I’ve been told a lot lately that I’m a racist. Now, I’m down with owning the racism that I know exists inside of me: the racism against People of Color that comes from being raised in a culture that has taught me from birth that I am superior because of the color of my skin. I understand that such racism is a part of my lived experience.
But lately I’ve been called a racist for a whole different reason.
Apparently I’m a racist because I talk about race.
You see, I’ve long understood racism to be a combination of prejudice plus power. Sure, any person of any race can be prejudiced. Anyone can treat someone else poorly for the color of their skin or for their ethnic identity. But for the power of racism to be leveled against someone, the person benefitting from racism needs to have a system of power behind their prejudice that makes it possible to actually deny the target of their ire something substantial: jobs, education, access to politics, etc.
That is racism: prejudice plus the widespread legal, political, economic, or social power that backs up the prejudicial thinking.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point people with race privilege have co-opted the word racism, and now in common discourse, the word seems to mean something completely different than I’ve ever understood it to mean.
Activists who assert that race may have played a role in the Trayvon Martin incident are the racists. Those in Arizona who wish for young Latino/Latina and Chicano/Chicana students to learn about their heritage and about the ways that their people have been and continue to be oppressed are the racists. Hell, to even acknowledge that race exists and may play a role in our society is apparently racist.
Though this boggles my mind, it is in no way surprising. If we never talk about race (for fear of being called racist), that means we never talk about current racial injustice and inequality. If we never talk about race, we never talk about our history of genocide, slavery, and violent appropriation that has created our current racial landscape. If we never talk about race, those of us who benefit from the system of White supremacy in which we live never have to acknowledge the unearned privileges the system affords us or feel guilty about the ways in which others are exploited for our benefit.
Plain and simple, the colorblind ideology that asserts that discussing race is racist is nothing more than a tool of racial oppression that silences the voices that expose the true racism in our culture: the system that oppresses of People of Color and while affording White folks unearned privileges. It’s a tool that shields White people from criticism and from acknowledging that racial injustice exists. It’s a tool that further marginalizes the voices and actions of folks of Color who experience true racism every day.
So no . . . I’m sorry. The fact that I brought up our Whiteness or dared mention our problematic use of racialized language is not what’s racist. The fact that most of us don’t want to talk about race is.