[Updated: January 29 2016]
Well, to try to answer this question, let’s visit the actual (not Webster Dictionary) definition of USA racism, which, for some reason, is greatly mis-understood by a significant number of white people in the USA who have expressed that they were a recipient of racism from a Black or Brown person. They use the word ‘racism’ when actually they are describing a situation in which the Black or Brown person was expressing something, or doing something differently. If we look deeper within USA’s white supremacist racial caste system, where racism here was born out of and continues, these actions are not actually racism (but another form of prejudice not connected to systemic power + privilege).
What USA Racism Is
Being ‘racist’ means that your behavior or attitude towards people will favor an outcome that privileges white racialized people, that privileges a white supremacist value system in the USA. USA racism means that USA society has built, and continues to organize, hierarchies of power around a white supremacist value system. Such a system means white racialized people end up collectively benefiting from this structural/systemic/institutional arrangement of power, privilege, and resources. This is how the USA canon of critical race studies and critical whiteness studies fundamentally define ‘racism’ in terms of systems and institutions within the USA (Crenshaw 1995; Allen 2001; Flagg 2005; Lipsitz 2006; Sullivan and Tuana 2007; Chapman 2010; Martinot 2010; Razack et. al 2010)
Within the context of the USA’s history of a racial caste system/racism in which white supremacy is center, if a Black person were ‘racist’ towards a white person or white people, their actions would help to create more favorable outcomes for white people than non-white people. For example, to be ‘racist’ towards a white person who is is being interviewed for a job by a Black person, this would mean that the Black person would desire to hire this White candidate because they are white; because they fundamentally believe in the white supremacist notion that White people are superior to non-white candidates; because they have internalized racism to believe the white supremacist narrative that whiteness is superior over blackness.
I think it is important to understand that how I am articulating racism is not exactly the same as ‘racial discrimination.’ If a Black person does not like a person who is white because they are of the ‘white race’, this is racial discrimination but not ‘racism’. It is nuanced. I’d argue that neither is okay, but wanted to really flesh out how ‘racism’ is often used by white people in the USA when they experience prejudice against their racial group by a non-white person. Here are some useful quotes below
“Racism is based on the concept of whiteness–a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white” (Kivel, 1996, p. 19).
“‘Whiteness,’ like ‘colour’ and ‘Blackness,’ are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior” (Henry & Tator, 2006, pp. 46-67).
Do you only want to use the Merriam-Webster definition of what racism is? Here is a good reason why simply using that definition completely negates the reality that (1)USA racism is based on the concept of whiteness and (2) white men who never studied or lived racism as a non-white, wrote the dictionary definition. Hence, many [white] folk are quick to use the dictionary definition as the ‘more adequate’ one than using the complex definition of racism developed by scholars and activists of color, within the canon of critical studies of race/legal studies.
What USA Racism Isn’t
I have had white people tell me that they are angry that they cannot participate in a healing event for people of color that acknowledges the pain and trauma that racism have caused to people of color. The other summer, I participated in a healing retreat for women of African descent. I received quite a few rants from white Buddhists who said the event was ‘racist’ and I was too, for participating in it. Because the event focused on the healing needs of women of African descent who seek to resist the pains of racism-sexism ( due to white supremacist structuring of society) this event and my participation in it was not racist. If the event were racist, then it would have functioned in a way that would have allowed white people to participate and the two teachers would have taught everyone that a white supremacist value system is superior and that black women should know their ‘submissive’ place in it and not talk about their racism-induced suffering.
I have also been told that it is ‘racist’ to engage in research about how racialization and race affects people’s thoughts, actions, behaviors, etc. Sorry, but this is not racist. It is racist to deny that race is an organizing principle in the USA and claim that we live in a ‘post-racial’ society. Wanting to ignore or deny the reality of how resources, power, etc, are shaped by white supremacist value system (backed by a canon of social-science based research and legal studies that supports this) is racist; racist because this ignorance, dismissal, and/or denial does not dismantle a white racist value system, but simply upholds it.
