Racism is structural, not just personal. It’s embedded in the very fabric of our society, with deep roots in history. Prejudice is Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown in Ferguson and leaving him on the sidewalk to die. Racism is that he gets away with it, unindicted.
The Inuit, I’ve heard, have fifty different words for snow, presumably because they have a lot of it! When something is omnipresent, we need language to help us distinguish the subtleties. For that same reason, we need more than one term for talking about racism, which is as omnipresent in the US as snow in the pre-global-warming Arctic. Clarity about the subtle distinctions and forms that racism takes can aid the effectiveness of all who are working for a world of justice.
Racism, and its cousins sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism and all the rest of the family share many similarities in the way they function. In this essay I will focus primarily on race. And for clarity and simplicity of language, I will sometimes use the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’, even though ‘black’ people come in many shades and ancestries, and ‘white’ people also represent a range of heritages and ethnic backgrounds. Myself, my heritage is 100 per cent purebred, dirt poor Eastern European Jew, which carries a wealth of complexities. I’m a woman who comfortably fits my biological gender, getting older, fatter, creakier and more hard-of-hearing by the day. All of that factors into who I am, but in terms of race, I look white, and carry that privilege. But I have lived in a multi-racial household for decades, helped to raise an African-American child, and feel a deep personal investment in his generation’s future.
Let’s start with the difference between prejudice and racism. Prejudice is personal. It means ‘pre-judge’. It’s the assumptions we make, the snap judgments, the way the black guy in the hoodie may make you nervous while the white guy in the business suit does not, although the first may be a college basketball star and the second may be about to take your home out from under you.
Prejudice often goes together with stereotypes, positive or negative: Black people have rhythm, Jews are loud, women compliant, etc. Sometimes these can be annoying but relatively benign—I assume my gay friend Donald can help me with my decorating scheme or that my Asian American student must be smart. But prejudice can also kill—a cop sees a black man reach for his wallet and his prejudice leads him to shoot without warning.
We are probably all prejudiced to some extent, and prejudice can work in any direction. Black people can be prejudiced against white people, Latinos can be prejudiced against Asians, Asians against Latinos, and the dance goes on. I’ve heard Norwegians complain that Danes are loud and uncouth, and local villagers in Cornwall express dismay at the invasion of those foreigners from Devon.
But racism is something more. Racism is structural, not just personal. It’s embedded in the very fabric of our society, with deep roots in history. Prejudice is Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown jn Ferguson and leaving him on the sidewalk to die. Racism is that he gets away with it, unindicted. And that these incidents keep happening, again and again and again, so that a black person’s experience of something as everyday and normal as walking on the street is pervaded by a ubiquitous, low-level sense of fear and danger distinct from any fears a white person might feel.
Prejudice, institutionalized, becomes part of a racist structure of discrimination. Discrimination means you don’t get the raise, the apartment, or the job, or the spot in graduate school, or some other benefit because of your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your age, your disability, etc. Discrimination compounds over the generations—maybe a child is born malnourished because her parents were poor because her grandparents were closed out of the labor pool and had no access to education.
Racism is systemic. It’s the built-in ways the deck is stacked against certain people because of the color of their skin. We can’t avoid it. It infects our preferences and it has shaped our history. It’s the standards of beauty we internalize at such a deep level we don’t realize that they are culturally shaped. It’s the power of still-existing corporations whose fortunes were originally built on the shipping companies that transported slaves. It’s the family farm originally settled by refugees from Europe who were granted land expropriated from the First Nations tribes. It’s the difference in the value of the house I inherited from my mother, a social worker, who was able to buy property in a white neighborhood in the ‘Sixties, and the much smaller value of the house my friend Isis inherited from her mother, a nurse, who was only allowed to buy in a Black neighborhood during that same era.
More than even that, it’s the legacy of pain passed down in families and the ideals of attractiveness and success and the works we consider ‘Great Literature’ and the subjects we study in school. It’s a prison system that has been privatized and whose profits must be fed with bodies, and it is all the subtle prejudices and assumptions that determine whose bodies those are. It’s an overarching, overwhelming system that parcels out benefits according to skin color and permeates everything we do, whether we want it to or not. Another term for the system is ‘white supremacy’—all the subtle and not-so-subtle forces that allocate the best stuff and the most power for white people and the dregs for everybody else.
