Am I Racist? A Primer on Race, Racism, and White Privilege for My Fellow “White” Americans

Am I Racist? A Primer on Race, Racism, and White Privilege for My Fellow “White” Americans July 23, 2016

David Russell Mosley

The icon pictured above is of Our Lady of Ferguson written by Mark Dukes (with design assistance from Fr. Mark Bozzuti-Jones).
The icon pictured above is of Our Lady of Ferguson written by Mark Dukes (with design assistance from Fr. Mark Bozzuti-Jones).

Ordinary Time
St Bridget’s Day
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Readers,

I want to have a hard and frank conversation with you today. I want to talk about race and racism. Some may, and somewhat correctly, assume that it is wrong for me to discuss the issues of race and racism. After all, I am a white man, and am often portrayed as the bogeyman. But here’s the thing, sometimes I am the bogeyman, and sometimes the bogeyman knows best what makes the bogeyman the bogeyman and can tell others when they’re being bogeymen. So, let me start by saying: I am not trying to determine for anyone, people of color, women, other minorities, what constitutes a racist act. I am not trying to define what makes an action or belief racist for you. What I do want to do is have a frank conversation with my fellow whites, men and women, about what these words have meant and what they have come to mean. Only in this way, by having common definitions, can we move forward and work to overcome the breakdowns in relations between people.

Race

Perhaps the first thing we need to understand is what do we mean by race. If you believe there are races you are subscribing to an outmoded, but still effective, way of thinking. There are not different races. Yes, there are ethnic and biological differences between people, but there is no such thing as race. Whites are not a homogenous group as so many of us here in the USA are aware. My own ancestry is a mixture of English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, German, Baltic Islander, and who knows what else. None of that is pure. Hell, none of it, or very little of it, is caucasian in the sense that most of my ancestors didn’t originate in the Caucasus Mountains. So, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notions that there are three or four discrete different races. We should recognize the real differences between us based on ethnicity, biology, culture, etc. But we must leave behind this archaic, and frankly racist, belief that we exist in different races. Interestingly, Tolkien uses the word race more correctly when his discrete races are human, elf, and dwarf (amongst others) and these have nothing to do with skin color or geography.

Racism

So, what is racism? I think between “whites” and people of color (which I’ve just tried to explain aren’t actually discrete groups, but we function as if they do) the definition of this one word is what causes the most dissension. The word itself comes from around the late 19th early 20th century, though of course the idea is much older. Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

This is the definition that most “white” people have of racism. So, by this definition, “whites” can be racist toward “blacks”, “blacks” toward “whites”, Chinese toward Mexican, etc., etc. So, when people of color talk about racism, even systemic racism, this what many whites hear. If you call them racist, they believe you mean that they think themselves superior to other races and/or are discriminatory towards other races. This kind of racism is about personal beliefs and actions. But here’s the problem, the above definition is often not how the word racism is being used anymore.

Instead, when many use the word racism now they mean something more like institutional or systemic racism. This kind of racism is not so much about individual beliefs and actions but about the general organization of a given society in general. Systemic racism is the kind of racism by which people of color are still effected by laws that existed until around 60 years ago. Systemic racism is the reality that this country was founded in part on racist principles and allowed and enforced racist laws until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Forget the Civil War for a moment, we live within one generation of segregated bathrooms, water fountains, schools, parts of town. There are people still alive who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One generation. Think about that for a moment. WWII is further away from us than the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, we have made strides, we’ve overthrown many of these laws. Yet we would be foolish to think that the effects of these laws has totally dissipated. We’d be even more foolish to think that the effects of nearly two centuries of racist principles could be completely overcome in 60 years.

White Privilege

This one can be a bit harder, but it builds on systemic racism. Basically, white privilege is the reality that “whites” in this country receive benefits and privileges just simply by being themselves. For instance, I don’t have to worry about people being afraid of me if I go for a nighttime stroll downtown. I don’t have to worry about cashiers assuming my checks will bounce the first time I enter a store. Despite only working part-time, I can likely get better interest rates on loans in some places than a person of color could, even if they were working more than me. White privilege is not, or at least should not, be synonymous with racism. Yes, it is intimately tied to systemic racism, but it is not the same as being a racist, not by the above definition from the OED. This is not something, or so I am told, that I should feel bad about. I can’t control it. What I can control is how I use and the strides I take not to remove my own privilege but to ensure that such privilege is not necessary.

So yes, I have white privilege. I benefit from and even tacitly engage in systemic racism, and so do you if you look a certain way. And this is one of the biggest problems. How we’re treated is based not on any actual genetics, but simply how we look. A light-skinned Latina or Native American with no accent might pass as “white” and be so treated. A dark-skinned “white” man with black hair might be treated as Latino despite actually being Hungarian (as happened to a friend of my acquaintance). Regardless, however, white privilege and systemic racism are real and are currently more problematic than any kind of general racism that might occur. People who appear white in this country are benefited by their appearances, people who don’t face more hardships. That is the way things currently work and that is what we must overcome before we can begin to overcome the hatred that exist between actual individuals or smaller communities.

A Final Note on Class

I do want to discuss one final issue. It is my belief, though I have no data to back this up, that not only is there systemic racism in this country, but there is also a systemic classism. Poverty quite likely more negatively effects people of color than it does “whites” but there is no denying that the poor are all treated the same by the rich, even if they aren’t treated the same by the middle class. Just as Black Lives Matter, so too do Poor Lives Matter, and we need to work to overcome the systemic classism that dominates our country just as much as we need to work to overcome the systemic racism that tyrannizes so many.

I hope this letter finds you well and helps you in you conversations with other “whites” and people of color. What we must remember is that we are truly different and yet all made in God’s image. We who benefit (whether from white privilege or some kind of rich or middle class privilege) must use that privilege to overturn unjust laws and societies. It is our duty, not as saviors, not because we are actually more important or superior, but simply because our society wrongly believes that we are. I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes in this letter. I am imperfect and can still be blinded by my own privilege, so I hope others who know better than I will comment and help me. Just know that I want to help, that I want to overturn the systems in our society that negatively effect people who don’t look like me. After all, Christ tells us to care for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. This is the heart of Catholic Social Teaching, because it is the heart of Christ. To this I am committed, even though I’ll often fail.

Sincerely,
David

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