Don’t get me wrong. It drives me nuts that I have had Black people come up to me an tell me they are angry, disgusted, annoyed, etc that my husband is white. This is not racism, but it is annoying as hell and something I also do not condone. Yes, it is prejudice and another form of hate, however, it is not racism (and like I mentioned before, I am speaking within the context of USA). And no, I do not support this prejudice or hate against white people from black people, as I don’t believe that the hate or prejudice against any group or people will every create a harmonious and loving world. I try to understand these strong hateful feelings within the context of a very messed up history of white colonialism, racism, racialized-capitalism, and imperialism that has produced what can be understood as “the hate that hate produced” amongst some Black people in the USA.
For those who are commenting about definitions, below could be helpful.
WORDS MATTER—SOME DEFINITIONS TO CONSIDER
Racial Stereotype: An image, attitude or judgment, applied to an entire group of people.
Race: A social construct (with no biological validity) that divides people into distinct groups by categorizing them based on arbitrary elements of physical appearance, particularly skin color.
Power: Access to individuals, social groups, and institutions that own and/or control the majority of a community’s resources, as well the ability to define norms and standards of behavior.
Prejudice: An attitude or opinion—usually negative—about socially defined group (racial, religious, national, etc.) or any person perceived to be a member of that group, formed with insufficient knowledge, reason, or deliberation.
Racism: Most people use the word “racism” the way they used the term “prejudice.” But anti-racist activists see racism as “race prejudice PLUS power,” in other words, discrimination based on racial stereotyping (conscious or unconscious, active or passive) that is backed by significant institutional power (race prejudice + power = racism).
Institutional Racism: The ways in which institutions—social, political, educational, financial, religious, medical, housing, jobs, criminal justice—create and/or perpetuate systems that advantage white people at the expense of people of color.
White Privilege: Unearned advantages that benefit whites (whether they seek such benefits or not) by virtue of their skin color in a racist society.
White Supremacy: Once used only by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the word is also used in anti-racism work to describe the historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of domination and exploitation of people of color by white people, and which maintains white peoples’ position of relative wealth, power, and privilege.
“Reverse Racism”: A term commonly used by white people to equate instances of hostile behavior toward them by people of color with the racism people of color face. This is a way of ignoring the issue of who has the power.
Internalized Racism: The conscious or subconscious acceptance of the dominant society’s racist views, stereotypes and biases of one’s ethnic group, leading to finding fault with oneself or members of one’s own group, while valuing the dominant culture (internalized inferiority). Another form of internalized racism is when a white person mistakenly believes s/he is better than people of color ( internalized superiority).
“Non-racist”: Term used by those who consider themselves “color-blind,” a claim that in effect, denies any role in perpetuation systemic racism, or any responsibility to act to dismantle it. Institutional racism is perpetuated not only by those who actively discriminate, but also by those who fail to challenge it (silence = consent).
Anti-racist: An anti-racist is someone who makes a conscious choice and persistent effort to challenge white supremacy, including her/his own white privilege, and to actively oppose forms of discrimination against people of color.
Source: These definitions are based on definitions originally created by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop – cwsworkshop.org.
[On the use of “colorblind.” I acknowledge it as ableist and prefer “post-racial”. ]
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Allen, Ricky Lee. 2001. The Globalization of White Supremacy: Toward a Critical Discourse on the Racialization of the World. Educational Theory 51 (4):467-485.
Chapman, Thandeka K. 2010. Critical Race Theory. In Handbook of research in the social foundations of education, edited by S. Tozer, B. P. Gallegos, A. Henry, M. B. Greiner and P. G. Price. New York: Routledge.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1995. Critical race theory : the key writings that formed the movement. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co.
Flagg, Barbara J. 2005. Whiteness as Metaprivilege. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 18 (1):1-11.
Lipsitz, George. 2006. The possessive investment in whiteness : how white people profit from identity politics. Rev. and expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Martinot, Steve. 2010. The machinery of whiteness : studies in the structure of racialization. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Razack, Sherene, Malinda Smith, and Sunera Thobani. 2010. States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century, Between the Lines. Toronto, Ontario: Between the Lines.
Sullivan, Shannon, and Nancy Tuana. 2007. Race and epistemologies of ignorance, SUNY series, philosophy and race. Albany: State University of New York Press.