My nephew is sitting on the loveseat, and I am on the couch. We are talking as we sometimes do—getting inside each other’s heads and sharing our generational perspectives. The conversation pauses when he sees a jar of shea butter on the brown ottoman. He picks it up, reads the name: Whipped Shea Butter Mix--100% Pure Black Woman. “That’s racist,” he says. I suck in my breath before responding. I teach in a racially mixed school of Black and Latino students, and I am always hearing one of my students utter, “That’s racist.” These words that slide so easily off their new millennial tongues sound like someone popping gum too loudly.
We have so misused the term “racist” by sticking it in places that it doesn’t belong that we’ve stripped it of its power. It’s useless. It is the limp dick of the 21st century. Everybody is prejudiced to some degree—some more than others, but unless you have privilege and power to push your prejudice, you’re simply a bigot and an idiot. To label everyone and everything related to racial intolerance as racist is a failure to acknowledge the continued perpetuation of racism in this country and its impact on people of color.
There are those who will argue the dictionary definition of racist – a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to others—is an argument to show that anyone can be a racist. But a country steeped in racism, using a dictionary created by the dominant culture is not sufficient enough to justify calling everyone who has issues with someone of another race a racist.
When I refer to racism, I’m speaking of the structural and systemic racism that has been used to advance one group of people while simultaneously keeping other groups of people back. It is these institutionalized practices put in place to continue to push People Of Color (especially Black folk) to the outskirts of society. I think it’s difficult (but not impossible) for POC to be racist. I admit that we can be as prejudiced and as bigoted as anyone, but to truly qualify for the title of racist—we have to have power and privilege which is almost nonexistent.
It’s challenging to explain power and privilege to young people, but I try. With everything happening all over the country as of late, I have more examples of power and privilege than I need to get my point across. From Trayvon Martin’s tragic death to the horrific massacre in South Carolina, racism has reared its ugly head and demonstrates how deadly power and privilege push prejudice and create toxic racist situations.
In June of 2014, Janelle Ambrosia, a white woman’s verbal slew of racial slurs against a Black man in a parking lot, went viral. Because of her rant, Ambrosia was quickly labeled a racist. While I thought Ambrosia was definitely a bigot, I don’t know if she was a racist. From the video it’s hard to imagine her not having any ill feelings toward African Americans, but unless she does more than spew her hateful thoughts, she’s a bigot.
A person moves from bigotry to racism by their actions. Paula Deen and Donald Sterling are racists. They’re powerful people who used their power and their privilege to push their prejudice. Deen was sued by a former employee for discriminatory practices when she worked in the restaurant owned by Deen and her brother. Sterling refused to rent to Latinos and Blacks. My nephew and I talk about recent incidents, and I also use current events in my classroom. The rash of incidents involving POC and the police are examples of racism at its finest, but this is not a dig against police officers. Police are the gatekeepers of the status quo, and the status quo in America is racist to its core.
In October of 2004, Frank Jude, a biracial exotic dancer (Black in America) and his friend were invited by two women to a party at the home of a police officer. Jude and his friend felt uncomfortable, so they decided to leave, but they were confronted by the police officer hosting the party, and Jude was accused of stealing a badge and a wallet. Jude denied taking anything. The police severely beat and kicked Jude. One of the women called 9-11, and when the officers arrived on the scene, one of them joined the beating while the other one watched. The officers stuck a pen in Jude’s ears and cut his face. Jude was arrested and taken to jail. The stolen items were not recovered.
Eventually charges were brought against the officers, but none of the officers (mostly White) admitted to seeing anything. Instead they erected a code of silence refusing to speak out against their fellow officers in a clear-cut case of wrong doing. The case was stalled for months. Prosecutors initially failed to interview key witnesses. Three officers were charged and acquitted in state court, but were then charged with civil rights violations in federal court. Seven officers were convicted. In the end, nine officers were fired, and Jude settled for $2 million. This is racism; this is privilege + prejudice + power in full, living color. These men used their badges to push their prejudice to the extreme.
Dylan Roof walked into a church and asked for the pastor by name. He sat with the members of AME Emanuel Church, a church rooted in activism, for an hour before opening fire. He murdered nine people. He told friends that he intended to start a race war. A manifesto attesting to his twisted beliefs about Black people raping White women and taking over was found on Face book. Roof was apprehended alive and taken into custody wearing a bullet proof vest. He didn’t appear to be disheveled at all. I guess his horrific crime spree worked up an appetite, and the arresting officers purchased some food for Dylan from Burger King.
Now contrast Roof’s interaction with the police and that of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray and others. All of these people ended up dead after coming into contact with police, and their crimes were what? Brown was walking in the street and refused to obey an order to move to the sidewalk. Rice was playing with a toy gun and was shot within two seconds of the officer exiting the police vehicle. Gray requested medical attention twice and was denied, but Roof got to have it his way. How can anyone look at these situations and believe that any and all incidents involving racial differences are racist regardless of the complexion of those involved? Clearly light skin trumped dark skin in each of these situations.
Am I saying that all White people are racists and all POC are not? No. But all White people have the privilege and the power to be racist by virtue of the color of their skin. Oprah Winfrey is a powerful Black woman, and if she decided to discriminate against a group of people solely based on race, she would be a racist. The way people speak shows the way in which they think, and it is those thoughts of prejudiced people that create racist policy. Words do matter. But let’s not get lost in the rhetoric on race. When you are prejudiced or biased against a group of people and you have the power through culture, custom and law to push that prejudice, that’s racism and that, makes you a racist.
This country has been rigged against POC especially African Americans since its beginning. So, while we may be as biased, bigoted and as prejudiced as anyone, most of us are impotent in the face of racism. There is not enough Viagra or Sealis on the planet to give us the power to be collectively racist. Labeling every act of racial intolerance as racist perpetuates a false narrative that we are equally in this together; We are not.
Before I open my mouth to speak, my nephew says, “No, it’s not because racism is prejudice plus power.”Yes! I scream inside my head and pump my fist in my mind. These auntie-nephew conversations, talks around the dinner table at family gatherings, and that Urban Prep education is paying off, I say to myself. “That’s just the name of it,” I respond.
He gets it, so there’s nothing else for me to say.