In my Sociology 101 class, the professor gave us quite a few interesting readings, one in particular that I would like to discuss in further depth is “Defining Racism ‘Can We Talk?'” by Beverly Daniel Tatum.
I absolutely agree with the majority of her argumentation. Social segregation and “self-sorting” (the tendency for people to sit next to people that look like themselves in social settings, such as a lunchroom) are both indicative of implicit bias.
Much cultural insensitivity is the result of collective ignorance. A collective ignorance which is reinforced by social segregation, discriminatory cliche portrayals in the media, and erasure of non-majority voices.
Being poor makes having a target identity so much worse, as does having multiple intersectionalities.
Another point that I especially liked is using David Wellman’s definition of racism: “a system of advantage based on race.” With a little tweaking, it makes for a great definition for the concept of systemic oppression: a system of advantage and disadvantage based on qualities that can be described as agent and target identities. Thus, heterosexism/homophobia, cissexism/transphobia, colorism/blackphobia, racism/afriphobia for example. (And yes, I just made up ‘afriphobia’ on the spot because I don’t actually know any word to use for the idea I’m trying to convey here. Suggestions please!)
Notice, that while all of Tatum’s argumentation was specifically focused on race, here my summary is abstracted. I am doing this because:
1) I am a (colorism-wise) “white” person of (ethnicity-wise) Celtic descent.
2) My experience of being discriminated against comes from being a nerdy transfemme lesbian queer.
So while I am wanting to discuss race, I can only authoritatively speak from my lived experience which happens to be Celtic-American and queer. Thus, I may be drawing some parallels that not everyone will find entirely palatable. To that point… This is my perspective, I don’t want to impose it on anyone else. In fact, I’ll even go as far to say it’s my perspective, so go find your own! If it happens to be similar to mine or something wildly different, great. Just as long as you’ve thought long and hard about it and it helps you and those around you to move away from the toxicity of our society’s current “norm.”
That being said, there is one point I disagree with Tatum on. She argues that “people of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism.”
I have a few critiques of this.
The first thing that strikes me about this is the entanglement of colorism and racism. While these two concepts are connected, they are not the same thing, much like the fact that heterosexism and cissexism are similar and connected, but are in fact two different things.
Colorism is discrimination based upon a person’s melanin production. That is their skin’s phenotype. A result of their genotype, environment, and diet.
On the other hand, racism is based on a cultural-historical-societal construct built with the express purpose of oppressing, controlling, and generally doing “bad stuffs” to people of African descent while giving advantages and power to people of Anglo descent. A toxic social norm.
Over time the categories of whose getting oppressed, and whose getting advantages shifted and expanded. At first people of Jewish, Irish, German, Russian and similar descent were in the same boat, though not same exact category, as those of African descent. They were among the oppressed. However, over time people of Hispanic, Arab, API, Indigenous/Native, and other ancestries were added to the category of oppressed while people of Jewish, Irish, Russian and similar descent have (overall) moved from the category of oppressed to that of advantage. The erasure of ‘non-white’ culture (which includes the erasure of Jewish, Irish, German, Russian and other similar peoples’ cultures along with the cultures of Hispanic, Arab, API, Indigenous/Native, and other peoples), and the shifting of who is in what category has resulted in the current system of who has systemic power and who does not.
This arrangement and the historic arch of discrimination can then be explained from the perspective of xenophobia/empirism. (I’m also totally making up the word “empirism” to convey a concept I don’t have a word for)
As the British empire expanded, they did not just devalue all cultures other than their own, but actively worked to destroy those cultures and force everyone to practice a culture similar to their own. They believed this to be a good and right thing to do in accordance with their religious beliefs. This concept was inherited by American empire as shown in the poem “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling. As empire expanded the line of how different someone could be from the “Anglonormative standard” (Yay for neologisms!) was loosened. As in, “well, them Hollanders (or whomever) are pale and Christian like us. Unlike those _______ peoples over there. So even though they talk funny, I guess they’re alright” and the line moved. For some people, like the Amish, the line has never quite moved far enough to include them despite their decidedly pale skin and Christian beliefs. Their cultural difference overcomes their melanin and religious advantage. However, if an Amish person were to abandon their culture, they are then usually considered “white.”
Meanwhile, especially as American empire expanded, cultures which were decidedly unlike the “Anglonormitive standard” were continually excluded from the advantage category.
As an added complication, many people that are descended from people in the oppressed category can now “pass” as people from the advantage category, and vise versa. Why? Because societies are lazy. Rather than doing all the leg work to figure out who is from what category our culture has latched onto a simple pattern to “read,” at a glance, who belongs in what category.
An individual’s melanin production.
This is why I say colorism is distinct from, yet connected to, racism and if we are going to get anywhere in untangling the god-awful mess of race in America, we cannot afford to let ourselves treat them as the same thing.
My second critique of the argument “people of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism.” Revolves around the more obvious part of this statement.
I can agree that a person of color cannot be colorist against a “white” person and that a person of African descent cannot be racist against a person of European descent due to the systemic structures of advantage and discrimination currently in place. As well as the historic oppression which has lead us to this point and all the ancestral trauma we, as a society, still are yet to address.
However, let us for a moment take a hypothetical. If a person of unnamed color, race, and religion, who works in some service industry, like say flight attendant, gives all the passengers of color exactly what they are supposed to have according to the airline’s policy, while simultaneously giving all the ‘white’ passengers little bonuses, extra food, pillows, and other perks, I would argue that this is a colorist act. Likewise if the passengers of color received poor service and the ‘white’ passengers received exactly what they are supposed to have by the airline’s policy.
Now if we shift this hypothetical from being “people of color” to Muslims, the colorism shifts to empirism (specifically Islamophobia), shift it again to people of African descent, racism. If this is so easy to name when we use a hypothetical person of unnamed color, race, or religion, why does it become harder to name if we say a black Muslim of African descent? The act of racism, empirism, or colorism does not cease just because the author of the act and the receiver of the act are of the same target identity. If I, as a transwoman, say something hurtful and gender policing to another transwoman it is still a transphobic/cissexist act. While acts of this nature can be explained as an expression of internalized oppression, doing so in no way negates the harm caused or the perpetuation of a toxic and harmful social norm. Therefore I say, a person with a target identity can be racist, colorist, sexist, empirist or any other similar label if they are perpetuating that system of advantage and oppression.
Now that I’ve shared my thoughts I want to return to what I said earlier. This is my opinion, go find your own. I want to take this another step further. Go find your own, bring it back, and share it with the rest of us! I know I don’t have all the answers, I’m not sure anyone else does either. But I do know that if we don’t start with being honest about what we got, how exactly are we supposed to work towards something better? And if we’re not working towards something better and being willing to screw up along the way, how are we ever going to arrive at something good?