Defining Racism

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Image Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019); The Conscious Kid (2020)

Table of Contents

Defining Racism

Racism by Omission

Defining Anti-racism

Defining Racism

Scott Woods on Racism

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.

Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.

It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”

“I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Ibram Kendi Explains What is Racist

Defining What is Racist

“Racism Isn’t An Identity, It’s What You’re Doing In The Moment…. It describes when a person is saying something like, “This is what’s wrong with a racial group.” It describes when a person is supporting a policy that is creating racial inequity…The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what – not who—we are.” Ibram X. Kendi

  • What makes something racist?
    • Has an outcome of inequity, discrimination, or harm towards a marginalized race
    • Suggesting/implying something is wrong or inferior about a marginalized race
    • In relation to racism = power + Privilege
  • Regardless
    • If the person is good, bad, nice, mean, etc.
    • Regardless if there are good or bad intentions (outcome > Intent)
    • Regardless if race is even mentioned
    • Regardless if person identifies as racist, understands racism, condemns racism
  • If experiencing white discomfort while confronting
    • Focus on behavior or system
    • Can say “complicit with racism” to help get point across
      • Avoid “racially charged”, “racially tinged”, or “racial divided”
    • Call “in” not “out”

“Racist” is not a fixed term. It’s not an identity, it’s not a tattoo — it is describing what a person is doing in the moment, and people change from moment to moment.” Ibram X. Kendi

Wikipedia: Prejudice plus power

Prejudice plus power is a stipulative definition of racism often used by anti-racism activists, including the American pastor Joseph Barndt.[1] The definition was first proposed by Patricia Bidol, who, in a 1970 book, defined it as “prejudice plus institutional power.”[2] According to this definition, two elements are required in order for racism to exist: racial prejudice, and social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.[1][3] Reasons cited in support of this definition include that power is responsible for the creation of racial categories, and that people favor their own racial groups over others.[4] The reaction of students to this definition tends to be mixed, with some thinking that it makes sense, and others perceiving it as an unfair redefinition of racism to portray whites in an unfairly negative light.[5] In 2004, Beverly Tatum wrote that many of her white students find it difficult to relate to this definition on a personal level, because they do not perceive themselves either as prejudiced or as having power.[3]

The definition has been criticized by some academics for relying on the assumption that power is a zero-sum game, and for not accounting for the lack of uniformity in prejudicial attitudes.[6] Critics have also noted that this definition is belied by the fact that except in absolutist regimes, minorities, however disadvantaged they may be, are not powerless, because power is organized into multiple levels.[7]


Quotes from Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race

“Many people use the terms prejudice and racism interchangeably, I do not, and I think it is important to make a distinction. In his book Portraits of White Racism, David Wellman argues convincingly that limiting our understanding of racism to prejudice does not offer a sufficient explanation for the persistence of racism. He defines racism as a “system of advantage based on race.” In illustrating this definition, he provides example after example of how Whites defend their racial advantage-access to better schools, housing, jobs even when they do not embrace overtly prejudicial thinking. Racism cannot be fully explained as an expression of prejudice alone.

This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals. In the context of the United States, this system clearly operates to the advantage of Whites and to the disadvantage of people of color. Another related definition of racism, commonly used by antiracist educators and consultants, is “prejudice plus power.” Racial prejudice when combined with social power-access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision-making-leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices. While I think this definition also capture the idea that racism is more than individual beliefs and attitudes, I prefer Wellman’s definition because the idea of systemic advantage and disadvantage is critical to an understanding of how racism operates in American society.”

“It’s one thing to have enough awareness of racism to describe the ways that people of color are disadvantaged by it. But this new understanding of racism is more elusive. In very concrete terms, it means that if a person of color is the victim of housing discrimination, the apartment that would otherwise have been rented to that person of color is still available for a White person. The White tenant is, knowingly or unknowingly, the beneficiary of racism, a system of advantage based on race. The unsuspecting tenant is not to blame for the prior discrimination, but she benefits from it anyway.

For many Whites, this new awareness of the benefits of a racist system elicits considerable pain, often accompanied by feelings of anger and guilt. These uncomfortable emotions can hinder further discussion. We all like to think that we deserve the good things we have received, and that others, too, get what they deserve. Social psychologists call this tendency a “belief in a just world.” Racism directly contradicts such notions of justice.

Understanding racism as a system of advantage based on race is antithetical to traditional notions of an American meritocracy. For those who have internalized this myth, this definition generates considerable discomfort. It is more comfortable simply to think of racism as a particular form of prejudice. Notions of power or privilege do not have to be addressed when our understanding of racism is constructed in that way.

The discomfort generated when a systemic definition of racism is introduced is usually quite visible in the workshops I lead. Someone in the group is usually quick to point out that this is not the definition you will find in most dictionaries. I reply, “Who wrote the dictionary?” I am not being facetious with this response. Whose interests are served by a “prejudice only” definition of racism? It is important to understand that the system of advantage is perpetuated when we do not acknowledge its existence.”

“Another provocative question I’m often asked is “Are you saying all Whites are racist?” When asked this question, I again remember that White teacher’s response, and I am conscious that perhaps the question I am really being asked is,“Are you saying all Whites are bad people?” The answer to that question is of course not. However, all White people, intentionally or unintentionally, do benefit from racism. A more relevant question is what are White people as individuals doing to interrupt racism? For many White people, the image of a racist is a hood-wearing Klan member or a name-calling Archie Bunker figure. These images represent what might be called active racism, blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination. Passive racism is more subtle and can be seen in the collusion of laughing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues. Because racism is so ingrained in the fabric of American institutions, it is easily self-perpetuating. All that is required to maintain it is business as usual.”

5 Things You Should Know About Racism | Decoded | MTV News

Hatred, Prejudice, Discrimination are Just Outcomes of Racism, Not Racism itself

  • Hatred, prejudice, discrimination are only symptoms of racism
    • So is housing discrimination, racial wealth gap, school segregation, etc.
  • Most white people don’t say “black lives DON’T matter”
    • Instead they
      • Support, are complicit, are complacent with systems that devalue black lives
        • Criminal Justice System, school segregation, racial wealth gap, etc.
      • Claim systems that devalue black lives are fair (meritocracy)
        • Whitewashing the systemic racism
        • And implying people of color deserve/cause their own negative outcomes
      • Deny or stay ignorant to the internalizations they absorbed
        • From growing up in systems of racism
  • Webster’s definition of racism
        • “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”
  • Kennedy Mitchum wrote to Webster in June 2020 stating
        • “Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary, it is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”
        • Webster added another definition to their original stating
          • “a political or social system founded on racism”

Annie Reneau: Using the ‘dictionary definition of racism’ defense is a sure sign you don’t understand racism.

Whenever someone’s words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word “racist” as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren’t racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it’s clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It’s a big old red flag, every time.

I’m not an expert on race relations, but I’ve spent many years learning from people who are. And I’ve learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can’t include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since “racism” is such a loaded term for many people, let’s look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let’s take “anxiety.” According to Merriam-Webster, “anxiety” is defined as “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill.”

