play is Blame the Victim. No matter how disadvantaged a person is, no matter what manner of heinous acts are perpetrated against them, somehow it’s always their own fault. Women are raped because they asked for it, black people are poor and disadvantages because we’re lazy and irresponsible, gays are assaulted because they dare express sexual interest in so-called non-gays. The fact that folks don’t see the problem with any of those statements is probably why relations between marginalized/oppressed groups and non marginalized/oppressed groups is so bad right now. The non-marginalized/oppressed refuse to take any responsibility because it’s never, ever their fault.

    That’s bullshit, frankly.

    But, as I said, I think a lot of that comes from completely divergent worldviews between minorities and white males. Ampersand over on Alas has touched on this more than once. From his Privilege post:

    “It sometimes puzzles conservatives that progressives are so concerned with what people think. What is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, after all, other than a way some people think about some other people? And as long as I’m free to pursue my own self-interest, what does it matter what others think of me?

    The more privileged you are, the less other people’s thoughts count.

    Those are small examples, but they illustrate what I mean. To someone with a lot of privilege, what strangers think is irrelevant. To someone in a less privileged position, what strangers think of you determines what kind of access you get to the complex network of relationships that make up our society and our economy. When strangers often think less of you because of your sex or race, you have less access to the material benefits of our society and economy.”

    See also his post on the Clinton blogger lunch and the very different ways white bloggers and black bloggers saw the event.

    The inability to empathize, to even attempt to see things the way another person sees them, is the root of many problems, racism being just one.

    Onto my thoughts on definitions.

    David, though I agree that there are many times when people get sidetracked arguing about an irrelevant part of an issue to distract from discussing the real issue, the point of my post was to put an end (in my case, anyway) to the need to ever have such arguments again. The reason I started this blog is that I was tired of educating every ignorant white person I came across on the internet. The problems always arose when they would engage me in a dialogue centered around terms whose definitions were a given to me but not to them. So, I make informative posts on these topics and open them up to discussion. The next time I get into it with ignorant people, I don’t have to have this 101 level discussion with them, I can just point them to my post. There’s my position along with comments most likely covering all the rebuttals and excuses they would have tried to throw at me (you’d be surprised at how predictable these people can be) along with intelligent answers to their stupid statements. Then we can move past 101 level dialogue and move on to the next.

    As you see from this post, views and opinions are quite varied. But all of it is stuff I’ve heard before. All. Here I have the chance to share my views an opinions and to come up with answers (or discover them through the views and opinions of others) that I consider conclusive. This makes me better able to articulate my position in the future.

    Also, I feel that, in making it clear what I or anyone else mean when I use a word or reject a label, I am also fighting or supporting the concept that word represents. How can we end Racism if people have so poor an understanding of the word as to think it doesn’t exist? How are we to have discussions on white privilege if people are operating under incorrect notions of what it is? The answer is that we cannot. More effective dialogue is what we need. Understanding what a word means when I use it is key to effective dialogue. In fact, that is one of the tenants of rhetoric.

    To that end, I think it would be very useful to discuss the word Power, since it has been the focus of many comments here and is key to the discussion of racism as I have defined it. There are many kinds of power that people may wield. The power a parent has over a child, a boss has over an employee, and a government has over its people. However, the only kind of power that matters in terms of racism, sexism, or any other kind of oppressive prejudice is the power of a dominant group to disadvantage a non-dominant group.

    While looking for something on the sociological definition of racism, I found an excellent essay about Defining Racism. The author, Daniel Hindes, says “Racism is a tool for domination and social control. Sociologically it is a psychological tool for the dominance of one group over another.” In the cases of individuals being racist, I still maintain that it can only happen when they are backed up by the power of the dominant group. And things like white or male privilege are drawn from that power. Some of the hypothetic scenarios brought up by commenters have been black congressman vs. white wino in the gutter or black boss vs. white employee. Certainly, these people all wield different types of power over the other, but it doesn’t matter how far down the white person is or how far up the black person is. The black person is still not a member of the dominant group. The white person still has the advantage of white privilege, whether or not he or she has been able to make the best use of that advantage. Again, the only Power that matters in the Prejudice + Power equation is that of the dominant group and individuals backed by the power of the dominant group in some way.

