The Simple Fact of Racism

August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black.  Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism.  I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March.  In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY.  In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line.  We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.

It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour.  Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour.  (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science).  But.  Racism persists.  Racism is all around us.  And Oluo reminds us of this.

And so back to Oluo.  She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state.  As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices.  She posted on Twitter:

And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in.  In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism.  Or read the article I linked to above.

But, back to the Facebook post of my friend.  The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’  I pointed out that she isn’t racist.  She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel.  But this isn’t racist.  Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.

See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.).  Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another.  And this is coupled with power.  This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.

For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black.  Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital).  The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.

That is racism.  The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist.  Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced.  They can also be stupid and tone deaf.

But racism is rare.  Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet.  She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.

But the responses to her?  Well, they kind of prove her point.  The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale.  That is what racism looks like.  And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).

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