When most people think of racism, they think of the segregated southern United States, apartheid South Africa, maybe skinheads throwing bricks at brown people, or someone telling a joke about racialized minorities. Racism tends to be seen as isolated incidents, situated somewhere geographically and temporally removed from us. It is important to remember that these are examples not of racism but of its products and consequences; racism is a daily practice.
In a Western liberal context we tend to assume that as individuals we are not racist, and that as a society we have moved past racism, when this is not the case. Racism is something that inhabits all humans. This means that no one is above racism, and, by extension, no human product can be extracted from the social relations that lead to racism. The state is not above racism; the law is not above racism; capitalism is not above racism. Confronting this is only the first step in realizing that racism cannot be eradicated, but can be prevented from going too far. How we speak, act, and reflect on racism can be in itself oppressive or emancipatory.
So what is racism? Racism is assuming anything about anyone based on a perceived deviation from a racial norm known as white. To put it simply, white is the unmarked and racialized bodies are the marked. Racism is assuming that white is the central node from which one departs to evaluate otherness.
How we speak about racialized bodies reveals how we position ourselves in regard to them. Speaking for racialized groups implies relationships of domination and privilege. “Why am I in a position to speak?” “Why is my voice perceived as more legitimate, even when speaking on behalf of groups that would rather speak for themselves?” Speaking about others implies a conversation of ‘us,’ with ‘us’ about ‘them.’ The ‘them’ is silenced because of systematic racist practices that deny agency to those deemed as deviating from the phenotypic norm.
On one side, racism is a systematic essentialization of others’ perceived cultural signifiers. And, on the other, it is an appropriation that denies an identity outside of these stereotypes. Racism is saying black people wear flashy jewellery; you yourself wearing flashy jewellery, describing it as black, and then asking someone that is black why they don’t wear flashy jewellery. Racism is dictating the terms by which one is deemed legitimately racialized.
Which brings me to my next point – the notion of a diverse society is racist. It presents us all as equal citizens in regard to the state and thus, on the one hand, wipes away the recognition of historical processes of oppression and domination and their effects (poverty, violence, disease, et cetera), and on the other presents only a ‘safe,’ ‘neutralized’ other as a viable form of identity construction. You can be black, as long as you’re not too black. You can be Muslim as long as you’re not too religious, you can be Latino as long as you speak English. Whoever does not conform to this idea of the diverse is deprived of the chance of the life of privilege that whites enjoy by default. A life where there is no continual reminder of the fact that you are and will be another.
Racism is asking someone that doesn’t look white where they are from as soon as you meet them. Racism is saying “these people.” Racism is assuming some people are more sexually available than others. Racism is saying you’re not racist. Racism is pointing out to your white friends that one of your friends is a racialized person. Racism is saying you’re not racist because you voted for Obama. Racism is interrupting me when I talk because all your life you’ve been taught that you have the right to talk. Racism is being offended instead of ashamed when someone calls you racist. Racism is assuming everyone has the same choices you do.
Racism presses on different bodies differently, but for everyone subjected to it, it is an act of direct violence. And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism. Whites, and especially white men, are in a position of privilege. If there is a scholarship or an association that is reserved for racialized others, it isn’t racist against whites, because that implies that whites have no other place to turn to for these. This is not the case.
And finally, asking someone to explain to you why you are racist is in itself racist because you are positioning yourself above that person. You are illustrating the fact that systematic exclusion based on race has put you in a position where you never had to develop the ability to recognize the symptoms of racism in order to survive.
Not everyone goes through daily processes of exclusion and identity deligitimization. To combat the effects of racism we must learn to recognize these acts of violence and call them out for what they are. Calling someone racist is not an insult, it’s a way of keeping everyone in check and making sure that nothing becomes normalized, accepted, and then acted upon.
Guillermo Martínez de Velasco is a U4 Cultural Studies student.