Compiled by Thea Lim, with Andrea Plaid and Wendi Muse
My day job takes me into some pretty non-anti-oppressive environments. Generally I try to steer clear of conversations that deal with any parameter of power in depth (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability…) because in my environment, I find these conversations excruciating. It’s not that folks necessarily say blatantly hateful things. It’s rather that we can’t even agree on the basis for conversation. Or to put it more bluntly, my interlocutors have no concept of – or respect for – certain Racism 101 concepts.
I think what is particularly frustrating is the way that critical race theory – if I can use that term to describe the basic tenets that we and many of our buddy blogs operate off of – is treated as if it’s a loose collection of unverified opinions. It is not recognised as an actual body of thought that people of colour and allies have been writing and thinking about since Sojourner Truth gave her Ain’t I A Woman speech in 18freakin51.
If a medieval scholar engaged me in a discussion on representations of the clergy in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, I wouldn’t talk over them and contest every single point they made just because I had seen Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Yet white folks who have absolutely no concept of the fact that there is a whole body of books, blogs, speakers, academic departments and workshops devoted to a common understanding of systemic racism, feel free to talk over my observations, as if the things I am saying are just random observations I’ve made.
So I welcome Richard Thompson Ford’s assertion that we need some kind of commonly held notion of what racism is, in his Slate article, “A primer on the word racism”.
Ford breaks down five different commonly cited examples of racism – institutional, cultural, unconscious, environmental and reverse – providing definitions for them and then evaluating whether or not they really are racism.
But. It’s clear that racism gets in the way of us defining racism. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh would be down with Racialicious’ definition of racism. But is Racialicious’ down with Ford’s definition of racism? Our correspondents weigh in.
My first issue with Ford’s article is that it is confusing. It would be easier to understand if Ford started out with a clear definition of what racism entails. Because it took me a few minutes to glean from this article that Ford thinks anyone can be racist – a claim that I flat-out reject.
Ford seems to conflate racial prejudice with racism: roughly, if you treat someone according to their race, you are being racist. Meanwhile, I think that it is only racial prejudice + power that = racism. So if I yell “cracker” at a white man walking down the street (which btw I wouldn’t do and also don’t condone), my action has far less impact than if a white man yelled “chink” at me while I was walking down the street. The first scenario is an example of racial prejudice and being a jerk. The second scenario is racism and a hate crime. This is sort of 101 stuff, but there you have it.
Because Ford and I diverge on this basic tenet, I have multiple problems with certain conclusions that wobble out of his analysis.