What I Heard When I Came Out of the Woods

Last Sunday (July 14) I literally came out of the woods (four days of backpacking in northern PA preceded by 2 ½ weeks on vacation, most of it out of the country) to the news of #45’s Twitter tirade against four congresswomen of color: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna S. Pressley.  His Twitter feed read:

“So interesting to see ʻProgressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world, now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came? Then come back and show us how it is done.”

 I am guessing this is not the first time these women, and others like them have heard these kinds of statements from white folks. I can only imagine how hurtful such statements are, but also how dangerous – especially when they are spoken by one of the most powerful individuals in the world. Coming from #45, such statements are a license for others to say the same thing, or worse; all four women have reported numerous death threats just for being who they are and speaking their views.

The R-word

Not only was the statement was hurtful and threatening, it was also ignorant – three of the four women were born in the U.S. and the fourth, Omar, is a naturalized citizen – bigoted, and xenophobic. Some folks including the House of Representatives used the R-Word. The use of the R-word rankled many Republicans and titillated the media. Even #45  responded by insisting that his statements were not racist and that he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.”

Such comments reveal how emotionally unnerving the R-word can be for white folks when used to describe their words or actions. They also show how ignorant most of us are as to what racism is.  Let’s face it: racism is all around us; we  are swimming in it,  can’t see it because racism is at the heart of American culture, and yet we don’t really know what we are talking about when we use the word.

So let’s step back and examine what the word “racism” means and refers to.

Prejudice vs. Racism

As evidenced in the furor around #45’s Twitter tirade,  racism is often perceived as disparaging thoughts, words and behaviors by a person of one racial group toward another. While those words and actions can be construed as racist, such an understanding is limited and highly oversimplified. Simply talking or acting negatively toward persons of another racial group in itself is not necessarily racist. Such actions might be a form of prejudice but not necessarily racist. So first we must distinguish racial prejudice from racism.

Robin Di Angelo, the author of White Fragility, describes racial prejudice as a “prejudgment about another person based on the social groups to which a person belongs. Prejudice consists of thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group.”  Prejudice becomes racism when a particular person (like the President) or group (the police) has the social, political, cultural or economic power to discriminate or dominate the actions and opportunities of another group. As that ability to discriminate gets normalized and regulated, it then becomes consistently enacted and embedded in the laws, textbooks, cultural patterns, economic decisions and other dimensions of a social group or nation’s life.

Thus racism can best be defined as a political, economic, cultural and structural system that consistently advantages one group over another on the basis of the racial identification. As DiAngelo states: “When a group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism.”  In effect the racial prejudices of the dominant racial group become institutionalized and therefore can operate without the conscious intentions of those benefitting from that prejudice. Furthermore, individuals in the dominant racial group can speak and act in a racist manner without full awareness of the power that allows them to such things.   And when that prejudice issues from the White House, it is racist by the nature who said it and put his power behind it.

Dimensions of Racism

But it is actually more complex than that.

When we talk about racism, we must recognize that it exists in four interwoven dimensions: the intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional and systemic. The first dimension and least outwardly visible, is the intrapersonal dimension. This is the area of one’s thoughts and feelings that dictate one’s behavior and perspectives. For instance, one might feel anxious in a racially diverse group or in a group where one is numerically the racial minority, and yet never show that anxiety. Instead, they might withdraw or remove oneself from the setting based on some non-racial excuse. Having faced that uncomfortable feeling, in the future one might then just avoid such gatherings, so as not to face the discomfort.  They may have disparaging thoughts or feelings that are not directly expressed, but influence one’s actions. Often the intrapersonal dimension of racism operates below the level of consciousness; we don’t even know what we are doing is racist.

This leads us to the second dimension of racism, is interpersonal racism, which deals with how persons interact with those who they perceive as racially different from themselves, and how they talk about those racially different persons when they are with people who they perceive to be part of their racial group. This is the dimension that most people think of when they seek to determine whether a person is racist or not. Do they use certain racially derogatory words, display obvious racially discriminatory symbols, or act in ways that are harmful toward people of other racial groups?

There are two aspects of interpersonal racism that are often overlooked. The first is how white folks talk about people of color when they are with other white folks. DiAngelo refers to this as “backstage racism.” She cites a recent study of young adults who saw racism as largely a thing of the past and who professed tolerance and commitment to racial equity. However, the researchers found that when these white young adults were in all-white groups made statements, used images, told jokes and related stories that were clearly and overtly racist.  The researchers concluded that the purpose of this backstage racism was to create white racial solidarity and reinforce white superiority.

The second underappreciated area of interpersonal racism is what is referred to as microaggressions. “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group members.”   Often microaggressions are so subtle they can go unnoticed by other whites, and leave persons of color feeling uncomfortable without knowing exactly why. While not overt, in-your-face expressions of hostility, they are clearly directed at one group over against another. Microaggressions can be compared to “water dripping on sandstone, [which]can be thought of as small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetuated, welling up from the assumptions about racial matters.” (1)  Microaggressions are generally the result of one’s intrapersonal racism leaking out in barely perceptible ways.  Whites usually need others to call their microaggressions to their attention, which can often result in white defensiveness and denial, if one is not open to receive that kind of feedback.

