Post-Racial = More Covert in Our Racism?

In the anti-racism work that I am privileged to be a part of around the country, I often have people (usually white people) say to me, “I don’t understand what the big deal is.  Racism is on the way out!  We’ve elected a black president.  There are laws against segregation.  We are post-racial.”  Indeed, many white folks seemed to think that the election of Barack Obama would lead to some sort of “post-racial” reality in the United States where past wrongs would be forgotten and present injustices would be wiped away, but what that seems to imply is that we white folks are simply sick and tired of hearing people of color complain.  It’s almost as if we’re saying, “We threw you a bone!  We elected one of YOU PEOPLE!  Move on!”

The reality, though, is that racism is just getting harder and harder to identify as those (or should I say those of us) who perpetuate it are more and more covert in our racism.  I thought of this last night as I was at a training to volunteer with an amazing program called Reading to End Racism.  We were discussing some potential books that folks could read with their students in the program, and our trainer, Daniel, highlighted An Angel Just Like Me by Mary Hoffman, a story about a young black boy who looks around at all of the white angels on trees and in stores during Christmas time and begins to wonder whether there are any black angels.  Upon hearing about this story, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s the heart of racism today!  It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s all those subtle things that establish some people as lesser than others, as inferior.”

A handout I received in the session “Uncovering Covert Racism” by Dr. Anissa Butler at the 2010 Teachers of Color and Allies Summit defines covert or colorblind racism as “daily forms of ignorance and assumptions which are difficult to articulate for the racial target.”  One thing that Dr. Butler talked about that I found particularly poignant is that covert racism is perpetrated by everyone, including those of us who consider ourselves progressive and anti-racist.

From Dr. Anissa Butler’s workshop, here are a few other examples of covert racism:
– Expecting people of color to act like white people OR to act very “ethnic”
Appropriating (absorbing or taking) aspects of minority cultures without understanding the history of the culture or practice or without having any right to do so
– Assuming that people of color (particularly those of Latino or Black heritage) had a difficult life of poverty and violence
– Assuming that a Latino is an immigrant from Mexico or that most Latinos are Mexican
– Tokenizing a person of color and asking them to speak for their entire race during a discussion by asking them, “As a person of color, what do you think?”
– Correcting people’s grammar
– Racial Generalizations like “All black people are athletic” or “White folks can’t jump!”
– Mentioning someone’s race out of context. “We met this really nice man who was black, and he gave us directions.”
– Going out of your way not to mention race when it is obviously relevant
– Mentioning race as an explanation for a problem. “We didn’t have a very large graduating class, but we had a lot of blacks and Mexicans who went to our school.”
– Denying that you see color or racial differences

So why is this a problem?  Well, as with overt racism, covert racism works to marginalize groups of people in our culture and deny them opportunity.  For instance, a relative of mine is a successful businessman who might be in a position to hire folks of color.  When I was hanging out with him once, the news came on, and a black high school basketball player was being interviewed after a game.  My relative remarked, “Wow . . . he’s really articulate.”  Now, would he have made that comment if a white player were being interviewed?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  “What’s the problem, though?  He’s complimenting the kid!”  Well, inherent in his comment and its surprise is that this is unusual.  Thus, it assumes that young black men are, by definition, inarticulate (read stupid), but this kid is the exception.  Whether he realizes it or not, is he, then, going to treat a white applicant who enters his office the same as a black applicant?  See the problem?

Another common example that hear thrown around by white folks a lot is, “Why do black people (or Latino people) segregate themselves?”  With students, it usually is framed as, “Why are all the black (or Latino) kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”  To demonstrate the inherent and covert racism in this statement, a professor of mine once took a student who asked that to the cafeteria.  Upon walking into the cafeteria, the teacher immediately exclaimed, “WOAH!  That entire table is white!  So is that one!  Why are all the white kids sitting together in the cafeteria!”  You see, when students of color do it, it’s abnormal . . . THEY are segregating THEMSELVES!

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we should actually desegregate our cafeterias.  I think that during social time such as lunch, people should sit with those with whom they are most comfortable.  Most often, those are folks with whom you share experience or culture.  Hence, the segregated cafeteria.  When this is made out to be a problem of the kids of color, though, it becomes a problem of covert racism.