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn’t explain that some people’s anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn’t say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn’t say that you often won’t see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn’t offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn’t experiencing anxiety because they’re not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to “prove” that something or someone isn’t racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump’s “go back to” statements to four Congresswomen of color weren’t technically racist.

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The first Merriam-Webster entry for “racism” reads “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”


First of all, I’m not sure how this definition actually makes Trump’s statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to “go back to” their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President’s head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people’s inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn’t truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume’s tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word “racism,” which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

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Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, “I think I’m superior to people who don’t share my skin color.” Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement “racism.” We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of “Racism=hating people of a different race.”

I’ve seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that’s a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn’t make it meaningless.

I’ve also seen people complain that “everything is racist these days,” but no, it’s really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it’s easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone’s understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That’s not imagining racism where it doesn’t exist or “calling everything racist these days”; that’s simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we’re not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let’s stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word “racism” is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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Natalie Morris: ‘Anti-blackness’ is a form of racism that is specifically damaging for black people

Racism affects different races in different ways.

Anti-blackness is the name for the specific kind of racial prejudice directed towards black people.

There is a tendency to lump all ethnic minorities together – for ease, or out of laziness and ignorance.

We see that in terms like BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and POC (people of colour). While these terms can be useful in some situations, they shouldn’t be used in reference to a specific race unnecessarily. For instance, referring to a black woman as a ‘woman of colour’, when you could refer to her as black, can undermine her specific lived experiences of being black.

The concept of anti-blackness pushes back against the idea that all ethnic minorities have the same lived experiences and can be shoved under a singular umbrella.

To be clear, all kinds of racism are deplorable, but it is still worth carving out clearer definitions for the kinds of racism that disproportionately affect certain groups – like anti-black racism.

Compared to white people and Asian people – black defendants at crown court are the most likely to be remanded in custody.

Between 2017 and 2018, black people in Britain were around 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people, and three times more likely than Asian people.

Black people are more likely to be unemployed and homeless than all other racial minority groups.

All of these examples show that racism affects black people in different and, in some cases, more significant ways than other minority groups.

That’s why it is important to highlight these differences by being clear about the specific type of racism black people in this country face.

Race equality thinktank RunnymedeTrust defines the phrase perfectly:

‘Anti-black racism is the specific exclusion and prejudice against people visibly (or perceived to be) of African descent – what most of us would commonly call black people,’ says senior policy officer Kim McIntosh.

Kim says anti-blackness goes beyond bad feelings, negative attitudes or stereotypes.

‘Anti-black racism is a toxic cocktail that mixes these beliefs with how people with power make decisions, how government policies are made, or how state services are delivered,’ she adds. ‘It prevents us from enjoying or exercising fundamental freedoms on an equal footing – like the freedom to live and work free from discrimination or abuse.’

What is the history of anti-blackness?

Black people have been ‘othered’ and maligned across the globe, and Kim says the transatlantic slave trade was a major catalyst for this.

‘After slavery was abolished, slave owners branded former slaves as cursed with the “negro disease” of “laziness”,’ she explains. ‘Black people who moved from the Caribbean to Britain still face the same prejudiced beliefs.’

Last year, research by NatCen and the Runnymede Trust found that 44% of people surveyed thought ‘some races are born harder working than others’.

‘These beliefs, widely held, have consequences for black people in the workplace,’ says Kim. ‘And just a few weeks back, we had to endure long-discredited arguments that black people have lower IQs dominate the news cycle as comments by Andrew Sabisky, the short-lived adviser to Number 10, resurfaced.’

Kim says the term ‘anti-black racism’ is helpful and can help us unpick how and why racism affects different ethnic groups in different ways.

‘It’s important to note that not only white people are capable of anti-black racism,’ she adds. ‘People from other ethnic minority groups can enact anti-black policies and hold anti-black beliefs.’

How does anti-blackness affect black people?

Psychologist and anti-racism scholar Guilaine Kinouani says anti-blackness is based on the alleged inherent inferiority and ‘primitivity’ of Africa, its people and its nearer descendants, i.e. black people.

She adds that these ideas are principally rooted in colonial constructions.

‘While we may like to think such racist thinking has long left us, the reality is that within the system we have inherited: white supremacy, human lives in our society are stratified and, our life experiences and opportunities are still depended on our racial backgrounds,’ she explains.

Put more simply, our racial hierarchy places white people at the top and places black people at the bottom – non-black people of colour stand somewhere in-between.

‘Unsurprisingly, black people continue to pay the highest penalties on pretty much every social measure or outcome imaginable within social structures,’ adds Guilaine.

‘All things being equal, we are still the most vulnerable group to structural violence, social injustice, discrimination and to exclusion – in addition to a rift of negative health and mental health outcomes.

‘And, images, discourses about our alleged inferiority continue to abound.’

She explains it by saying that being black is a ‘highly taxed identity’ and adds that all non-black groups benefit from anti-blackness, not only white groups. Which expands on what Kim said about all non-black racial groups having the capacity to be anti-black. ‘

This is a conversation that is difficult for many of us to have but it is an important one,’ Guilaine adds.

‘In the same way we now accept that white women, as a group, are often complicit in the oppression of people of colour, non-black people of colour also have a stake in the systemic injustice black people experience, and often reproduce it.’ She says that over centuries, many communities of colour have bought into colonial lies and anti-black stereotypes in an attempt to ‘gain access to structures of power’ and be accepted within whiteness.

‘The price of assimilating into structures of power has often meant stepping on the heads of those lower down the rung on the ladder of power, often those closer to our struggle.’

It’s all about awareness.

Acknowledging the ways black people can be disproportionately affected by specific kinds of racial discrimination is vital in order to dismantle these entrenched hierarchies.

John a. Powell on Anti-Black State Violence

(Start at 17:30)

Grassroots Policy Project:  Race, Power and Policy:Dismantling Structural Racism

Introduction (p4)

1.Racism is dynamic and ever-changing. The critical aspect of racism that we must address today is the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices into all of our social and economic structures

2.Structural racialization is a system of social structures that produces and reproduces cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities.

3.Racialized outcomes do not require racist actors. Focusing on individual instances of racism can have the effect of diverting our attention from the structural changes that are required in order to achieve racial justice.

4.Organizers need to explicitly and implicitly challenge all manifestations of racism and racialization in our work and in our organizations.

Racialization is the process by which racial understandings are formed, re-formed and assigned to groups of people andto social institutions and practices,and to the consequences of such understandings. For example, in the 17thcentury, Africans from diverse nations were categorized under the label ‘Negro,’which was a racialized category; in the space of one century, different forms of labor were racialized so that ‘worker’ was white and ‘slave’ was Negro; and, over time, different groups of immigrants have been assigned to the broad categories of white (European immigrants) or ‘of color’ (Latin American, African,Asian-Pacific Islander and more recently, Middle Eastern immigrants). This has huge consequences for today’s struggles over immigration policy.The effects of racialization accumulate over time. Some of the effects are altered, at times sharply, as in the case of the passage of civil rights legislation, but they are not erased, even with the election of the first Black President.

