Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Power, Bigotry and Racism

image Racism continues to be a scourge in our society. Emotions immediately flare when race is brought into a conversation because for people of color it is highly personal and often for whiteness it is a matter of justifying unearned privilege.  The very concept of race was created to support the oppression and exploitation of people of color. 

Due to the fact that whiteness continues to dominate every aspect of our culture and social life, its influence is felt even when it appears to be directly absent.  When people of color relate to one another the fact that we have been steeped in a culture that has taught us to systemically distrust, label, and degrade each other, means that we not only operate with but dutifully perform, the very hatred that is aimed at us to maintain our dissonance in worth and value.

It is the overvaluation of whiteness that allows hueism to continue to be such a pervasive concept globally.  People of color risk disfigurement with skin bleaching creams desperate to lighten their skin;  in this way we internalize racism and act it out upon ourselves.  Our continual obsession over hue means that we are constantly challenging the authority of light skinned people to identify as POC or shaming and marginalizing those that are considered to be to dark.  Though we do not acknowledge it, this is yet another example of the ways in which we have internalized racist conceptions to the point that we become our own jailers.  When your oppressor can convince you to aid in your own systematic devaluation, it is truly an awesome display of power.

To be racist one must be both prejudicial and exist with power:

People often confuse racism with discrimination and prejudice, but racism is different as it includes the aspect of POWER. Any person, of any colour, can be prejudiced towards another person based on any difference between them (this is not okay, but the term used to describe it is not racism). Prejudice based on skin colour does not become racism until you add social, political, economic, ideological and institutional power. In Canada and Nova Scotia it is white people who hold this power and have control over the education system, the banking system, the court system, the educational system, the media, and all our other institutions.
(Carvery & Bishop, 1994)

image Since people of color do not exist with the social power to reify their prejudices they cannot be racist.   This does not mean that we do not exist with enough power to be hurtful to each other based in a false understanding of power as existing solely as a coercive force.  When one is oppressed there is this belief that mirroring the behaviour of the oppressor will result in an elevation of place however, it simply amounts to supporting our unbalanced system of hierarchies.   When we do the work of whiteness instead of using our power creatively to re-envision new ways in which we can not only work to  create a new foundation based in the fundamental belief that all people matter; with the understanding that we can  systematically change the very concept of what it means to transgress, we do ourselves a disservice. 

We know that racial epithets while often publicly frowned upon, are still very much in use in private conversations.  People repeat stereotypes like the Asian lotus flower, the ball busting Black woman, the hot tamale Latina woman and the Squaw drudge without compunction.  There is this sense that if we are included in these conversations that somehow because it is not directed at our racial group, that we are being given insider status.

In the city in which I live anti-Asian sentiment is extremely strong and often when I complain about the negativity aimed at the Asian community, the common response is, “why are you upset, we are not talking about blacks?”  It is assumed that I have already internalized negative ideas about Asians and that I seek the approval of whiteness.  What is insidious about racism is that not only are we taught to hate ourselves, we are taught to hate all other bodies of color.  When we do the Masters work and display obvious bigotry towards another body of color, we are not being racist we are displaying internalized hatred. 

image It is not possible to declare that an Asian person is more oppressed than an Indigenous person, or that an African American is more oppressed than a Chicano, but what we can unequivocally declare is that as long as we are understood as racialized in a way that is different than whiteness we are stigmatized bodies.  So if we accept the idea that oppression cannot be compared i.e . Oppression Olympics,  we are all socially positioned relative to whiteness disciplined and exploitable bodies.

The heart of this debate is power; how we understand it and how we employ it.  Due to the fact that we see power as coercive we have a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive in our endeavours.  We are taught that inequality is natural and therefore we act upon that basis.  Imagine if we started from the beginning with the understanding that power can be use to create out of nothing, to reconceptualise how bodies are understood.  It is vital that we create new spaces in which we employ power to purposefully rebel against the structures that have been built to maintain white hegemony.   It is an absolute necessity that we actively strive for self determination.  Though the body is necessarily encoded with meaning from birth how we choose to perform our assigned roles can fundamentally change the understanding of what it means to exist as a person of color.  When we internalize racism and display bigotry towards another person of color we are conceding power and it is this that must be remembered.  Relative to whiteness we may not exist with systemic power but that this does not mean that we do no exist with individual power. 


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