The third dimension of racism is institutional racism, racism that is embedded in the structure, policy, and practices of an organization. Most of the established institutions of our society were founded at a time when racial equity and inclusion were not a norm or major concern.  Corporations, hospitals, churches, nonprofit organizations, universities, and other such organizations came into being at a time when racial exclusion and division was the norm, rather than the exception. Until the landmark 1954 Brown vs, the Board of Topeka Kansas Supreme Court case, racial segregation was both the norm and the law in most communities across the country. Thus, these institutions were established to reinforce those disparities and enshrined them in their policies and practices. Those policies and practices became “locked-in” and self-reinforcing to the degree that people in those institutions did not have to think or act in racist ways, the organization did it for them.   Because these practices are deeply embedded in organizational structure and culture, changing those practices can be extremely challenging and time-consuming.

Numerous examples of institutional racism have come to light in recent years. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, MO police officer Darin Wilson revealed how normalized the shooting of African Americans by white police officers had become in police districts around the country. Parents of children of color have begun to advocate for a more inclusive history curriculums in local schools and called attention to unfair disciplinary policies. Companies such as Denny’s Restaurants and Pepsi have had to face class action lawsuits for having engaged in racially discriminatory ways.  This week the Department of Justice decided that NYC Officer Daniel Panatelo will not have to go on trial for the chokehold he used to subdue and eventually kill Eric Garner (can you imagine a non-indictment had Panatelo been the victim and Garner the perpetrator? —–I didn’t think so)

Finally, closely related to institutional racism is systemic racism wherein the interrelationship of a network of institutions have incorporated racially discriminatory policies and practices over time that have been become the accepted norm and practice. Michelle Alexander  (The New Jim Crow) has called attention to systemic racism in the U.S. Criminal Justice System’s, and has documented in exquisite detail the way in which young African-American men have been treated in a racially discriminatory ways from the time they are arrested to the way they are judged in the courts, to the length of their sentences, to the severity of their jail terms, and their release from prison.  Through the passage of laws in the War on Drugs during the Reagan administration, to the adoption of stop and frisk and racial profiling practices by police, to the sentencing guidelines in local courts, Alexander shows that the U.S. as instituted a “New Jim Crow era” in the Criminal Justice system.  Similar examples of systematized racism can be found in the housing and real estate industry,  state education systems,  and the practices of political parties,  just to name a few.

Was the Tweet Racist?

So was #45’s tweet about the four Congresswomen racist? Let’s check it out against the criteria.

Intrapersonal: We can’t know #45’s  inner thoughts but we have seen his impulsive tweets, where he has referred to people of color as “dogs” and African countries as “shitholes”,  questioned the citizenship of a sitting president, and told Congresswomen of color to go back to their own countries, though they are citizens of this country.

Interpersonal: Many who have worked with #45 have commented on his vulgar and racist language. And when we look at microaggressions – everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group members – most people of color do not see #45 as a person who values them equally. He parades the few people of color around him – Ben Carson, Kanye West – but more people of color see #45’s words and actions as disparaging, disrespectful and threatening.

Institutional and Systematic: Well #45 is the President of the United States, head of the government that oversees the legal, economic and political systems that impact the everyday aspects of our lives. He can disparage other people in vulgar language (as he often does) with no repercussions.  He can put refugee children in cages like animals and have the law behind him. He can send government agents out to interrogate and intimidate regular everyday people. His Attorney General can block Congress from doing its due diligence. Even his own political party fears him; most of them could not bring themselves to condemn his words and actions for fear of political repercussions for criticizing him. Saying nothing does make one innocent; it makes on complicit, and the system rewards and protects that complicity.

So by these criteria – yes, President Trump’s words and actions were racist. And yes, he is a racist.


But Wait A Minute

Yet so are we all — especially white people. We are swimming in an ocean of racism, and we have two choices. We can ignore it, rationalize it, justify it, and call those who challenge us un-American, Communist and ungrateful. Or we can acknowledge we are caught up in a racist society, acknowledge it, and do what we can to untangle ourselves from racism’s web. We can challenge injustice in its many forms, and stand in solidarity with those who are racism’s victims and targets. And while we may never be totally free of racism’s clutches, we might just save ourselves, and our nation and the institutions and systems that constitute it.

We have a choice: deny or acknowledge; rationalize or challenge; excuse or change.

Donald Trump and I are not that different. What is different is that I am trying to own my racism, and make changes in my attitudes, actions, words, and emotions.  This does not make me better than him, just more conscious. #45 and many like him are in denial and make excuses instead of owning up to the truth. In his position, #45 is extremely dangerous and destructive, yet he is also to be pitied. He is blind to is own hypocrisy. And so we must pray for him, while at the same time, we call him out as well as those around him out for not owning up the racist power they wield and the damage and destruction they cause.

(1) Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions: More than just Race. Psychology Today. Retrieved at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race

NOTE: Portions of this entry are adapted from my forthcoming coming (2020 hopefully) – Disrupting Whiteness: Talking with White Folks About Race