Racialization and Forms of Racism (p15)

Racialization shapes an institution so that as part of its normal functioning, and without anyone having a consciously racist intention, it produces disparities in outcome by race. A prime example of this is the way in which our criminal justice system has evolved. In general, officials avoid saying or doing things that are overtly racist. As long as the system appears to be operating ‘normally,’ many people do not perceive racism in the system, and many will resist any arguments that point out racial bias in criminal justice practices. And yet, racial disparities abound, in policing, in sentencing, in attitudes about the criminality of youth of color, and in profiling. Different forms of racism

  • Interpersonal
    • This refers to prejudices and discriminatory behaviors where one group makes assumptions about the abilities, motives, and intents of other groups based on race. This set of prejudices leads to cruel intentional or unintentional actions towards other groups.
  • Internalized
    • In a society in which all aspects of identity and experience are racialized, and one group is politically, socially and economically dominant, members of stigmatized groups, who are bombarded with negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth, may internalize those negative messages. It holds people back from achieving their fullest potential. It also obscures the structural and systemic nature of racial oppression, and reinforces those systems.
  • Institutional
    • Where assumptions about race are structured into the social and economic institutions in our society. Institutional racism occurs when organizations, businesses, or institutions like schools and police departments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights. This type of racism reflects the cultural assumptions of the dominant group.
  • Structural
    • This refers to the accumulation over centuries of the effects of a racialized society. Think again about thecreation of the white middle classand what it means today to have been left out of that process of wealth-creation, home ownership, college education, etc. The critical aspect of racism that we must address today is the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices into all of our social and economic structures, or structural racism. Think again about that ‘post-racial society’ idea. If race no longer matters, how do we explain persistent disparities among groups, and disproportionatelevels of poverty, incarceration, unemployment, etc. in communities of color. We can’t. Not without a structural racism analysis.

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Complicity and Complacency

  • Racism Complicity
    • To consciously or unconsciously support, contribute or benefit from racism or racist systems
  • Racism Complacency
    • To support racism and racist systems by not challenging it

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The Root: Is Reverse Racism A “Thing?”

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Aamer Rahman Reverse Racism

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The Self Interest of Racist Ideas

The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural. Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

  • The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.
  • The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.” Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

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“The obedient Gomes de Zurara created to racial difference convince the world that Prince Henry (and thus Portugal) did not slave-trade for money, only to save souls. The liberators had come to Africa. Zurara personally sent a copy of The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea to King Afonso V with an introductory letter in 1453. He hoped the book would “keep” Prince Henry’s name “before” the “eyes” of the world, “to the great praise of his memory.” Gomes de Zurara secured Prince Henry’s memory as surely as Prince Henry secured the wealth of the royal court. King Afonso was accumulating more capital from selling enslaved Africans to foreigners “than from all the taxes levied on the entire kingdom,” observed a traveler in 1466. Race had served its purpose.

Prince Henry’s racist policy of slave trading came first – a cunning invention for the practical purpose of bypassing Muslim traders. After nearly two decades of slave trading, Kim asked Gomes de Zurara to defend the lucrative commerce in human lives, which he did through the construction of a black race, an invented group upon which he hung racist ideas. This cause and effect – a racist power creates racist policies out of raw self interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them – lingers over the life of racism.” Ibram Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

NPR: The Ugly, Fascinating History Of The Word ‘Racism’

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first recorded utterance of the word racism was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902. Pratt was railing against the evils of racial segregation.

Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.

Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian…save the man…

Racism remains a force of enormous consequence in American life, yet no one can be accused of perpetrating it without a kicking up a grand fight. No one ever says, “Yeah, I was a little bit racist. I’m sorry.” That’s in part because racists, in our cultural conversations, have become inhuman. They’re fairy-tale villains, and thus can’t be real.

There’s no nuance to these public fights, as a veteran crisis manager told my colleague, Hansi Lo Wang. Someone is either a racist and therefore an inhuman monster, or they’re an actual, complex human being, and therefore, by definition, incapable of being a racist.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who often writes about race, is one of several writers and thinkers who has drawn attention to this paradox:

The idea that America has lots of racism but few actual racists is not a new one. Philip Dray titled his seminal history of lynching At the Hands of Persons Unknown because most “investigations” of lynchings in the South turned up no actual lynchers. Both David Duke and George Wallace insisted that they weren’t racists. That’s because in the popular vocabulary, the racist is not so much an actual person but a monster, an outcast thug who leads the lynch mob and keeps *Mein Kampf *in his back pocket.

NPR: An Expert Explains Why Some Trump Supporters Avoid The Word ‘Racist’


What does it mean to call someone racist, and what do people mean when they deny it? A scholar of racism says we don’t all mean the same thing, which makes it hard to discuss. We called him after President Trump told four American lawmakers to go back where they came from. Ibram X. Kendi of American University says many people reject calling a statement like that racist because the word seems so extreme. They fear it’s a mark of hopelessly bad people. Kendi says racism is really a set of ideas which we can argue about and change.

IBRAM X KENDI: I think we imagine that the term racist is an identity, is a fixed sort of category.

INSKEEP: It’s a label.

KENDI: Is a label, is a tattoo and is a representation of our bones, of our heart. And that’s just blatantly not true. Racist is a descriptive term. It’s a term that identifies someone based on what they’re saying or doing. And so if you’re saying something that’s racist, if you’re supporting policies that are racist, then you’re being a racist.

INSKEEP: Couple of things I want to follow up on there. First, you made a reference to bones. The president said the other day, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. He’s not the first person ever to say that. In fact, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, said it a few weeks ago when he was being criticized. I don’t have a racist bone in my body – what do you make of that as a defense against the charge of racism?

KENDI: What I make of that is that conveys this idea that there is essential – that racist or being a racist is an essential aspect of who a person is, that it is like an organ. It is like a bone. It is like their heart. And that’s…

INSKEEP: Somewhere between your liver and your kidney is your racism.

KENDI: Exactly. And that’s – those scholars who study racism would not identify it as such. I don’t identify it as such. And how do I know? Is because you have people who, in the same speech, in the same paragraph of the same speech, will say things that are both racist and anti-racist. You have people who support both racist and anti-racist policies. And so how would we then define that person as essentially racist when they do in some cases express notions of racial equality, when they do in some cases support policies that create racial equity?

INSKEEP: So this is in your mind not a question of character, but a question of another word you’ve used a couple of times, policies. What kind of system do you live in? What kind of system do you work in? And what kind of system do you support?

KENDI: Precisely. So anti-racists support policies that yield racial equity. Racists do nothing in the face of racist policies that are creating and reproducing racial inequity.

INSKEEP: Are we having a totally misguided debate about racism in this country, then?

KENDI: I think we typically are having a totally misguided debate about racism in this country.

INSKEEP: And in exactly the way you’re saying, in that people get accused of racism. They become massively defensive because it’s a word that should destroy you. And so you totally resist it, and we’re not really discussing policies.

KENDI: Exactly. And, I mean, obviously if you could express in one minute racist ideas and in the next minute anti-racist ideas, and what we’re saying is stop expressing those racist ideas and start recognizing the equality of racial groups, then that’s a completely different discussion.

