Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is all racism equal?

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality
Late last night, I got into an online debate about whether or not their are “degrees” of racism. I am of the opinion that yes, there are differences in the severity of racism between individuals. The person I was debating said that no, you are either racist or you are not. But, I feel like it is more complicated than that, depending on what definition of racism you use. He said there is only one definition of racism, and that all racism is equal. I tried to explain what I meant, but I think my efforts kind of fell short. So, I was thinking about this all night, and decided to write about it a bit more in this forum.

Now, while the CORRECT definition of racism is “prejudice + power” there are MANY OTHER definitions of racism that people subscribe to. Some believe that racism requires hatred, or a sense that one race is superior to another. Others believe that racism only comes with action, that prejudicial thoughts do not rise to the level of racism unless they are put into motion. Still others feel that racism is simply a thought pattern that impacts behavior consciously and unconsciously.Many people (particularly white people) want to believe that racism is rare, that all people have certain prejudices, but that most do not allow them to elevate to the level of hatred that they believe is required for racism. There are others who believe that every white person is racist, because we all possess some degree of biased thinking. If racism=prejudice + power and ALL people have certain prejudices, then all white people must be racist, right? Because white privilege endows all white people with a certain degree of power.

OK, so if we accept as true the idea that all white people have some degree of racist thinking, whether conscious or unconscious, then it begs the question: is all racism equal? Is the white person who was programmed since childhood to think in prejudicial terms, but who makes a conscious effort to counter that programming a racist to the same degree as a person who embraces their racist thinking and espouses an ideology based on the premise that their racist assumptions and programming are a good thing?

In other words, am I a racist to the same degree that David Duke is a racist?

Now, understand, I am not talking about a KKK member who burns crosses on the lawns of his Black neighbors versus a landlady who denies the rental application of a young Black couple based on their race. Those, to me, though varying in degree of violence, do not vary in terms or racism. Both are blatant and obvious racist acts. But, is the person who makes a sincere effort to attack their own racist assumptions and who calls out others on their racism a racist to the same degree?

If I say something racist, and am confronted by an individual about my racism, I make sure that I understand what it was that I said/did wrong, and I do the work I need to do in order to change that racist pattern of thinking. Some people, when confronted in the same manner, become angry, and lash out at the person who confronted them. They decide that they will continue to make the same racist assumptions and that  they will act upon them despite the consequences to the people around them. So, am I still just as racist as the people who are dedicated to holding on to their biases? I like to think not, but maybe I am just trying to assuage my own guilt.

Obviously, I do not have the answer to this issue. Racism is racism, no matter what. But, is all racism equal?

I present this question as an effort to dialogue about this issue. Obviously, as a white person, my experience of racism is very different than that of a POC. So, maybe those of us who believe that we are “not like those other white people” because we make a conscious effort to rid ourselves of racist ideology are fooling ourselves. Maybe I am not different than the Birthers, or the KKK, or the “white saviors” we see in the movies.

What do YOU think of this issue? Is all racism the same? Is it possible to be “less racist” than another individual? Can a person be “cured” or “recovered” from racism?