    (more to come)

  36. the angry black woman says:

    Oh, also, I must say that if I reiterated or agreed with a point someone has made in this discussion, that’s totally because *you* made that wonderful point. I forgot to make notes of who said what when I typed that up.

  37. David Moles says:

    …the point of my post was to put an end (in my case, anyway) to the need to ever have such arguments again.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were using it to avoid discussion of actual problems. But I’m afraid you’re probably never going to run out of people who would rather argue with you about whether Louis Farrakhan is racist than talk about the actual operation of prejudice, power, and privilege.

  38. Ellana says:

    I wandered in here from a post on a friend’s blog, with a link here, and found food for thought. I apologise in advance if this doesn’t ‘fit’ the discussion properly.
    I come from a different standpoint- for me the ‘white over black’ view is perhaps not wide enough to explore the full issue from a ‘race’ perspective.
    My view, as an Anglo-Saxon Australian, is probably centred on ‘white privelege’ obtained by force and oppression, since white settlement caused great loss and disruption to Aboriginal life and culture. There are strong predjudices associated with them and many face poverty and ill-health, and it can be said that this has been caused by ‘white’ treatment of Aborigines, including the integration policies that tore generations of families apart. On the other hand one could say that an Aborigine or someone of Aboriginal descent lives in a land of opportunity, as does anyone else born here, or who emigrates. On the other hand one could suggest the government is racist because so many Aboriginal people still live in 3rd-world conditions and are not not given enough succour.
    My father happens to think the ‘white Australia’ policy wasn’t a bad idea, and often makes offensive remarks about people from other cultures, which suggests to me he hasn’t got to know many people from many other backgrounds well enough to realise that his views may well be incorrect.
    To me, ‘racism’ is a blanket term describing the will of one individual or group of people unfavourably distinguish and treat another/other individual(s) or group of people due to race, which covers genetic descent, cultural and religious practices and lifestyle. There’s different aspects that fit this description- stereotyping (I’m guilty), impoliteness, discrimination, segregation, etc. One group may decide to torment, harrass and abuse another group that it sees as interlopers, beneath their standards, a risk to the community, or any number of reasons. A boss might not decide to employ someone who comes from a ‘terrorist’ country.
    Governments can instite and support cultural segregation and hatred: South Africa had Apartheid (s?) Germany had the Nazis. Any level of power, community or organisation is capable of perpetrating Racism in a form.
    A good example of racism from both ‘ethnic’ and ‘white’ comunities is the turmoil at Cronulla beaches in Sydney.
    Non-white males were harrassing white women who went to the beaches, whites decided to take action and rallys were held that decended into melees where many people who were of middle-eastern appearance were assaulted in the name of the cause. Several members of the other ethnic community caused riots.
    In my view, prejudice and power are indeed potent parts of racism but in the worst examples, so are hatred, anger, egotism and selfishness and ignorance.
    Power is had by ‘whites’ in many (but not all) of these situations because the white races that have conquered empires have decided to obtain and abuse other land, people and resources for their own ends, bringing us to how things have become. I strongly believe we are all guilty in some way but we can choose to look beyond our prejudices as we all suffer in one way or another from the harm done. (I admit I have quite a long way to go to lose my prejudices!)
    This post is probably fairly shabby because I’ve been awake way too long but I look forward to feedback.

  39. Ellana says:

    I’ve come back the next day after a decent sleep – sorry my post was so long.

  40. the angry black woman says:

    I’m going to try and write up the last of my responses here, though it may spread over several comments. It’s going to get a little tl;dr, sorry. Also, some of this is in response to specific people, some a general response. I’ll try to indicate when I can.

    Calling someone a Racist is a pejorative. A strong term that should be indicative of strong actions or words. I still think that racism can only occur when backed by systemic power, or, as Ken put it, a support structure of power. And I still hold that, in America, white people are the only ones with the kind of support structure that can perpetrate racism.