To admit the racist underpinnings of U.S. society calls into question many of the foundational myths of the dominant American culture—the myth of equality, of a fair society where anyone can rise. Moreover, for white people, it pushes us smack up against our privilege.
Privilege is unearned benefits and power. And who wants to admit to that? We all like to think that we deserve whatever good things we might have in life. It’s painful and humiliating to think that our mere skin color gained us unfair advantages.
Moreover, even with white skin privilege, life sometimes sucks. And in a competitive, capitalist culture like our own, we tend to think that everything is a competition, a zero-sum game, even suffering. If I admit that I have privilege, does that make my personal pain invalid?
But misery is not a competitive sport. Pain is not quantifiable, and we don’t have to compare ours with someone else’s. I might be utterly miserable with the flu, even when someone else is suffering from cancer, and I still have a right to bouts of self-pity and also to comfort and treatment and healing. But while the flu can kill you, cancer is generally a far worse disease. If I hold that awareness, I might refrain from brightly assuring my friend with late-stage lymphoma that I know just how she feels, because I’ve been sick, too!
Instead, I might admit that I don’t know how she feels or how the world looks from her perspective, but I can be open to listening, to learning, and to offering what support I can.
Privilege is hard to see when you have it, because a lot of it consists of what doesn’t happen to you. Because I have white-skin privilege, I get in the car and drive to the grocery store, and don’t get pulled over by the cops. I walk around the store and do my shopping, and no one watches me suspiciously. I lose my wallet in Mexico, and go to the consulate and they issue me a travel document without a question. “Don’t I have to do anything to prove I’m an American?” I ask. “Sing the National Anthem, or swear my allegiance to the Giants, or something?”
“Oh no,” the woman behind the counter replies. “It’s obvious that you are—your accent, your name, how you look. Now, if your name was ‘Garcia’ or something, that might be different!”
Acknowledging that I have privilege doesn’t mean I have to sink under the weight of guilt. It just means admitting that the playing field doesn’t start out level. When I allow myself to see that reality, then I can put that power and those benefits to use in helping to smooth out the humps and make the game more fair.
Nor does acknowledging that targeted populations lack privilege mean that every person of color is doomed to a terrible life. The vast majority of people of color and other target groups manage to live fulfilling, loving, productive lives in spite of all the obstacles. One way I can support my friends of color is by seeing and acknowledging their strength and resilience, not just their pain, by appreciating and celebrating their gifts, by entering into real relationships of equals where we can all be seen in the fullness of our flaws and virtues.
One of the core aspects of privilege is simply not having to work hard to be seen—seen as a person, a full and complex human being. Racism and its cousins make individuals and whole groups invisible, not the subjects of history but the objects, the Other, as Simone Beauvoir noted that women become under male supremacy. A man can simply be an artist, a woman too often is labeled a Woman Artist. A white man can be a writer, a person of color too often is seen as a Black Writer or an Asian Novelist or a Latino Poet. Women often report this common experience: a woman makes a suggestion in a meeting that goes unheard. Ten minutes later, a man makes the same suggestion and is greeted with acclaim.
For a person from a target group whose people have been made invisible and devalued for centuries, whose lives are currently taken with impunity, whose contributions too often go unrecognized or unrewarded, asserting value becomes a life-and-death issue. Being unseen or undervalued can feel like erasure, a form of death.
Privilege can also work in more subtle ways. One of them is what I call protagonitis—the assumption that the white person or the male is the lead role, the protagonist, in any story. Hollywood loves this—there are a lot of movies about the noble white teacher uplifting her poor ghetto students, very few about those ghetto folks uplifting themselves.
We all get to be the star in our own lives. Indeed, that was one of the key things the feminist movement continues to fight for—that women get to play lead and not always be relegated to mere supporting roles.
But when we go into someone else’s community, we are not the center of their story. Support can be a noble role. Think of Lord of the Rings—Frodo, the little hobbit, is the protagonist. He carries the ring. His supporters are far more powerful—wise wizards, magical elves, kings and warriors. But they are not the protagonists. He is. They lend their power to his quest.