INSKEEP: Well, let’s talk about the president’s remark that set this off, in which he said that four women of color who are in Congress, who are Democrats, should go back where they came from and try to clean up their messed-up countries. We at NPR have been pretty explicit in labeling that as old racist language. Go back where you came from is a thing that’s been said by a lot of people for a long time. But you’re the scholar. Is that a racist statement? And if so, why is it a racist statement?

KENDI: So what makes the statement racist is it conveys this idea that America, that the American is essentially white, that people of color are essentially illegal aliens. And any idea that suggests that American normality is white and that the other is people of color is a racist idea because it creates this hierarchy – the true all-American is white, and other people are not. And so therefore, they have another country to go back to, while America is a white man’s country.

INSKEEP: I bet, though, there’s somebody listening to this broadcast who maybe has had that thought, you know, these outsiders who are being so critical should go back where they came from, and they don’t feel it’s racist. And they may even say, I wasn’t talking about their race. I’m talking about the fact that they’re from somewhere else. What would you say to that person?

KENDI: Well, I would say that three of those four Congresswomen are – were born in the United States. I would say that all four of them are U.S. citizens. I would say, why is it that white people rarely, if ever, are told to go back to their country?

INSKEEP: Now, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, got in trouble this week on the floor of the House because she referred to the president’s racist statement. And there are House rules that prohibit such a statement, the reason being that referring to a racist statement is seen as a personal attack. This seems to get to the very distinction that you’re talking about here. Are those rules the way they ought to be, that you can’t even refer to a racist statement without making it a personal attack against the person that you’re describing?

KENDI: As a nation and as people, we need to figure out a way to distinguish our personhood from our ideas and our policies because who we are as a person, like, what we look like, is essentially who we are, but our ideas can change. The policies that we support can change.

But I think that we as a nation of people need to recognize that essential to racism itself is denial. Every group of racists in American history, whether you’re talking about slave holders, whether you’re talking about Jim Crow segregationists, people who Americans commonly identify as racist, all denied that their ideas and the violence and the policies that they supported were racist. And so the denial of racism, the defensiveness about racism is essential to racism itself. It’s the heartbeat of racism.

INSKEEP: Has this discussion of the last few days been productive in any way?

KENDI: One of the things that I’m hoping is when people say things like, you have to stop speaking Spanish to be an American, you have to stop wearing that particular headdress to be an American, when people think about notions of what it means to be American, that they recognize and, in some ways, they are supporting and agreeing with the president’s sentiments, that we have to come to a period and a place where we can really embrace all of our differences. That’s one of the things that I’m hoping comes out of this.

INSKEEP: Ibram X. Kendi, thanks so much.

KENDI: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me on the show.

INSKEEP: Ibram X. Kendi is author of the upcoming book, “How To Be An Antiracist.”

Tracy Castro-Gill: Countering Whiteness

For five years, I have been leading district-wide racial justice work in my school district. Much of this work has focused on ethnic studies curriculum, which centers the histories and experiences of people and communities of color, although that’s not what makes it anti-racist. Ethnic studies is anti-racist because in telling these stories and experiences, it deconstructs the systems of power that lead to racism. The thing is, when I go out into my district and talk to teachers and administrators, I often hear, “How does ethnic studies help white students?”

First, white people have ethnicities too. White people also have cultures that are diverse in both ethnic identities and cultural practices. I struggled to understand why white people denied having a race, ethnicity, or culture until I shifted my reading from race and racism to whiteness and the creation of whiteness. Through laws, policy, and practices, white people have been taught to exchange their ethnic and cultural identities for the benefit of “whiteness.” Our history tells us racism is the result of whiteness, not of race. john a. powell of the University of California, Berkeley explains that being white was originally defined as not being black. In response to Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising of European indentured servants and black enslaved Africans in colonial America, elite Europeans created the white race to drive a wedge between the two groups and prevent further uprisings. This is when “Europeans” became white, giving up their ethnic and cultural identities, and whiteness became a sought-after power structure. White indentured servants were still economically oppressed, but their new status brought with it a sense of power and superiority; thus, whiteness created racial oppression. This pattern has continued throughout our history in the United States. For example, the creation of the Federal Housing Administration restricted housing opportunities to “whites only,” so people who were previously considered “ethnic” groups, like Jewish Americans, chose to forgo identification as an ethnic group and instead selected whiteness. Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to this phenomenon as “the people who believe they are white.” Participation in this system requires the belief that being white is somehow outside of ethnicity, culture, and sometimes even race, creating an environment in which white people study racism as if it’s something outside of their personal experiences. Using whiteness instead of racism puts the onus for action back on white people.

In response to all the pushback I’ve received in this work, I no longer talk about “racism” but about “whiteness.” I define whiteness as “the cultural values, norms, behaviors, and attitudes that uphold White Supremacy.” White people can’t turn their backs on whiteness, but they try: when I bring it up they want to revert to ethnic identities. I get asked things like, “Can you please stop calling me white? I’m European-American.” I say, “No.” As Ijeoma Oluo says, this work isn’t about the comfort of white people.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about why the language we use when discussing oppression, particularly racial oppression, is important and how we can change our language to hold people accountable for the deep reflection required to be anti-racists.

Colorblindness is a cancer. You think you have cured it, but later find out it’s moved to another part of our language. Words like culture, diversity, inclusion, equity, and even justice have all been co-opted to avoid talking about race and racism. Using the term “whiteness” in place of racism directly counters this phenomenon and places the accountability on white people by forcing them to look in the mirror and see how they are not only “part of the problem” but central to systems of power and oppression. I have found when white people are consistently confronted with their whiteness, they are more likely to move from “ally” to accomplice in fighting whiteness.

This pressure for accountability on white people is especially important in education. In the United States, white teachers make up 85 percent of the teaching force. In my state, Washington, it’s 90 percent. Students of color are quickly becoming the majority in the country, and yet they go to school oftentimes never seeing a person like them at the front of the class. Students of color continue to be pushed out and disciplined at higher rates. Seattle Public Schools has the fifth-largest disparity gap in discipline between black students and white students in the country. In Seattle Public Schools, 46 percent of the student population is white while 75 percent of the teachers are white. This is a problem that the vastly white teaching force needs to address.

Using whiteness instead of racism reminds white people they have an ethnicity too, and they’ve lost a piece of their humanity by perpetuating whiteness. In response to the teachers who ask how ethnic studies help white students, I and others say, “White people need ethnic studies more than anyone.” I appreciate the way Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade talks about this. He uses the phrase “la cultura cura”: culture cures, or culture is medicine. He says when we lose our culture we become sick and start to hurt other people. Paolo Freire writes about how the act of oppressing others necessarily requires a person to give up their own humanity. White people need to find their medicine and restore their own humanity so they can stop hurting others.

People of color cannot be racist but they can engage in whiteness. I do not believe people of color can be racist. Never in history has any non-white group had the systemic power to oppress whites or any other group of people. There are certainly examples of discriminatory practices between people and groups of color, but racism occurs on a systemic level. This does not mean that people of color do not engage in whiteness. We certainly do. Every person who grew up in the United States, regardless of ethnic identity, has been exposed to messages of anti-blackness and messages that convey “white is right.” From housing practices, to media representation, to racist and white-washed curricula in school, the message is clear: It’s better to be white in America. Beverly Daniel Tatum calls this immersion in racist messaging a fog that we all live in and breathe in.

