Can White People Be Victims of Racism? – Dialectic Two-Step
I recently had a wonderfully civilized chat on social media about the question “Can white people be victims of racism?” That fact that it was civilized is worthy of celebration. There were no temper tantrums and generally there was a free exchange of ideas and thoughts. Not everyone agreed, but no one got unhinged.
The question came up because a friend was having a conversation with her daughter about it. Her daughter took the position that white people could not be the victims of racism, because they are in a position of power. As we drilled down into it, there were some interesting discoveries made.
I started with googling a definition of racism. Here’s what I got:
Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
If we keep things abstract, we could read this definition to clearly to say any person who suffered prejudice, discrimination because someone else felt their race was superior was a victim of racism. But a good size chunk of our cohort felt that this wan’t true for white people. So what is it about white people that shields them from this?
What’s Power Got To Do With Racism
My friend’s daughter said that white people can’t experience racism because they are in a position of power. I thought that she was wrong, but I also believed she was intuiting the right answer.
We have to accept the important role that power plays in this. Racism and power are closely related, but we should be careful not to treat them the same.
We can say that power exacerbates the effect of racism. For instance, if a person from a power group antagonizes someone in a non-power group, justice can be impeded because the non-power group doesn’t have the same access to the mechanisms of justice. This also compounds the suffering for the victim.
The combination is probably what people refer to when they talk about institutional racism. But I worry that the term might be unhelpful, so we should tease out exactly what it means.
So called “white privilege” is the power thing. It can exist whether you’re racist or not. Power is the currency of oppression and privilege. One can be in the privileged group, but make a decent effort not to antagonize or feel superior to the non-privileged group. So how does this play out for white people who feel they live on the right side of this privilege and power line?
Let’s start with an example of racism where institutional power has less of an impact. Take a Somali refugee who has never committed a crime in Auburn Maine. Imagine they were tormented by a group of Latinos – who taunt them, calling them Muslim terrorists. The Latinos throw a bottle at their home breaking a window. In this case, neither group could be perceived as having more institutional power. It’s likely that justice might be meted out equivalently. If the police were to catch the Latino who threw the rock, they’d be charged and likely punished.
Now let’s introduce power into our thought experiment. Imagine the Latinos were yelling racist slurs and ultimately assaulted an innocent Somali in a Somali neighborhood and several people witnessed it. Before the Latinos could leave the neighborhood, they could be confronted by a large contingent from the neighborhood, held in check until the police arrived, and based on witness testimony served justice. Here the power situation has changed. In this case justice is more likely to be served because in the Somali neighborhood, power is on their side.
In this second example, would you say that the Somali was not a victim of racism because they were in a position of power (on home turf)? I don’t think so. What power did in this situation was to increase the likelihood of justice. But it did not change the fact that there was racism.
This latter scenario feels absurdly unlikely. This is because of the power situation, there is a natural deterrent in that it doesn’t make sense for a Latino to enter a Somali neighborhood and taunt them. Turf makes a difference, right.
Racism is Universal
Here’s where power and racism blend in our mind. This is why my friends daughter made the leap to saying white people can’t be victims of racism. That’s not strictly true, but in the United States it feels vanishingly remote, because white males hold a vast majority of power here. It sounds absurd that the Donald Trumps, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world would be the victims of racism. Power is a key component of this intuition. But if Trump was called a “cracker”, could you really say he doesn’t have the right to take exception and call it racism?
You might be thinking this is sophistry, but I think there is an important distinction. Framing the problem correctly is half the solution. I believe if we understand the distinct roles that power and racism play, we will have a better understanding of the problem.
The lack of power leads to a state of oppression. Let’s go to the dictionary again, so we can be accurate
Oppression is the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control.
Tell It Like It Is
Racism in the context of power is oppression. It feels more authentic and severe (as it should be). It feels less antiseptic and watered down than “institutional racism”. It also preserves the definition of racism to include white people as victims.
In this age of new language, let’s not loose the severity of oppression that comes from the combination of racism and power. Call it what it is. Don’t put lipstick on that pig by calling it institutional racism. We understand oppression and the need to combat it. Not so when it comes to something called “institutional racism”.
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Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two. - Octavio
Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst
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