When we step into someone else’s community, or support a struggle led by another group, we might get to be Gandalf or Aragorn or Galadriel or Sam, but we need to remember who is carrying the ring. The story is not about us, and that’s okay. One of the best things we can do with privilege is to put it at the service of a quest led by those who have been most impacted by injustice. And we don’t have to feel hurt or defensive when someone says, “Hey, back off. This is my ring! Don’t try to snatch it!”
There are other subtle ways that racism divides us. One is sheer unfamiliarity with another culture. “Culture” is still overwhelmingly white, male and European—Black Studies or Women’s Studies or Native American Studies are relegated to the sidelines, if they haven’t had their funding cut altogether. Few of us learn much about these cultures and heritages in school unless we take special courses or make special efforts, whereas black or Latino or Native American or Asian students learn a lot about European culture and white history. People of the dominant culture can be rich, successful and socially prominent without ever knowing a damn thing about African civilizations or Spanish poetry. But to survive, to pass and to succeed, people of color need to know European history and literature and speak standard English.
Unfamiliarity can lead to curiosity. What does that hair feel like? A five-year-old might ask to touch it quite innocently. But those of us who are older need to be aware that curiosity can feel like intrusion, and that innocent statements can carry a heavy weight of historic entitlement. If I say to a black acquaintance, “I want to touch your hair!” or worse, reach out and grab a dreadlock without asking, my act carries with it the legacy of hundreds of years of white entitlement to black people’s bodies. Just as when a man wolf-whistles at a woman, he may be genuinely appreciative of her beauty, but his action reinforces a legacy thousands of years old of men’s entitlement to judge and possess women’s bodies.
Unfamiliarity can also lead to discomfort and avoidance. Some of us might be lucky enough to grow up in diverse communities with a wide range of friends of all different races and backgrounds. But many of us do not. Even in integrated schools and offices, people often socialize in segregated groups.
For people of color, hanging out with white people carries the risk of experiencing insensitivity or micro-aggressions, the little jabs that rip open the bigger scars. The subtler forms of prejudice, the unconscious assumptions, are often hard to identify in the moment and exhausting to experience. And the burden of educating the ignorant can be a heavy one.
While well-meaning white people who first start to become aware of privilege and power issues can become so excruciatingly aware of race, of their own and everyone else’s level of privilege, so guilt-ridden, so hyper-conscious of everything they say, that they’re really no good to themselves or anybody else. Especially if they develop a bad case of validitis: the need to have someone, anyone, or some other color than your own validate you as The Good White Person, often by playing a game of ‘gotcha!” and shaming any other white person who makes a questionable remark.
So what’s a well-meaning white person to do?
First, get comfortable in your own skin. Value yourself, not for your color or your ancestry or your background, but for your choices in life. That’s all we can really lay claim to!
I’m aware this is easier said than done, and can be a lifelong journey. But it’s where we have to begin, all of us of any heritage. When we can value our own true worth, we can withstand the assaults we all suffer, and we have less need to look to others to validate us.
Learn about your own heritage. ‘White’ isn’t just ‘white’, it might be Irish, Italian, Basque, Lithuanian, Welsh, Serbian, or a myriad of other ethnic or tribal identities, all of which have histories and songs and stories of their own. Part of the price we pay for the benefits ‘whiteness’ confers is the erasure of these rich identities.
Learn something, as well, about other cultures and histories. Doing so will enrich your world, broaden your knowledge and perspectives, and can be a source of great pleasure. Read the literature, study the history, watch the films, listen to the music and dance the dances!
Don’t confuse cultural learning and awareness with cultural appropriation, a very different thing. Learning comes from a humble place, appropriation from a place of entitlement and unawareness. If someone shares some aspect of their culture or teachings with you, it’s a precious gift. Give back! Come with respect, and don’t lay claim to what you haven’t earned. Learn about the real lives and current struggles of a culture as well as the myths and ceremonies. Don’t adopt the costumes or trappings without permission, and a deep understanding of what lies beneath.
Understand there is a difference between initiatory teachings and cultural offerings. One is reserved for those who commit to a path, the other is freely offered to the world. If you’re not sure, ask. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, tells how carefully she sought permission before writing about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address.
