Racism can be defined as “race prejudice plus power.” The function of racism is not, in fact, to oppress people of color, but to ensure that white people remain on top, in control of the institutions of this society. Racism is a tool for holding the class system in place. We should therefore not be surprised to learn that every institution in this country provides a better outcome for white people than for people of color, because that’s how the country was set up to work. This is the normal state of affairs.
Similarly, racism is about power; people of color can be bigoted, prejudiced, mean, and hateful (like other people), but they cannot be racist.
Race can be defined as “a specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) to assign human worth and social status using themselves as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purposes of establishing and maintaining privilege and power.” And power can be defined as legitimate collective and individual access to those institutions created by the state.
A racist is somebody who benefits from racism—i.e., a white person. That’s the definition I’ve decided on, anyway. Our trainer Diana did not actually define “racist,” but she did teach that all white people are racists (which I believe, I think). Although the seminar is presented as a series of logical steps, I’m not totally sure it actually holds together logically or semantically, possibly because I’m not too hot at logic myself, and possibly because the logic doesn’t matter as much as the ideas.
Joke about a man seeking peace and quiet in the woods, disturbed by the screams of another man drowning in a stream: “Well, I can’t swim either, but you don’t hear me screaming.” As a nation, we have become experts in pulling people out of the stream, drying them off a little, and throwing them back in, instead of linking arms to struggle up against the current and discover the source of the stream.
It’s not enough to own one’s privilege (rats!). One must also understand that one’s privilege comes at the expense of all people of color, and that it is actively harming other human beings. The internalization of superiority (or inferiority) keeps us asleep to our own humanity. If you’re a white person, you don’t do this work for the sake of people of color, but for your own. (Baldwin: “It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff—and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.”)
The Institute’s emphasis on racism as a social construction which controls our perceptions explains the evident fondness of Mahdi, our other trainer, for “The Matrix.” He has not yet quoted one of my favorite lines: “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.”