The point here is that this covert racism is what upholds the systems of inequality that have characterized our society for a very long time.  While formal, government-sponsored segregation used to uphold the system, the attitudes and prejudicial interactions that characterize our interracial interactions today uphold the current realities of a racially-unjust system.  Without the covert idea that black people are lazy or incompetent, we would not have a situation where a white applicant is 50% more likely to get a job with the same qualifications as a black applicant.  Without the covert idea that Latinos (or Latino immigrants) are lazy, unwanted, or incompetent, we wouldn’t have racist laws that allow for blatant racial discrimination against Latinos regardless of their immigration status.  Without covert racism, we wouldn’t have a Birther movement that questions the citizenship of the president or religious conspiracies about the Christian president.

After all, this movement, one pushed in the vast majority by white conservatives, essentially is saying that the person elected to the presidency of the United States by a margin of more than 7% is an other.  He is not like “us.”  To assert, against the evidence otherwise, that he was born in some far-away, “exotic” place like Kenya says a few things.  First, to all of the young black men and women who were inspired by Obama’s election to think, “Maybe I do have a voice after all,” it says “No . . . you’re still an other.”  To white people who feel threatened by the notion that a black man (or a multi-racial man) could be elected president, it says, “Don’t worry . . . he doesn’t deserve it.  It must have been one of those Affirmative Action cases.”

So what are we to do?  Well, at the risk of sounding redundant, we have to start by changing from within!  Far too often when a bad driver cuts me off and I see that the driver is Latino or black, there’s that additional twinge of “Typical.”  I need to question, subvert, and replace this inclination.  When I pass a black man and put my hand on my wallet, I need to check myself, subvert, question, and replace the inclination.  When I assume that a Latino could or should go back to where they came from (as if they came from anywhere but here), I need to question, subvert, and replace that inclination.  These are all very real struggles I face!

Sure, this takes a lot of vigilance, but what act of justice does not?  I am vigilant to ensure that I pay my bills on time.  I am vigilant to ensure that I am a good friend and good partner.  I, too, need to be vigilant about dismantling the walls of prejudice, bigotry, and hate, no matter how covert, that keep me from building healthy and accountable relationships across difference.  If we all are vigilant, then truly this is one way to build a world of justice.

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8 thoughts on “Post-Racial = More Covert in Our Racism?

  1. ya know I often catch myself when speaking of people of color. I say my brown friends because when I was in fifth grade, I was asking about a passage in a book that had said the word “nigger” and I hesitated before saying it. I never liked that word nor do I use it but we had a boy in the class who immediately jumped on this opportunity to say I was being racist. Granted it was a joke but it just stuck with me so I always am watching my words.

  2. Heya Jamie, great piece as usual. Your writing puts a few ideas in my head, which I’d like to share.

    FIrst off, I think you’re right that there’s still heaps of covert racism in our fair land, and those who perpetuate such ideals are becoming more crafty about the ways they do so in the face of increasing societal pressure against overt racism. I also think you’re right that we ourselves may still be clinging to some racist tendencies even as we strive for equality – behaviors and mindsets learned from a young age can be hard to shake. FInally, I’ll challenge some of your wording for the sake of discussion and the provocation of thoughts. This will, as usual, be overly longwinded, but hopefully it will be worth your investment of reading time.

    The first point I wanna make is that some of the worst covert racism in my mind has re-branded itself as classism. The idea that “poor people” are the problem or that “rich people” are somehow more civilized and valued as members of society is, to me, paramount to racism. Sure, there are poor white folks, as well as rich non-white folks, but proportionally speaking the upper and even middle classes of most societies are overwhelmingly white. This is even true in non-white societies, where “light” people are disproportionately overrepresented in the upper classes – I’m thinking of India, China, Japan, various south american countries, and Sudan as examples of this “light-skinned” racism. For some reason, it seems more socially acceptable to be overtly classist than it does to be overtly racist, even though there’s little difference between economic stratification and racial stratification.

    Indeed, the racial stratification of old was the cause of the present economic stratification, and those same groups that were formerly oppressed for the color of their skin are now oppressed for the lightness of their wallets. By the same token, those groups that formerly prospered under racial stratification have continued to prosper in our so-called “color blind” society. And further, classism is just as baseless as racism – economic status is a poor indicator of character. In my experience those with less money tend to possess much more humanity – traits such as generosity, compassion, helpfulness, and kindness – than those lucky (or un-lucky) few who have a lot of money. That’s not to say that I myself am classist – some of my good friends are people with money =) Fundamentally, any system of hierarchy that teaches “I’m better than you, but not as good as her” is prejudicial, and given our societal context, is essentially racist.

