Many people I have talked to about racism — in all the many ways conversations about racism can happen — have been so frustrated by the word itself that it derails the possibilities opened by the conversation right away.
I see that this is one of the sticky, uncomfortable things about discussing racism: when the person who needs to or wants to talk about it takes such issue with the word itself that the conversation grinds to a halt, or is derailed by definitions of words.
This is discouraging to both parties, I think.
Defining words is important. Defining and understanding words is one of the ways we can understand the culture we live in. Understanding the meaning of the words we use is a very helpful way to trace the footholds of patriarchy, racism, white supremacy, injustice, and misogyny in our lived experiences, and helps us to re-frame our thoughts and re-orient ourselves to live as people who do not perpetuate harmfulness.
I understand that the word racism, because it comes from the word ‘race’, is a problematic word in many ways. One of the reasons it exists in our cultural lexicon is that scientists and philosophers, more than a hundred years ago, decided that they had proof that people of any color other than white were a distinctly different race, and that each race had its own distinct set of advantages and disadvantages.
As white people with all the privilege they wanted to hold closely, they assigned each non-white people group categories that show up now in the structure of our societies. First Nations people were savages, blacks from Africa were best suited for hard labor, and so on. I won’t go into all of what I learned right now because it hurt my heart so much to read it. One of the most disturbing things that I discovered while reading about these beliefs about race (I read parts of The Myth of Race, an amazing book, densely populated with many scholarly references) is that Hitler’s war against the Jewish people was directly informed by this erroneous research and the myriad papers and books that were published in that time period.
We know now that there is no such thing as separate races of humans alive today.
We are all one race, biologically the same under the pigmentation of our skin. I was privileged to hear Jane Elliott speak recently — the teacher who did the Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes experiment with her class back in 1968 (beginning the day after Dr. King was killed) — and she told us that she really hates using the word ‘race’ because it reinforces the idea that there are separate races of people delineated by color.
However, the world we live in right now is not yet ready to understand this. It takes a profound shift in thinking to believe that there is only one race of humans, and then to allow that belief to change your perception of the world, your understanding of your choices, and the words you use when you speak. Those of us who have embarked on this kind of profound shift have experienced it in different kinds of ways, at different times in our lives, and there is always some degree of difficulty.
And so, until we can have more and more conversations about why it is that there is a pervading cultural belief in several human races, we will need to use that word when speaking about it, when pointing it out, when discussing it. This is because those people who most need us to point things out, to discuss them, to bring awareness to them, and to remain in the conversation even when we are most uncomfortable, are the ones whose understanding of racism comes from this toxic, pervading cultural belief.
One day, love will win.
One day, we will live in a culture that has healed from the wounds and the blood and tears and pain of cultural, systemic racism. Until that day, we must work with the tools we have available to us, even when those tools were built out of the parts of our culture we are working to dismantle.
EDIT: My longsuffering, wonderful friend Alexis has pointed out to me that to some readers, this post may sound a lot like ‘I don’t see color’. I want to be totally clear that this is not what I mean here, in case it does sound like that to anyone. The reason I believe we need to continue using words like racism is that people of color exist, and they are treated differently because of it (hello, motherfucking systemic racism and white supremacy); but aside from how terribly POC are treated, my friends who are differently pigmented than I are proud of their identity, and I’d be a shit friend if I pretended we are all bland-flavored and vanilla-colored and that this is the future I hope for.
Thanks, Alexis. You keep me one step away from accidental idiocy a lot, and I appreciate you a fucking ton for it. <3