    Racism, as Anna pointed out, is a word that gets thrown around so much as to almost lose its power and meaning. It’s almost a buzzword, a bomb people throw into a conversation to, as al said, deflect and muddy the waters. And I completely agree with Anna that we cannot let the word racism go the way of Terror (or Terra, as it is so often said by the shrub). That’s why I wanted to have this conversation. I want people to really think when they use that word. I want to stand on very solid ground when I use that word or reject it as a label applied to me.

    Laura rearticulates my badly worded thesis much better: Is prejudice+power a fundamentally [different] thing from prejudice without power, and does it make sense to discuss the former specifically and by its own name?

    She says yes and I agree: Yes.

    Sokari is right, we are allowing Prejudice and Racism to conflate, but they are separate words for a reason. Kristina brought up that there is racism the process and racism the institution, and that they are two separate things. The problem is that they are often labeled the same, and she is right that they are not. I don’t think it’s splitting hairs at all – this discussion calls for surgical examination. Here is where I find myself wishing for a more accurate language. Or perhaps we do have one, but it’s not being utilized. (btw Kristina, the LSAT? Eek, you couldn’t pay me to go there again! Good luck.)

    The reason I reject that black people in America and other disadvantaged, oppressed, and marginalized people in the world cannot be Racist is that Racism is not just prejudice or discrimination. Though some may point to the dictionary and say “Yes, it is,” or “Yes, it can be,” I bring up another point from the Defining Racism essay: dictionary definitions are short and unambiguous, as they should be. You can’t, in a dictionary definition, include all of the discussion we’ve had here about Racism the institution, the process, and everything else. That’s not what a dictionary is for. The dictionary is a basic tool, but it is not (pardon me) ultimately definitive. And it’s not always completely correct. The dictionary isn’t free of bias or influence, and is (again, pardon me) usually put together by white people. It is a simple tool, at best, and this is not a simple issue.

    More accurate definitions of Racism, ones that describe what goes on in the real world, include:

    Racism is essentially a conscious or unconscious belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another\others and thereby the right by that race to use power to dominate.

    Definition of Racism“. Christian Anti-Racism Initiative. 23 Dec. 2004.

    And the one I think makes the case:

    Racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race. The manner in which the defense is articulated – either with hostility or subtlety – is not nearly as important as the fact that it insures the continuation of a privileged relationship. Thus it is necessary to broaden the definition of racism beyond prejudice to include sentiments that in their consequence, if not in their intent, support the racial status quo.

    Wellman, David T. Portraits of White Racism. Second Edition. Cited in: “Definitions of Racism”. Center for the Study of White American Culture, Inc. 2001. 23 Dec 2004.

    Other excellent definitions are the ones Debbie pointed out in her comment and the FAQ she pointed to. I’ll be linking that all over the place, thank you!

    So this leaves us with: what words do we use? I’ve given you my thoughts on what Racism is, but what do we call prejudice without power? Do we just leave it as prejudice (what some called ‘little r racism’)? Maybe that’s the next step: creating a lexicon. Perhaps this is the writer in me, but I always feel that better language leads to a better world. When we can define things specifically and accurately, our understanding grows. And understanding s definitely lacking in most discussions of race, power, and -isms.

    I have a few more responses for Sailor X, Eric, etc., but those will go in a separate comment. I want to say that I really appreciate the level of commentary I’ve had here from most people. This is a difficult topic to discuss without knee-jerk reactions and flying off the handle. Most of you haven’t done that. In fact, most of you are some of the most intelligent and well-spoken (written?) folks I’ve ever come across. I’m glad you decided to participate and I thank you for coming over.

    My word is not the ‘last word’ on this subject, so feel free to engage me or anyone else in further dialogue. However, next Tuesday I’m closing comments on this post. If you want to continue discussing, please email me.

  41. the angry black woman says:

    Before I get to my other response, I’d like to ask theohzone and anyone else who wishes to answer, what power do you think I, as a black woman in America, have to oppress, disadvantage, or marginalize?

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  44. Eric Bresin says:

    Hope you don’t mind me posting this little extra link, but I figured it was related to the topic and one hell of a resource.

    Racism – Encyclopedia entry, which uses the wikipedia entry, has a motherload of information on “racism” including much of what we have been discussing, Foucault’s study of race, Etymology, listing of “accused” racist groups (of all varieties), links to all sorts of related topics.