I am Xicanx, and I have seen firsthand how many Xicanx and Latinx people have bought into whiteness and engaged in whiteness. White supremacy is such a powerful concept that non-white people will betray our own people in attempts to benefit from it. Recent polling data shows that 25–30 percent of Latinx people support Donald Trump despite his racist, anti-Latinx migrant rhetoric. Those 25–30 percent of Latinx people are engaging in whiteness. They are trying to tap into the power that whiteness provides certain people.

Using the phrase “engaging in whiteness” holds all people accountable for upholding and maintaining whiteness. It requires all of us to do reflective work and understand how our practices and beliefs are oppressing people. Being a person of color does not give you a free pass from anti-racist work. Whiteness can show itself in people of color who maintain the status quo to benefit from status, promotions, and to avoid criticism. This may include “acting white” or changing one’s behavior and/or language to gain respectability and legitimacy from white peers and colleagues, like referring to oneself as “Hispanic.” I hate the term “Hispanic” because it’s a white-washed identifier, referring to any person whose native language is Spanish, including white Europeans. People of color engage in whiteness by promoting white-normed practices, like individualism over collectivism, passive aggressiveness, and decontextualizing racialized experiences.

Our young people are inundated with messages of whiteness — from the president, to cartoons, to textbooks. All kids receive the message that it’s better to be white. Whether intentional or not, erasure of people of color in these contexts erases our humanity. We have so little value that children’s’ literature portrays more anthropomorphic characters than characters of color. According to children’s’ literature, it’s better to be a dog than a person of color. We need to be the people countering those messages, not reinforcing them. Words matter. How we use words and phrases determines how we act, and words have the power to change people from objects to agents. Whiteness turns us all into agents of anti-racism: it applies to all of us and centers the responsibility on white people to take on the majority of the work to change our racist systems.

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“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Impact over intention all day everyday. Ya dig? Especially my fair skin friends.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
You may not intend to cause harm, you may authentically intend to AVOID harm, but in the end your intention might not mean ish. Have you ever been in a car accident? If you crashed into a person and left them bloodied and bruised would you get out of the car and proclaim “I didn’t intend to harm you!” then ignore the pain you’d caused? I sure as heck hope not! And I doubt you’d appreciate if someone tried that on you. Same here my sweets. Whether you intended to cause harm or not is truly not the point. The point is that you did. Period.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
POCs have to swim through swamps of murky micro aggressions, nevermind blatant racist violence, all day everyday. Do I believe the vast majority of folks who perpetuate emotional violence intend to cause me harm? No. I do not. Do I still have to spend an exorbitant amount of time, money and energy healing my heart from all the pain incessantly inflicted upon me by “well intentioned white folx”. I sure AF do⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
So! The next time someone calls you out or in, please take a breath. LISTEN to what’s being said. Believe them. Challenge your inner ego’s tempting whispers to defend, deny, object. APOLOGIZE. Take ownership and examine why you did or said what you did (or failed to do so). And understand that your intention is irrelevant. F.Y.I. Actions matter. Impact is everything.” iamrachelricketts⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Faima Bakar: The way you define racism may stop you from seeing it – so what definition do you hold?

Some things are glaringly racist – being called racial slurs, being attacked for looking or sounding different, being mistreated because of skin colour. Most of us can probably agree these things are racist.

These fit into the established understanding of racism – ‘the belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior’ – as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary.

But these basic definitions can miss crucial aspects of the true meaning of racism – power dynamics, prejudice, and structural racism.

Professor Peter Wade, a sociologist from the University of Manchester, tells us how racism more complex and insidious than the traditional definition, explaining that it is a system of oppression that has historically existed and continues to do so against minorities and debilitating their lives in covert and overt ways.

Peter tells ‘Racism is an ideology and a practice that produces a society in which some people systematically have less access to resources, power, security, and well-being than others.

‘These systemic inequalities reflect hierarchical differences between people originally created by colonialism, which produced patterns of historical inequality that make it difficult for certain people to access opportunities and resources.’

If our understanding of racism is that it’s only when people knowingly believe they are superior, then we are actively ignoring the true insidious ways it operates.

It’s important to understand that racism is much more than outright thinking one race is better than the other. Most of us probably don’t go around thinking our skin is better than the colour of other people’s skin.

Changing the definition of racism could bridge the current disconnect between those oppressed and those doing the oppressing.

So what definition of racism do you hold and is it time to change it?

Things that don’t fit into the traditional definition of racism but may still contribute to it: Mixing up people who seem to be the same ethnicity
Not bothering to learn an ethnic name,
always mispronouncing it,
calling them something that’s easier to pronounce,
making a show of saying it
Touching a black person’s hair
Asking easily searchable things to the only minority person in your vicinity
Making assumptions based on race
Seeing racism in things that are not racist
Singing the N-word in songs
Calling a black person ‘uppity’
Being ‘colour-blind’
Speaking over a person of colour talking about racism
Bringing up an unrelated race topic while talking to a person of colour (eg ‘I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term’)
Telling people you watched a minority-led film multiple times, such as Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Get Out
Using the example of a famous person of colour to deny how racist something is Blackface/cultural appropriation where you ‘borrow’ cultural items as a costume Denying/being defensive when confronted with the idea of racism
Bringing up someone’s race when it’s not relevant
Referring to ‘the race card’
Not believing that people of colour contribute to society Covering up racism as ‘opinion’ or ‘freedom of speech’
Asking for evidence when a person of colour explains their lived experience Telling someone they’re racist for bringing up race
Thinking you’re privy to racial struggles because you have diverse members in your family/social groups

How has the meaning of racism changed?

The definition of racism we hold today is still pretty much the same one that was established in its earliest use of the word.

The earliest is dated all the way back in 1880, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when racism was referred to as when ‘we all incline to consider the caucasian superior to the other races of the genus homo’.

By the end of World War II racism had acquired the same supremacist connotations formerly associated with it but with an added element of racial discrimination, racial supremacism and a harmful intent.

As a result of that enduring definition, racism is often thought of as something that happened in the past or is something that is only committed by evil people who think they are superior.

This is why so many people’s experiences of racism are dismissed as not actually racist – because this past definition doesn’t encapsulate racism today.

In her groundbreaking work White Fragility, Robin Diangelo refers to this as the good/bad binary. If we define racism as something that only bad people commit then, of course, most of us are not racist.

Robin explains: ‘The most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people. If we are not aware of having negative thoughts about people of color, don’t tell racist jokes, are nice people, and even have friends of color, then we cannot be racist.

Racism is about a historical oppression (Picture: Ella Byworth for

‘Thus, a person is either racist or not racist; if a person is racist, that person is bad; if a person is not racist, that person is good. Although racism does, of course, occur in individual acts, these acts are part of a larger system that we all participate in.’

Our current understanding of the concept needs to evolve to show that good, honest people can do racism too and that they can uphold the structures that prop up racism.

Because, at the end of the day, ‘race is a social construction’, says Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, Adjunct Research Fellow at Swinburne University. ‘

Race is a system of classification and stratification, based on perceived biological differences.

