By: Maler Suresh and Thza Kanapathipillai
Decade after decade, as people imprint their experiences onto the world around them, society becomes more and more shaped by their ideologies. Unfortunately, as our society evolves and develops, so too do its problems. And now, it is becoming increasingly apparent what our problem is in America. It is that our society has been shaped by the ideologies of white people. And those ideologies have evolved to create the multi-faceted issue of racism in America. First, there is individual racism, which stems from conscious and unconscious personal prejudice.
While we normally think of this form of racism as a malevolent statement or action directed at a person of color, it can also be a careless statement or action that conveys prejudice without necessarily meaning to. Known as microaggressions, these actions are more what we see today. Someone might tell you that they aren’t racist, and in the same breath explain that they have many Black friends. They might claim to be blind to color, or say “Why don’t all lives matter?” They might tell you that the reason that Black people don’t succeed is because they don’t work hard enough. All of these statements perpetuate the narrative of an equal world while blatantly denying an entire group of people’s experiences. Statements like these, imply that “certain people” are the problem, not the system. This brings us to the other face of racism, systemic racism (also known as institutional racism), which is a form of racism that is perpetuated and defined by normalized practices and institutions in our society that inherently impose oppressive conditions on minority groups. It extends to discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education.
The term “institutional racism” was coined at some point during the late 1960s by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who was a leader of the Black Panthers, in the late 1960’s. He wrote of institutional racism’s “less overt, far more subtle” nature, as compared to individual racism, writing that institutional racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation.” Systemic racism is a consequence of the social hierarchy sustained by slavery and racial segregation in America, and without addressing systemic racism, we will not be able to reach the equitable society that we are striving for. Even if we could claim that we had put an end to interpersonal racism, that we all just get along, that doesn’t erase the fact that the institutions we have built, our social norms, have been structured to put those who are not white at a disadvantage.
And if these pillars of society, these distinct parts of our culture and identity as Americans, are discriminatory, I doubt we could make the argument that we, as a people, are not. Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, identifies systemic racism, not interpersonal racism, as the defining type of discrimination in our society. When asked if the country would be better for Black people if racism still existed but systemic racism did not, Oluo said, “Oh, absolutely. And I would say far better than if the opposite were true.” She described the implications of a world that looked like this, saying, “…it means that the ability for people to pass down their interpersonal racism from generation to generation is limited because they don’t have the systemic support. So you may think what you think, but when you go to school and your schools are reinforcing anti-racism, when you go to work and your work is reinforcing the anti-racism, perhaps what your parents thought about people of color loses its validity, whereas right now it’s reinforced.” It is still each of our individual duties to correct racist or discriminatory remarks, to hold people accountable for their words and actions, and to educate people on our history, these tools we use to combat racism don’t work unless they are plugged into a system that actually gives them power.
We wonder how people can honestly believe that reverse racism exists, how they can hate people who are fighting against oppression in the same way that the country’s founders (the most Patriotic of patriots) did. It’s because the system has always put them at an advantage, and as soon as they feel that advantage slip, they feel that they are being attacked. As if the system has been suddenly rigged against them instead of less for them.
When have white people been subjected to lynching? When have white people been given a death penalty for not even committing a crime? When have white people been betrayed by a system that should be protecting them? People believe that racism can be turned around so that the oppressor can become the oppressed. This isn’t true. Yes, being called a Karen or an anti-vaxxer soccer mom with the speak to the manager haircut, can hurt feelings, but it is wrongly confused with racial prejudice. Racism is far more complex than that. It is imperative to understand that white people benefit from this racist system, they hold more power, and they always have. That’s just how the system works.
For Black people and people of color, it can be difficult to receive quality health care, have access to affordable housing, and to find stable employment. White people aren’t fearing for their lives or denied opportunities solely based on the color of their skin. The whole myth of reverse racism is that racism occurs on an even playing field, when it absolutely does not. Now that doors are finally opening for Black people and POCs, the mythological ideology of reverse racism comes up as soon as changes occur that affect the status quo. This idiotic concept is so prevalent and has been for such a long time that it angers me to see it come up over and over again. It is so easy to fall into the trap of ignorance, but we have to make sure that we are making an effort to educate ourselves and not believing stupid ideologies because you think you might have experienced it. The only way to dismantle this concept is to be cognizant of the fact that Black people experience racism on a whole different scale.
Posting one quote by Martin Luther King Jr. one day of the year, and then dusting off your hands thinking, “That’s enough activism for today”, is *gasp* performative activism. There is so much more to activism and being an ally than posting quotes just to prove to your followers that you aren’t racist. With our modern-day technology, we don’t know if people are actually changing their mindsets or are posting to go along with what they may think is a “trend”. It is also bothersome to see the hypocrisy of people who have used racial slurs or have committed deplorable actions, and post about the movement in support. I do know that humans make mistakes, but it is shameful to continue to make the same mistakes, not own up to it, and still claim to be an ally for your own reputation. Performative activism, which can also mean being silent when your voice is needed the most, can undermine the Black Lives Matter movement. Who are you helping by posting the heartbreak emoji and your feelings about how disgusting the world is?
Although we do agree that it is important to share content about violence all over the world to get more media coverage for people to help, but that is only to a certain extent. Don’t post anything because you’re scared if you don’t or to get praise from other people for speaking out. Try signing petitions, donating if you can, sharing important information, or amplifying voices. The Black Lives Matter movement is dedicated to eradicating white supremacy and working towards building up local power and policy changes to intervene in violence inflicted on Black people. We also have to be aware about how islamophobia and homophobia is still very much prevalent. We cannot be ignorant in that we only have to fight one problem because there is also so much hate directed towards the Muslim community and the LGBTQ+ community. That means we have to fight all of these prejudices and biases head on. It is our job to open up a deeper dialogue and to change our mindsets. How can we do that if we are not continually educating ourselves and others? Are you too uncomfortable about how this issue could concern you or are you too comfortable thinking that this issue does not concern you? Truth is, it concerns all of us whether you choose to accept it or not.
Listen to people’s stories rather than defending your role in them. Learn to understand and grow from your mistakes to be a better ally. It’s not possible to understand what you haven’t experienced for yourself or can never experience for yourself, but it is crucial that you are there to support the minority communities and be there for them when they need it the most. Don’t take part in cultural appropriation because while you may think it’s cute, there is an oppressive history behind it. To Ijeoma Oluo, in a world beyond racism,”…we would have defunded the police force and come up with a new system of prevention and of building community that reduces crime in a positive manner. I would see an overhaul of our mental health systems that doesn’t criminalize mental health issues. And I would see an overhaul of our educational system. I would say those are some good places to start, you know, but we could just keep going forever honestly.” But in order for this future to come to fruition every person must recognize the structures in our society that make it racist and use instances of ignorance as opportunities for growth.