“…I am not a Haudenosaunee citizen or scholar—just a respectful neighbor and listener. Because I feared overstepping my boundaries in sharing what I’ve been told, I asked permission to write about it and how it has influenced my own thinking. Over and over, I was told that these words were a gift of the Haudenosaunee to the world. When I asked Haudenosaunee faith keeper Oren Lyons about it, he gave his signature bemused smile and said, “Of course you can write about it. It’s supposed to be shared, otherwise how can it work? We’ve been waiting 500 years for people to listen. If they’d understood the Thanksgiving then, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Knowledge of other cultures can help us avoid the assumption that our cultural way of looking at the world is the only way, or the best way, or the more evolved way. And we can learn to appreciate the vast array of different ways of understanding, different myths and frameworks and paradigms that characterize the cultures of the world. For just as there is no ‘white’ culture, there is truly no single overarching ‘African culture’ or ‘indigenous culture’—there are thousands of different cultures and stories and ways of living. Many share some deep commonalities, but to lump them all together is to make invisible the richness of their diversity.
Every culture, every group, has its own norms, its customs, its ways of relating, its assumptions about how decent people behave. One way privilege operates is what I like to call normatitis—the assumption that the norms of my group are the norms for everyone, and anyone who doesn’t follow them is deviant. So if I come from a dominant culture where emotion is suppressed and expression is constrained, someone who yells or cries or complains will seem loud or uncouth or scary. Norms are generally unspoken, and we are often not conscious of adapting to them. We get into the elevator, face the door, and don’t speak to the stranger next to us, and never think about it. Someone who strikes up a conversation may please us or alarm us, but either way will definitely be doing something out of the norm.
In our own communities, we have a lifetime to absorb the norms and adapt to them. But when we move into a different culture, we may not even recognize what the norms are nor be aware that we are violating them. I once attended an Ohlone ceremony and was blithely singing along with the chants in my high soprano. Had not another white woman tipped me off, I would never have guessed that in that culture, singing an octave above everyone else is considered rude and insulting.
A variation of normatitis is issueitis—assuming that the issues I care about should be tops on everyone else’s agenda, often coupled with not knowing what other groups’ agendas might be, or dismissing their importance.
So, rather than always trying to drag people of color into supporting your issues, find out what issues are up in the communities around you, and show up to support them.
There are many things those of us who carry privilege can do, and these suggestions are not new. We’ve been talking about them in progressive movements for as long as I’ve been around, which is a good half-century, and I’m sure the movements were talking about them before that.
Share resources. Share the spotlight. If your group, or conference, or organization wants to be diverse, bring a diverse group of people together at the beginning. Don’t go to the one person of color you know three days before the conference and ask them to bring some others.
Give recognition. Recognize that for people who have been made invisible, recognition is vitally important and healing. Be extra vigilant in giving credit where credit is due.
Share opportunities to speak and present. Challenge the organizers of conferences and gatherings that don’t represent diversity.
Educate other white people, or other men, or other cis-gendered people or people of privilege. Don’t let the person in the target group bare the burden of all the consciousness raising that needs to be done. But be conscious and compassionate in the way you go about it. Shaming and blaming are never helpful ways of teaching, and if you are calling out others from an unacknowledged need to make yourself look good by comparison, you will only generate resistance.
Know that you’ll make mistakes. You’ll say things quite unintentionally that hurt peoples’ feelings or offend somebody. If someone confronts you, listen. You may or may not agree, but listen and think about the critique. Understand that the impact of your words is often very different from your intention. Defending your intention is not the point, when something you’ve said or done has had a hurtful impact. Apologize, forgive yourself even if no one else will forgive you, and move on.
These are painful times, but the very visibility of the pain carries with it the possibility to address it, and build strong, broad, diverse social movements that can draw people together across the barriers of our differences to stand in solidarity for one another and for the earth.
Starhawk is a lifelong activist in peace and global justice movements, a leader in the feminist and earth-based spirituality movements, author or coauthor of ten books, including The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising, and her latest, The Earth Path.
Starhawk’s website is www.starhawk.org, and more of her writings and information on her schedule and activities can be found there.