‘Race is stratification because these categories rank some groups as superior to others. It’s not based on some innate and immutable scientific fact.’

How do we take on this meaning of racism?

If we understand that racism isn’t just about intention and is rather upheld by systems and individual acts (no matter how well-meaning the individual), we can begin the work to be anti-racist.

Being anti-racist means actively doing the work to challenge racism, not acting defensively when confronted with it, and passing on the message.

Rima Sani, a lecturer in sociology at Middlesex University, tells us that it is a conscious effort.

She says: ‘To become anti-racist is to realise the subtle, less subtle and institutional prejudices which you contribute to, either knowingly or unknowingly and being committed to change.

‘It’s not enough to claim to not be a racist because whether over the dinner table or on a drunken night out [or generally in day-to-day life], your deep-seated prejudices will be exposed.’

Those biases may even be exposed without you realising – those affected by your words or actions may not call you out on it.

It’s vital to remember the challenges to approaching the topic of racism. Those who dare to bring it up risk making others feel uncomfortable, losing their personal and professional standing, or experiencing further criticism in response.

And for those who don’t understand racism, it can be difficult to ask about it for fear of looking uncultured or insensitive in an era where cancel culture prevails.

The answer is to do the work – read things such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, Brit(ish), Natives, It’s Not About the Burqa and much much more. Listen to those around you, observe things, and call out problematic behaviours.

But, remember that you will never arrive at true racial awareness, it’s an ever-evolving process. You just have to be open, listen, and take appropriate action.

It begins, first, with changing your definition of racism.

On its face, inviting a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan onto your radio show is a risky proposition with very little upside. The situation gets even more precarious when you’re inviting this ex-wizard to dole out opinions on race. But these are wild times we’re living in, which is why David Duke — who has emerged as a top cheerleader for the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump — appeared on N.P.R.’s “Morning Edition” two weeks ago and defended the candidate from charges of racism.

The surprise was that Duke, now running for a Senate seat, actually had some perceptive things to say. The rising tide of buttoned-up Republicans who have spoken out against Trump’s ethnic belligerence, he said, were betraying both “the Republican Party and certainly conservatism.” He then managed to dismiss those Republicans and swiftly parse a complex national paradox. “These are just nothing more than epithets and vicious attacks,” Duke said. “Donald Trump is not a racist. And the truth is, in this country, if you simply defend the heritage of European-American people, then you’re automatically a racist. There’s massive racial discrimination against Euro­pean-Americans, and that’s the reality.”

In positioning Trump as the victim of a smear campaign, Duke was defending him against claims of deep, personal, cancer-of-the-soul racism. Trump isn’t racist, said the ex-Klan boss (who, of course, also isn’t racist), because he doesn’t harbor hate in his heart for America’s racial minorities. But then he pivoted. The real problem, he claimed, is systemic racism, directed against European-Americans.

This is how David Duke, who most diverges from the stereotypical Klansman in that he wears suits, revealed an understanding that systems of race are more important than one person’s motives, reputation or emotional health — that there is racism, and then there is racism, and the two are not the same.

The first cited use of “racism” in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1902, during the well-intentioned Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian. There, a white man, Richard Henry Pratt, criticized government policy toward Native Americans. “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow,” he said. “Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.” Pratt was what we might call “progressive” for his time; his version of destroying racism involved forcibly assimilating Native Americans into white culture. (As he put it, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”) Both of these options — segregation by force or assimilation by force — had disastrous effects for Native Americans. But for Pratt, racism was a matter of policy, not malice.

“Racism” spent the first half of the 20th century in competition with an­other word, “racialism,” though neither featured prominently in our national conversation. Then came the civil rights era, when the word took on for many a convenient new meaning, one that had more to do with the human heart than with practices like redlining, gerrymandering or voter intimidation. In 1964, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama — who just a year earlier promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — explained the clear difference, in his mind, between a racist and a segregationist: “A racist is one who despises someone because of his color, and an Alabama segregationist is one who conscientiously believes that it is in the best interest of the Negro and white to have a separate educational and social order.”

Soon, nearly everyone could agree that racism was the evil work of people with hate in their hearts — bigots. This was a convenient thing for white Americans to believe. Racism, they could say, was the work of racists. And wherever you looked, there were no racists: only good men like Wallace, minding the welfare of their black fellow citizens, or the segregationist South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, defending states’ rights. Racism definitely existed, at some point — no one was out there denying that slavery had happened — but its residue had settled only in the hearts of the most unsavory individuals. Society as a whole didn’t need reform for the sins of a few.

Racism ceased to be a matter of systems and policy and became a referendum on the rot of the individual soul. Calling people racist was no longer a matter of evaluating their opinions; it was an accusation of being irrevocably warped at the very core. We can see how this plays out in news coverage of things that are, in fact, racist. “Racist” is seen as such a deep personal attack that it’s safer and more civil — particularly in the eyes of mainstream media organizations — to refer to things as racially charged, or tinged, or explosive, or divisive, or (when all else fails) just plain racial.

In May, Trump made news by railing against Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born Mexican-American federal judge presiding over litigation against Trump University. Trump called him “very hostile” and suggested that he recuse himself. “This judge is of Mexican heritage,” Trump explained to CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’m building a wall, O.K.?”

Soon after, the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, materialized to make a rare sort of public statement, actually agreeing with charges of racism against a candidate he still endorsed. “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” he said.

Ryan then appeared on the “Kilmeade and Friends” radio show. “Are you saying that Donald Trump’s a racist?” Brian Kilmeade asked. “No, I’m not,” Ryan replied. “I’m saying the comment was. I don’t know what’s in his heart.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the public evolution of this word. Sure, Trump appeared to be suggesting a race-based test of judicial fitness. But the House speaker couldn’t speak to the state of Trump’s soul. He’s not God.

Trump, with his years of practice fielding such charges, had a different response. He seems to understand that charges of racism are essentially toothless, because the bar of proof is now so high that it’s impossible to clear. But he also understands that the seriousness of the accusation can have a paralyzing effect upon its target. So he coached his surrogates on how to respond. “The people asking the questions,” Trump told his proxies, “those are the racists. I would go at ’em.”

This is the end result of redefining racism to mean malice in one’s heart. Once whites moved the goal posts, anyone could be the victim of racism, and anyone could be racist. Activists opposing racism could be racist. President Obama casually mentioning that he, like Trayvon Martin, is black — this could be a deeply racist act. Advocates of busing programs or affirmative action could be racist. Minorities resentful over their treatment in America could be the real racists, the ones whose hearts insist on “making everything about race.” Al Sharpton is a racist. Beyoncé Knowles is a racist. Kanye West is definitely a racist.

A recent Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department unearthed rampant racial discrimination and routine violations of civil rights that specifically targeted the city’s black residents. And yet nonviolent movements like Black Lives Matter, which emerged three years ago to combat these exact issues, have instead been identified as bad actors, thugs and outside agitators — just last month, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York said, “When you say ‘black lives matter,’ that is inherently racist.”

Someone, after all, must be racist: More than half of white Americans now believe that they’re discriminated against as much as minorities. Who, then, is doing the discriminating?