  45. sunrunner says:

    This is a wonderful thread. I am posting a link on my blog right now.

    Personally, I operate from the premise that it is impossible to grow up in this inherently racist culture and not internalize the tacitly accepted presumptions which lie behind racism. How these attitudes play out depends largely on one’s degree of privilege.

    A big part of the problem is that usually such attitudes are unconscious, thus unseen and unacknowlegded. So, for me, the challenge lies in my willingness to be open to seeing my own internalized racism at play. It is not easy, because none of us likes to think of oneself as a “bad person” (and most reasonable people will agree that racism is “bad”), so I think that the real work is to be done is with ourselves, as individuals . . . followed up by action of course!

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  48. claire says:

    tempest rocks! (for starting this discussion.) let me state right away that i have no answers to the questions, so i’m just gonna make some sentences and let them fall how they may.

    what power do you have to oppress others, tempest? well you have the power to bitchslap me all up the avenue. but then i can bitchslap you right back down the ave, so we’re even there.

    what makes me uncomfortable about your definition of racism at the top of all this is that *you*, tempest, are one of the smartest, most clear-eyed and concise and sharp-pointed analysts of, well, everything, that i’ve met. you have the power (smarts, education, verbal ability, energy, drive) to smack down 99.999% of our fellow citizens with a few well-chosen sentences. i am not being misty-eyed. this is genuine power. so to say that you yourself are incapable of being racist because you have no institutional power is both disingenuous and self-disempowering. you could wreck almost anyone if you chose to. individual power is … powerful. and it can be destructive. just ask condi.

    your current “powerlessness” is chosen. you *decided* not to go the corporate or conformist route. i respect you for that (i did it too), but choosing to step out (or further out than you already are) doesn’t mean that your outiness is oppression.

    and i say this realizing that any minute of every day you can step outside your door and get smacked down by even the lowest of the low–for being black. it’s not a simple equation is it?

    or let me put it this way: i’m asian, but neither little, nor a goodie goodie. east asians are famous for being afraid of black people, but i steel myself when i see a black man headed my way because that purposeful walk means only one thing: he’s gonna get up into my shit for being asian. 99% of the time, i’m right, too. not all, not most, not even that many black men. just the ones who actually walk towards me that way.

    do you know how long it’s been since i’ve taken shit from anyone but a black man for being asian? and yet, every single one of those black men who give me shit are wearing the aura of homelessness or some similar economic desperation on them, and they give me shit while i’m on my way to my fancy nonprofit, bleeding-heart job, or on my way to my mfa creative writing class, stinking of perfumed soap.

    i’m aware of my race all day long, and it’s not usually wealthy whites who make me aware of it, who make me cringe. it’s people who make me cringe for myself, then make me cringe for them. whoever it was above who said that blacks can only be racist to asians is just. not. seeing. the mutuality. it’s not a simple equation, is it?

    the top-ranking neighborhoods in the country for income are … asian. also, the bottom-ranking neighbhorhoods in the country for income are … asian. wrap your head around that. or around this: the percentage of asians with MDs far outstrips the overall percentage of asians in the population, and yet asian-specific diseases and health issues get short shrift, even compared to african american-specific diseases and health issues. asian american suicide, breast cancer, and obesity rates have either reached par, or outstripped everyone else’s.

    asians have entrée, limited, of course, into whiteness, while blacks don’t. and yet asians are routinely derided in mainstream media in a manner that african americans haven’t been for nearly half a century. we have no naacp-equivalent organization, no effective asian political caucus. african americans have real, if limited, *institutional* power. asian americans don’t. yet no one even needs to ask which is higher in the racial hierarchy, which less limited in terms of how each individual in the group is welcomed into opportunity. it’s complicated, isn’t it?

    if whites set the terms and forms of racism against asians, and yet it’s blacks who most often operate it, is it still racism? if an asian operates white racism against blacks at the behest of whites who make it a condition of acceptance, of economic opportunity, is *that* the racism you define as backed by institutional power? if my life is oppressed every day by the harrassment of people poorer and less privileged than i, but who exist together as a group while i am alone as an individual representative of *my* group, who is oppressed?