    Whew. Ok, my next thought is this: we are working to overcome our own personal instances of racism/classism/bigotry – for you it comes up sometimes while driving, for me it comes up in certain social situations (interesting side-note: I’ve found that I’m actually slightly racist toward German people, among others. It’s something I learned early at home growing up in a Jewish household, but I had never met many Germans until I came to NZ. I’m now working to cease those racist feelings since the Germans I’ve met have turned out to be people just like you and me!) Here in NZ, people are pretty loose about throwing around what we would consider slurs, making “racist” jokes, etc. At first, I was shocked to be hearing such things, but a Maori fella explained it to me quite well. By joking around about our differences and having fun with it, we are able to recognize that they aren’t really that big of differences, and what we have in common is much greater than what we don’t. In that light, I’m realizing that we who feel uneasy about pointing out differences (such as skin color) need to relax, remove the sticks from our asses, and be comfortable playing around a little bit. Of course there’s a fine line, but it seems that by celebrating our diversity we actually strengthen our connection to one another. By the same token, as both you and Ms. Butler point out, being overly sensitive to differentiation or attempting to remove race from the equation is in fact a form of covert racism. I think that common sense and good judgement are crucial, but we shouldn’t be scared of pointing out and celebrating our differences.

    Finally, I wanna challenge your use of the phrase “question, subvert, and replace” toward the end of the piece. It’s not that I don’t agree that we should try to evolve our emotional and thought patterns toward higher vibrations and more egalitarian philosophies. Rather, I think that this choice of wording puts an unnecessarily harsh and punitive feeling into our project of growth and expansion. When we tell ourselves that we are being bad and that we shouldn’t act like this or like that, we hurt ourselves and devalue our self-worth. We begin thinking, “I’m such a racist,” or “I’m no good as I am, I must change.” This is simply not true! We are imperfect beings striving to become better and to expand our consciousness, and negative messages to ourselves only hinder this process.

    I would instead suggest something like, “acknowledge, accept, and expand.” As in, “Wow, I just had a racist thought! That’s so silly of me – of course I don’t know that person’s character by their color! I will remember this the next time I meet someone like that.” In this way, we can mould our thought and emotional patterns without self-flaggelating every time we slip up.

    OK, that’s all for now! Much love from down-under, and everyone please feel free to borrow, paraphrase, or plagiarize anything here if you find it meaningful or useful!!

    Hasta La Vista,

    Scott

  3. Tweet @BlackLoveGuru

    Living in Britain in a recession where ethnic minority employment is increasing at triple the rate of white unemployment, with the re-emergence of far right groups, with the British National Party having had representatives elected to the European Parliament and having members on local councils in London and the North of England, the fact that there are laws against discrimination to deter discrimination in some limited circumstances in which discrimination has a statutorily limited definition does not make Britain discrimination free. I am sure that supposed anti discrimination laws in other countries are much the same.
    You need to read Angry People smiling by Peter Ashley, a novel that will change the way you think about bigotry. Based on factual cases and tells it like it is. Discrimination is a problem in all major economies and should not be excused. Ever.

  4. […] 9.  The 9th most popular publication that I wrote in 2011 was in response to the oh-so-common idea espoused among White folks that because of the election of Barack Obama, we now live in a post-racial society.  I posit, though, thatPost Racial = More Covert in Our Racism. […]

    • You’re absolutely right…..there is no “post racial” there is only insidious, well thought out deliberate and destructive covert racism. Covert racism is so conniving and deceitful that it creates a state of emotional/self-esteem that leaves people to question their worth as a human being with no hope of ever being treated humanely!!! This is morally and unconscionably wrong!! It leaves the victim with no choice but to come out fighting at some point!!

  5. […] Post-Racial = More Covert in Our Racism? by Jamie Utt↩ […]

  6. […] Post-Racial = More Covert in Our Racism? by Jamie Utt↩ […]

  7. […] as much as white America likes to believe, and instead of overtly racist policies and language, covert discrimination and policies are hidden by seemingly neutral language. This has not fooled academics or activists, and when they […]

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