The online version of the New York Times has a series called “The Stone.” It’s part of their general “Opinionator” category. A recent post to that series caught my eye, although I hadn’t originally planned to post about it.
Then I participated in a recent discussion hosted by GIPC’S Race Relations Network.
The discussion was titled “The Social Construction of Race,” and focused upon the discomfort so many white people feel during discussions of race and racism. At a couple of points, there was real tension in the room, despite the fact that everyone in that room was demonstrably a person of good will where race relations are concerned (and the white participants probably had close black friends).
I’ve been in several similar situations, and I’ve noticed that where discussions about race tend to break down is in the definition of racism. The post from the Times is instructive:
To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. To fully understand racism in the United States, one has to go to the centuries-old counter-system tradition of African-American analysts and other analysts of color who have done the most sustained and penetrating analyses of institutional and systemic racism.
Prejudice is much less than half the story. Because prejudice is only one part of the larger white racial frame that is central to rationalizing and maintaining systemic racism, one can be less racially prejudiced and still operate out of many other aspects of that dominant frame. That white racial frame includes not only racist prejudices and stereotypes of conventional analyses, but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate shaped by the other features. Additionally, all whites, no matter what their racial prejudices and other racial framings entail, benefit from many racial privileges routinely granted by this country’s major institutions to whites.
This last sentence seems inarguable to me. It is what is meant by “white privilege,” and all of us white folks–inescapably–benefit from it. The underlying point is that systems matter more than individual bias, and that even the least prejudiced, most pro-equality, non-racist white person is treated differently in numerous contexts because of the way those systems have been constructed over time.
White folks who get offended by these discussions need to realize that simply pointing out the reality of institutionalized racism is not an accusation of complicity. It’s a recognition that we can’t change deeply-embedded structures unless we recognize that they exist and understand how they operate.
Ultimately, individual bias isn’t the problem. Social systems that reinforce and perpetuate inequality–that treat similarly-situated people differently based upon the color of their skin– are the problem.
If you don’t believe me, ask a black friend.