Individual bigotry and institutional racism

[We've had great conversation going on our recent allies posts, especially Julia's really amazing piece from last week. Keep it going. Because of the good reception, I thought it might be useful to, once a week, share a general post on race/anti-racism. Everyone here has different levels of knowlege and understanding regarding race and race issues-even if we have experienced racism throughout our lives. It will be easier to teach our children anti-racist values if we understand things liek privilege, how privilege works, institutional racism, etc. Enjoy the following post by Love Isn't Enough contributor Jennifer, who has a body of really great work on her blog, Mixed Race America.]

written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Jennifer; originally published at Mixed Race America

The first time I remember hearing a formal definition for racism was in my freshman year black studies class, which was an introduction to race class. The professor was clear about defining racism (in the U.S.) in terms of a system of power–in terms of institutions. And that because the system of power (at least in the late 80s although really it is true to this day) was skewed towards white people (and more specifically straight white men), people of color could not be racist. They could exhibit internalized racism or individual acts of bigotry, but because, on the whole, people of color did not have access to systems of power and institutional influence (if you just look at the U.S. government, people of color are either absent or in extreme minority in every branch–executive, legislative, and judicial–and we haven’t even talked about the scarcity of people of color who own Fortune 500 companies, major media outlets, or who act as presidents of universities), then they could not be racist.

Although I’m not sure I entirely agree with this definition now (things have *slightly* improved in 20 years, although depending on who you talk to, they may have gotten worse, but more importantly thinking and theorizing about race has also become more nuanced and tried to account for the complexity of race to acknowledge that there are some people of color who actually do wield some institutional influence and a measure of power in which they could act in a racist fashion–let alone hold racist beliefs–Omi & Winant are really great in terms of these issues).

I know I’ve written about these things before, but I suppose in a blog devoted to mixed race issues, it’s not a bad thing to repeat, especially in light of the recent posts around judgment.

Because I think the central question that people have (or that gets debated) is whether people of color can be racist. And the funny thing is, I think for many people there is an automatic answer (either yes, ie: “I know lots of black people who hate white people and treat them badly” or no, ie: “black people may hate white people but they can’t force them out of a job”).

And we can go back and forth on this question, but the real issue is about history and power. Because history has a long reach and power is nebulous–it isn’t just about who holds public office or runs Fortune 500 companies. It’s about social and cultural beliefs related to race–and these are harder to overcome than just appointing an African American to be Secretary of State [Editor's note: ...or President of the United States.].

Yes, each person is able to discriminate on an individual basis–to perform individual acts of bigotry and hatred–to voice them and in some instances act on them. But racism–this is about the combination of history and power and the residue of that. It’s about racial hierarchies and a belief in who fits into a norm or standard–it is about believing there IS a norm or standard to fit into–racially.

Read Part II of this post, “Can I be racist?” at Mixed Race America.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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