It’s not that anyone denies that institutional racism once existed. But the belief now is that systemic racism is a national cancer that was excised long ago, in an operation so successful it didn’t even leave lasting effects. All that remains is individual hatred in the souls of the most monstrous among us — or else, depending on whom you ask, in vengeful minorities who want to nurse grievances and see whites suffer for the sins of past generations. Through the willful perversion of shared history, whites have been able to appropriate the victimhood of minorities and, in an audacious reversal, insist that an obvious thing isn’t real — otherwise known as gaslighting. And as in any case of sustained abuse, gaslighting is integral to institutional racism.

“Everybody’s walking on eggshells,” Clint Eastwood said, in a recent interview with Esquire. “We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”

Even delivered by an 86-year-old Hollywood tough guy, the absurdity of these words astounds. Here is a white man telling minorities what real racism looks like. He’s not alone, either: It’s common for white Americans to position themselves as the neutral arbiters of what is or is not racist and what other Americans are allowed to be angered by. Lo and behold, the answer is always the same — real institutional racism always ends up being something from the past, something dealt with, not an ongoing system of policy that afflicts minorities and profits white people to this day. Offer any objections, any other experience of the world, and the response you’ll get is the same one Eastwood offered in Esquire:

“Just [expletive] get over it.”


Charity Croff: Dear Straight White Men.

Further Reading

Back to Top

Racism by Omission

Most White People Don’t Say “Black Lives Don’t Matter”

  • Instead white people
    • Support, are complicit, or complacent with racist institutions and policies that devalues black lives
      • Criminal Justice System, school funding, housing discrimination, gentrification, etc.
    • Support politicians that devalue black lives 
      • Trump and Biden
    • Whitewash antiracism efforts using
      • Language such as PC culture, culture wars, cancel culture, SJW
        • Language created by the Political Right to demonize antiracism and social justice efforts
      • Respectability politics, white centering, white fragility
    • Justify oppressive systems
      • “Just a few bad apples”, “we can all make it if we try”, “All equal under the law”
      • Meritocracy myth
    • Don’t consider how black lives are impacted when advocating for policies
      • White moderates
        • Liberals sacrificing civil rights policies to win white “racist” moderate voters
      • Class reductionist policies – think a fair economy and more jobs will fix everything including racism
        • While ignoring even at full employment
          • White men are paid more than women and people of color
          • 400 years of past and present white supremacy without reparations and the racial wealth gap it created
          • Unconscious implicit racism in all white people
        • Policies that pretend to be race neutral but end up hurting communities of color disproportionately
          • Exclusionary zoning, free markets, welfare work requirements, cutting social safety funding, etc.
    • White Silence
      • When you see someone, an institution, or a policy that devalues black lives but don’t speak up

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Jacqui Germain, The Insidious Problem Of Racism ‘By Omission’

“Here’s the thing: by and large, white supremacy is a self-sufficient beast that operates in its own best interest. It seeks to create the conditions that allow it to thrive, and will continue recreating those conditions for as long as it can manage to live. Though there are plenty of maliciously racist actors operating in countless spaces across the country, white supremacy has organized itself so that there need not be any admitted or overt racist intent in order to perpetuate institutional racism. The “by omission” aspect of American anti-Black racism is the “racism without racists” phenomenon. Racism is built into our country in such a way that the fuel it needs to operate is produced casually, without much attention or notice, with increasing regularity.

What we know of white supremacy and American anti-Black racism is that it adapts quickly, transforming its language and appearance without sacrificing much of its effectiveness. American anti-Blackness “by omission” doesn’t look like the more overt anti-Blackness we’re trained to recognize; it doesn’t look like signs on water fountains or burning crosses on lawns. It looks like Black men and women being shuffled in massive numbers into the U.S. prison system — coincidentally the one place slavery is still constitutionally permitted. It looks like deeply segregated neighborhoods and public schools more than six decades after Brown v. Board was decided, despite the efforts of desegregation, with underfunded schools serving primarily low-income Black students. “Homicide by omission” means no one deliberately poisoned the water, but when the lead shows up, it shows up in schools and communities with majority Black populations — in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago and elsewhere.

We know that the neglect, the absence, the omission does not need to be deliberate in order for it to be effective; this is, perhaps, the greatest sign of its efficiency. The structure of white supremacy means system can and does operate as if by happenstance, without an evil mastermind turning racism’s wheel forward. But does the act of omission need to be deliberate in order for it to be effective? And if it does need to be deliberate, does a lack of criminality absolve anyone and everyone of responsibility? It’s difficult to have a conversation about accountability — legally or otherwise — when the system works to erase individual culpability. There are certainly individual racists putting racist things in motion, but the day-to-day churn of racism is largely due to the mundane and uncritical thoughtlessness that allows white supremacy to thrive. The “by omission” aspect of anti-Black racism is the reason anti-racist efforts must be unequivocally deliberate. Only with rigorous effort can we hope to counter a system constructed so that the easiest, most profitable response is the racist one.”

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“Omitted information can have similar effects. For example, another young woman, preparing to be a high school English teacher. expressed her dismay that she had never learned about any Black authors in any of her English courses. How was she to teach about them to her future students when she hadn’t learned about them herself? A White male student in the class responded to this discussion with frustration in his response journal, writing “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.” Had one of his elementary, high school, or college teachers ever told him that there were no Black writers? Probably not. Yet because he had never been exposed to Black authors, he had drawn his own conclusion that there were none. Stereotypes, omissions, and distortions all contribute to the development of prejudice. Prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information.” Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race


John Halstead, The Real Reason White People Say ‘All Lives Matter’

“The problem with being “colorblind” — aside from the fact that we’re not really — is that it is really a white privilege to be able to ignore race. White people like me have the luxury of not paying attention to race — white or black. The reason is because whiteness is treated as the default in our society. Whiteness is not a problem for white people, because it blends into the cultural background.

Black people, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being “colorblind.” They live in a culture which constantly reminds them of their Black-ness, which tells them in a million large and small ways that they are not as important as white people, that their lives actually do not matter as much as white lives. Which is why saying “Black Lives Matter” is so important.

“All Lives Matter” is a problem because it refocuses the issue away from systemic racism and Black lives. It distracts and diminishes the message that Black lives matter or that they should matter more than they do. “All Lives Matter” is really code for “White Lives Matter,” because when white people think about “all lives,” we automatically think about “all white lives.”

We need to say “Black Lives Matter,” because we’re not living it. No one is questioning whether white lives matter or whether police lives matter. But the question of whether Black lives really matter is an open question in this country.”

