White people, at large, do not understand racism. The evidence presents itself in Facebook arguments, in discussions on the street, in national scandals, and on Twitter. We do not get it.
Allow me to give an example: I sat more or less on the sidelines of the whole #CancelColbert debacle. Suey Park started a hashtag in response to a punchline tweeted by Comedy Central on the Colbert Report’s account. This tweet stated that Colbert was starting a foundation for Asian Americans using an ethnic slur in the title. It was a parody of the Washington Redsk*ns Original Americans Foundation. Park argued that the slur against Asian-Americans was unacceptable. Folks argued fiercely, and often viciously, on Twitter.
There are two reasons for my quiet. First, I can see both sides of the argument. It is fair to wish for a world where ethnic slurs are never used, because their use, even in satire, legitimizes their existence. On the other hand, satire of offensive things requires further offense to be effective, so the argument of #CancelColbert is either an indictment against satire as a genre or social justice NIMBYing. The second reason is my race: I experience many of the privileges of belonging to the dominant group. It is not my place to decide what an oppressed group’s liberation looks like. If slur prohibition is it, well, who am I to argue?
This did not dissuade other white people from arguing the point. (I am not discussing the folks who, unacceptably, peppered slurs and threats at Park. That is not an argument; that is an attack.) Many of Colbert’s defenders argued that he should be excused because he’s lampooning the racial hypocrisy of the owner of the Washington Redsk*ns towards Native Americans in the skit. I must have read about a dozen variations of the statement that he is one of the “good guys,” and should get a pass. There were even more discussions about the use of the slur should be excused because his motivations were benevolent.
Arguments of character and motive are not exclusive to the #CancelColbert hashtag. I see them every time a racial controversy arises. Being called a “racist” is an insult against one’s integrity. White folks assess what “side” someone generally sits on (progressives are generally presumed to be anti-racist, conservatives are presumed to be racist), and the trial is not of their actions, but of the intentions in their heart. This action suggests that racism is a matter of motivation.
Racism has many facets. One of them is racial prejudice, the personal belief that one race is superior to others. This is a large and enduring problem or else organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center would not need to exist. When most folks say someone is racist, or “a racist,” they mean that this person has a prejudice against people of other races.
For many white people, their understanding ends there. Racism is aligned to the narratives of conflict between Good Guys and Bad Guys. They see societal racism as the cumulative effect of individual people’s prejudice against Blacks, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and everyone else, if they think that far at all. The cure for racism is thus not to be “racist,” or racially prejudiced; it is to be an unbiased “Good Guy.” As long as someone does not feel that they hold these prejudices, they are not part of The Problem. They can waltz through American society guilt-free. The problem is Other People, The Bigots, the “Bad Guys.”
This is how racism is framed in children’s shows and elementary school discussions about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a simple narrative with a victorious resolution at the end. White kids, and white adults, leave the discussion with that perception. It’s only the white people; other races live their lives and thus know better.
If the problem is prejudice, and prejudice alone, then you can ascertain whether someone is part of the problem by evaluating their motivations and intentions. If someone is found to be bigoted, then the solution is to run them out of their platform, a la Paula Deen (or Colbert). Of course, if racism is simply a question of prejudice, then racism has no particular direction. This is the logic that creates the perception that racism against whites exists. This is faulty logic, and it is self-serving to whites.
It is wrong is because actions are harmful due to their consequences, not their intentions. It is like an overly friendly German Shepherd who says “hi” by tackling the neighborhood’s children. The behavior leaves the same number of bruises, regardless of whether it was meant to be friendly or aggressive. People experience the consequences of a behavior, not the intentions. Even if someone truly does not “mean it,” they are still responsible for their conduct. We have a legal system that evaluates the supposed severity of murder based on intention, and I suppose that therein lies the part of the justification for this intention-focus. The trouble is, someone still died, and their loved ones grieve all the same. Racism is similar because those who find themselves on the subordinate position of the racial hierarchy experience the consequences of racist behavior regardless of the intentions, over and over again. You did not mean to call someone the n-word? Guess what: they were still called the n-word, and had all the baggage of the slur laid on them.
The second reason it is wrong is because racism is not simply the result of prejudice. It is an enduring institution that separates society through a centrifuge of differential access to opportunities. Racism exists beyond individual prejudices; it exists in the foundation of everything we consider acceptable and laudable. For instance, we consider education to be a mark of betterment, but systemically deny equal educational opportunities to residents of poorer areas by our educational funding structure. Getting ahead in corporate America requires abiding by a set of norms that are easily familiar to upper middle class white people. The preferred accent of American English is one generally heard from the mouths of educated whites. Non-whites often find themselves more heavily policed in both schools and cities. Need I remind anyone that slavery was a very profitable industry?
Institutions are broader than individuals. The removal of one’s prejudice will not undo the wealth gap among different races, for instance. Structural injustices are why cities are so heavily racially segregated and why African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned. A white person could lack a single prejudice against members of other racial groups and this will not change the fact that they receive benefits from a racist society that presumes their inherent superiority. We look the part of what society considers to be virtuous, and will receive the presumption prior to presenting any proof. Anyone who has applied for apartments has likely experienced this. I certainly have.
Structural oppression has a direction: the domination flows from the powerful to the subordinate. In this case, it is not possible to have racism against white people, because Whites benefit from the organization of society. We do not just benefit, we reinforce it by participating in the narratives of worth and deserving that benefit us. When we fail to question the norms of society, we endorse them. When we presume that society is just, we facilitate an unjust society in functioning. Racism, and other social ills, will only be undone with a critical eye taken to all of our institutions. It is not going to be solved when everyone’s Racist Uncle Ralph dies.
These are difficult problems which will require years, maybe generations, of work. These are problems that are barely visible as long as the dominant narrative of racism is the clear-cut good guy/bad guy story of fairy tales, as it is for many white people. In order for racism to be eradicated, society itself has to be refashioned. The Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative serves Whites by allowing them to ignore structural problems by convincing a White person of their virtue in the context of racism. This narrative justifies ignoring structural racism by convincing white people it is not their problem as long as they avoid prejudiced behavior.
We are all complicit in the state of society and the moral imperative to fix it falls on all of us. White people need to stop discussing racism as though it were someone else’s other problem. We are causing it, piece by piece, every day. Prejudice is a problem, and it is important not to be bigoted. My point is that the work does not end there, as our culture has been so eager to pretend that it does. Otherwise we create a culture where it is forbidden to say certain terrible things about Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans, but it is completely acceptable that these groups, in the aggregate, live in a second-rate America. Really, what does it say about the intentions of White people if we permit, and then justify for, this to happen?
There are other ways that white people do not understand racism which involve the limits of theory and empathy in understanding other people’s lived experiences. I believe that our simplistic narrative of racism is a problem of misunderstanding more basic than that. We are socialized to believe that racism is a problem of the past, and the way things are is the same as the way things out to be. I am calling for more critical engagement with our society, and with our selves.
These are all issues that are completely independent of whether or not Suey Park was wise to call for the cancellation of the Colbert Report. She simply provided the theatre for racial rhetoric to play out. She simply provided the stage for us to see examples of how white people, broadly speaking, do not understand racism.
Edit: Missing sentence added.