    okay, how about this one: i know two white men who grew up in communities of color. one is from a working class family and grew up in a primarily latino school district. he was beaten up every day for two years by his latino classmates. sure, he got to go home and watch tv shows that were all white and listen to white voices on the radio. probably most of his teachers were white, too. but what about him being bullied every day in school? for being white? where does that fit in?

    the other was middle class and was bused into a predominantly black school district. again, beaten up every day for years for being white. how do you measure how this man feels about race, about his own race and identity? if a kid is a minority in his school and mistreated by the majority every day for significant portions of his life, how much exactly does it matter that he graduates from daily prejudice into majority status? (should we ask israel?)

    and all this is *completely* aside from latinos, indians, and arabs.

    (like i said, i gots no answers.)

  49. Jan Tucker says:

    I teach a course in “Race and Ethnic Relations In American Culture”, and I’d very much like to link to your website. I received a copy of your discussion of white privilege from an American Indian activist friend, and will be using it to teach with also. It gives a voice to the thoughts of many of the minority students in my course and an excellent argument to the dismissive rhetoric of the privileged. Your article takes the argument for white privilege a deeper than some of the sources that I’ve been using, and that you have quoted in your blog.

    It’s always a privilege for me to learn more about the subject matter, and to hone my arguments to teach the whites in my class about the existence of privilege, the knee jerk denial of it’s existence, and the reasons for this denial. In my work trying to understand the issue of racism as it relates American Indians, has lead to a broader understanding of White Privilege through discussions with “educated” people of privilege on the subject of sports mascots. I am always shocked to learn they just can’t understand why Native people are offended when they aren’t bothered at all. If it doesn’t bother them, and they are intending to honor, then it “shouldn’t” bother Native people. Some even claim to be Native, and tell me I’m offending them since it’s ok with them. So we have another dimension of appropriation of native identity. Another argument is to tell Native people they need to work on their pressing problems like alcoholism, joblessness, and poverty first and stop wasting their time on the White school’s traditions. These other issues are so much more important, and why waste precious time and resources on the politically correctness of a mascot.

    Great discussion! I will be able to use some of the excellent arguments I’ve read in this blog while discussing the denial of White privilege in the debates surrounding the stereotyping of Native people by sports and media. Racism = Privilege + power applies very much to the mascot issue. Football is a stronghold to White male power clearly.

  50. Jon says:

    Wow, a great thoughtful thread on racism or what is racism. It’s really hard to find discourse on racism these days without the discussion backpeddling into simplistic conclusions in order to wrap up the discussion.

    I’m also a minority (Native). I’m also undecided where I fully stand on this issue. I’ve read white people on forums say that derogatory words like “cracker, honkie” etc, don’t offend them and they just laugh them off, implying that everyone should just laugh racial slurs off. However, is there really a history of negative connotations to those words? I mean, I can only think of George Jefferson. Redneck, however, I think is more hard-hitting, because it implies an issue of status and education. There is history with the word “redneck” although how hard-hitting I’m not entirely sure. I’ve also noticed “wigger” is “race-traitor” or “nigger-lover” — only modernized.

    This next point is where I stray from many other people. The terms “Uncle Tom” “Apple” “Banana” “Oreo” and others are offensive to me. They suggest a race should be a certain way and that going against the grain of your ethnic culture is some great sin and you are deemed a traitor. Every member of every race is an individual, first and foremost, and that individuality must be cherished and protected. If someone is successful, they might be accused of trying to be “white” — as if only white people can be successful. However, there are some people who might sell out their culture completely and know they are doing this — those are the real Uncle Toms. I suppose those words are offensive to me because they are exercised too freely.

    I suppose my opinion agrees with both sides. Yes, anyone can be racist, but it certainly helps if one’s words are backed by societal power and long/on-going history of that power. It’s like a homosexual person making fun of a heterosexual person and someone trying to say it’s the same thing as godhatesfags dot com — O Rly?

  51. blackadept says:

    Just to add to what petitpossin mentioned in comment 12. In response to criticisms of affirmative action programs, I remember hearing the retort “racism was/is affirmative action for white people”.

  52. the angry black woman says:

    That should be the next Monday Debate – Affirmative Action, threat or menace?

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