“Colorblind racism…when racially neutral language makes extreme racial inequalities appear to be the natural outcome of innocent private choices or free-market forces rather than intentional public policies like housing covenants, federal mortgage redlining, public housing segregation, and school zoning” Matthew Delmont

“Legislators in the US no longer explicitly write laws in the racially discriminatory manner that marked the Reconstruction Era. But even laws that are neutral on their face can disparately impact black people.” Vera Justice: An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System

Rise of Race Neutral Racism

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Defining Anti-racism

Non Racist vs Anti-Racist

Screen Shot 2020-06-15 at 1.34.19 PMSource: Teach and Transform – Liz Kleinrock

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“RACIST: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

ANTIRACIST: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

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” What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I against it.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One either endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist” Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

“Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other. We can unknowingly strive to be a racist. We can knowingly strive to be an antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent selfawareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Ibram Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

Two Anti-racist Definition Deviations from Ibram Kendi

  • Removing the “Non Racist” category
    • Only racist and antiracist
    • Combines non participation in racism as anti-racist

“What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not–as Richard Spencer argues-a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it–and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.” Ibram Kendi,, How to be an Antiracist    

  • Removing the need for institutional power (Power + Prejudice = Racism)
    • Anyone can be racist now
    • Opens door for reverse racism
    • Better to say anyone can engage in whiteness

“I no longer talk about “racism” but about “whiteness.” I define whiteness as “the cultural values, norms, behaviors, and attitudes that uphold White Supremacy…

I do not believe people of color can be racist. Never in history has any non-white group had the systemic power to oppress whites or any other group— of people. There are certainly examples of discriminatory practices between people and groups of color, but racism occurs on a systemic level.

This does not mean that people of color do not engage in whiteness. We certainly do. Every person who grew up in the United States, regardless of ethnic identity, has been exposed to messages of anti-blackness and messages that convey “white is right.” From housing practices, to media representation, to racist and white-washed curricula in school, the message is clear: It’s better to be white in America. Beverly Daniel Tatum calls this immersion in racist messaging a fog that we all live in and breathe in.” Tracy Castro-Gill: Countering Whiteness

Ibram X. Kendi on Anti-Racism

: The Fight to Redefine Racism

In “How to Be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi argues that we should think of “racist” not as a pejorative but as a simple, widely encompassing term of description.

…Kendi is convinced that racism can be objectively identified, and therefore fought, and one day vanquished. He argues that we should stop thinking of “racist” as a pejorative, and start thinking of it as a simple description, so that we can join him in the difficult work of becoming antiracists. “One either endorses the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist or racial equality as an antiracist,” Kendi writes, adding that it isn’t possible to be simply “not racist.” He thinks that all of us must choose a side; in fact, he thinks that we are already choosing, all the time.

The modern battle against racism, as many people have observed, is driven by a kind of sacred fervor, and in “How to Be an Antiracist” Kendi makes this link explicit. “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be an antiracist,” he writes. Indeed, Christianity and antiracism were intimately connected for his parents. They were inspired by Tom Skinner, a fiery black evangelist who preached the gospel of “Jesus Christ the Radical,” and by James H. Cone, one of the originators of black-liberation theology. Kendi’s parents taught him black pride, and he took these lessons seriously. As Kendi tells it, his parents’ belief in black pride led them to embrace black self-reliance, a doctrine that urged black people to overcome the legacy of racism by working hard and doing well. Kendi bitterly recalls a speech he gave at an oratory contest in high school, decrying the bad habits of black youth. “They think it’s okay not to think,” he said. “They think it’s okay to be those who are most feared in society.” Kendi won the competition, but he now regards the speech as shamefully racist, because it blamed black people for their own failures. “I was a dupe, a chump,” he writes. He argues that the idea of black underachievement lends support for anti-black policies, which in turn help perpetuate the conditions that inspire speeches like his…

In “Stamped from the Beginning,” Kendi divided the racists into two kinds, segregationists and assimilationists. Historically, segregationists argued that black people were inherently defective or dangerous, and needed to be kept under control. Assimilationists sounded kinder: they often fought against black oppression, but they also argued that black people needed to change their behavior—their culture—in order to catch up to white people and assimilate into white society. In 1834, the American Anti-Slavery Society issued a pamphlet of admonishment:

We have noticed with sorrow, that some of the colored people are purchasers of lottery tickets, and confess ourselves shocked to learn that some persons, who are situated to do much good, and whose example might be most salutary, engage in games of chance for money and for strong drink.

Sometimes these lectures were intended as a political strategy, on the theory that civil rights would be easier to win if black Americans were perceived to be working hard. And sometimes, especially in the twentieth century, they were intended as acknowledgments of the limits of politics. In Kendi’s view, though, talk of failures in culture or conduct supposes that black people are somehow to blame for the effects of racism—as if they could have chosen, instead, to be unaffected by it. He thinks that it is both unfair and impractical to suggest that black communities must somehow heal themselves before the government can intervene. Ranging across the centuries, “Stamped” identified segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists with a confident clarity that was also the book’s greatest weakness, because it reduced complicated lives to a series of pass-fail tests. Kendi noted with satisfaction that when Du Bois was in his sixties he concluded that black people would never “break down prejudice” through virtuous comportment—thus becoming, at last, an antiracist.

Kendi’s position has radical implications: in ruling out criticism of black culture or black behavior, it stipulates that any problems must be either fictional or the result of contemporary discrimination. If you reject “assimilationism,” then you can’t suggest, as Obama did, that centuries of racism have eroded the black nuclear family. You might try to show, instead, that black men are often shut out of the labor market, which makes them less likely to marry. Or you might conclude that the nuclear family is merely one cultural ideal among others, and not one to be universally preferred.

In the case of education, Kendi’s commitment to antiracist thinking leads him to dispute the existence of an “achievement gap” between white and black students. Black students may, on average, get lower scores on standardized tests, and drop out of high school at higher rates. But such metrics, he argues in “How to Be an Antiracist,” are themselves racist, devised to “degrade” and “exclude” black students; he suggests that a “low-testing” black student and a “high-testing” white student may simply be demonstrating “different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement.” This celebration of difference comes to an end when it is time to judge the educational systems themselves. Kendi claims that “chronic underfunding of Black schools” does create “diminished”—and not merely “different”—“opportunities for learning.” Throughout the book, the idea is to judge unfair policies, while refusing to judge, as a group, the people who are subjected to them. Kendi believes that “individual Blacks have suffered trauma” in America, but he rejects the “racist” idea that “Blacks are a traumatized people.”

In successive chapters of “How to Be an Antiracist,” Kendi explains that there are many forms of racism: there is class racism, which conflates blackness with poverty, as well as gender racism, queer racism, and something called “space racism,” which is less exciting than it sounds—it has to do with the way people associate black neighborhoods, or spaces, with violence. “ ‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist,’ ” Kendi writes, “are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment.” This suggests that people can change, as Kendi did, and as Du Bois did. But it also suggests that nonracist identity is contingent and unstable: we are all constantly peeling and resticking those nametags.

The result is to complicate the seemingly straightforward definitions Kendi offers in “How to Be an Antiracist.” For instance, he says that a policy can be either racist or antiracist; it is racist if it “produces or sustains racial inequity,” and a person is racist if he or she supports such a policy. But it may take many years to determine whether a policy produces or sustains racial inequity. For instance, some cities, including New York, generally forbid employers to ask job seekers about their criminal history, or to check their credit scores. These measures are designed in part to help African-American applicants, who may be more likely to have a criminal record, or to have poor credit. But some studies suggest that such prohibitions make black men, in general, less likely to be hired, perhaps because employers fall back on cruder generalizations. Are these laws and their supporters racist? In Kendi’s framework, the only possible answer is: wait and see.

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