How that history impacts the world today: structural racism
If you'd prefer to learn via audio, you can listen to Part 3 here (31 minutes long):
Most people assume the story of America is true—that it was founded on the premise that “all men are created equal.”
But even the original author of the Declaration of Independence didn't believe that.
- The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson was one of the core authors of that document, and you might already know that he was a slave owner himself. It's easy to say that he was just a product of his time—that everyone thought that way back then
- But that's not actually true. Even by the standards of that time period, Jefferson was especially racist. He explicitly wrote that "blacks are inferior to whites in both body and mind," and he received a lot of letters from people in both America and Europe challenging his racist ideas
- To be clear, Jefferson himself was the one to write the line "all men are created equal" despite documented proof in writings from nine years later that he didn't actually believe that (i.e., he did not believe that people of color were equal to white people)
- At the time the Declaration of Independence was written, 1/5 of what would become the US was made up of slaves
- There was originally a passage in the Declaration about moving away from slavery; but, after some debate, it was removed because some of the delegates involved in ratifying the Declaration were representing merchants who worked in the slave trade
America was explicitly founded on the idea that white men were at the top of the hierarchy. This country's patriotic ideals like "liberty and justice for all" explicitly didn't apply to people of color.
You might be thinking back to the 18th century, but this applies much more recently—black women weren't allowed to vote until 1965.
Some white people today complain that things used to be simpler and this country has become too sensitive about race.
But things have never been simpler for people of color—there was no simpler time for them. Imagine if your mother or grandmother hadn't even been allowed to vote.
The idea of the "good old days" only applies to white people.
Core American ideals like "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" weren't ever intended for people of color.
- White people often talk about going back to the “good old days,” but that notion doesn’t make sense for people of color. They’ve been oppressed since the very beginning of the country. There never were "good old days" for them
- Ideas like "equality and freedom for all" were often talked about, but they simply didn't apply to you unless you were white. African American women were not universally allowed to vote until the 1960s
- “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” never applied to everyone—these core American ideals were always built on the back of white supremacy (i.e., the idea that white people are superior)
- The phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" feels patriotic to white people; but to people of color, it’s a reminder of how false a promise that was
- As Martin Luther King, Jr said, let’s make America actually follow through on that promise now. Let's have that promise of equality for all actually apply to everyone
- And the key idea is this: If we're able to do that, it won't mean going back to a romantic "good old days" version of the past—rather, it will mean making America something that it's never actually been
You're almost certainly racist to some degree—and it's not your fault.
Simply by growing up in America, you were likely exposed to so many stereotypes and biases early in life that you couldn't help but internalize some of them.
- No matter how kind a person you are, if you're a white person who was raised in America, it's extremely unlikely that you'll have managed to avoid internalized biases (e.g., believing that black people are dangerous)
- Even if you grew up in a wonderful home, you were probably exposed to casual stereotypes—for example, the idea that you better finish your dinner since there are starving children in Africa, or the idea that Native Americans run casinos
- Think about all the racist stereotypes and accents that you (and your kids) probably saw in movies and on TV:
- Apu from the Simpsons (plus other less obvious characters like Fat Tony)
- Mr. Popo and Killa from Dragon Ball Z, one of the most popular animated TV series in both the US and Japan
- Jynx from the video game and animated series Pokémon, the highest-grossing media franchise of all time
- King Louie in The Jungle Book
- The Indians in Peter Pan
- And, 11 episodes of Looney Tunes that were so racist that they haven't been shown since 1968
- You might think that calling some of those animated shows racist is taking "political correctness" too far
- For example, Dragon Ball Z is a show that includes talking cats and magical beings. But TV shows in the fantasy genre can still absolutely be racist
- If you're a white kid watching that show, you can easily identify with all the light-skinned characters—the heroes saving the world (and yes, the show was created in Japan, but here's a good article explaining why kids watching the show still see the light-skinned characters as white—because white is the default to us)
- Now imagine being a black kid watching that show. You'll most easily identify with the dark-skinned characters, all of which include racist stereotypes. For example, the black man Killa has giant pink lips and speaks with a nearly incoherent accent
- Children are easily influenced, and at a young age they have trouble understanding that what they see on TV isn't real. If they meet Robert Downey Jr., they don't think of him as an actor—they see Iron Man
- Remember that these movies and TV shows reach millions of people around the world, so they represent powerful forces in spreading cultural ideas. More broadly, an analysis of 6,000 Oscar-eligible movies since 1928 revealed a number of consistent stereotypes:
- Asian and nerdy
- Interchangeable Asian cultures
- All Asians know martial arts
- Scary black man
- Black dude dies first
- Black best friend
- Sassy black woman
- Spicy Latina
- Latin lover
- Again, think about kids seeing these tropes over and over again in movies. The black person is always the best friend or the sidekick, not the main character. Luckily, this has been changing lately with amazing films like Black Panther, but these stereotypes have had an effect on all of us
- America is an individualistic culture, so each of us wants to think that we’re the exception and we’re actually a "good" white person. We imagine “bad racist white people” to be overt bigots or KKK members. But white progressives who think they’re doing just fine ("I don't see color") are actually a big part of the problem because they don’t think they have anything more to learn
- In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'"
- Today, rather than the overt racism of the KKK, there are two types of racism that are a much bigger problem: implicit racism and systemic structural racism, both of which we'll go over shortly
Are you still doubting that most white people are racist to some degree (and it's not their fault)?
If so, please pay special attention to the section below because this is an important concept to understand
It's important to understand that a lot of individual racist beliefs and behaviors are unconscious.
This is known as implicit bias or implicit racism.
In other words, having friends of color doesn't mean you're off the hook.
- "Implicit racism" refers to the set of unconscious race-related biases that an individual holds, even if they’re not consciously aware of them
- Pedantic note: More specifically, some people define "unconscious bias" as biased attitudes or behaviors that are outside your conscious awareness, whereas "implicit bias" includes not only unconscious biases but semi-conscious ones as well. Biased attitudes and behaviors can sometimes be hard to change even once you consciously begin to notice them, so implicit racism doesn't just disappear once you're made aware of it. It still takes effort to slowly change your default tendencies
- You might be wonderfully kind and empathetic but still have implicitly racist tendencies simply because you're a white person who was raised in this country
- At this point, you might be tempted to list all the people of color in your life to prove that you’re a good non-racist person. But can you see how doing that would imply that racism is only a conscious thing?
- Because of implicit racism, you might indeed have friends of color you really care about; but, some part of you probably still thinks about them differently compared to your white friends
- Furthermore, if you say you “treat everyone the same,” or “we’re all one,” or you “don’t see color,” I'm afraid that's simply not true. You’re denying how our brains work. Color is real, and claiming that you don’t see it belittles the experience of people of color who are constantly treated differently. Saying you don’t see that is refusing to accept that they experience a different reality than you do as a white person.
- (Instead of saying you "don't see color," a truer statement might be, "As a white person, color hasn't affected my life much"—though even that statement probably isn't completely true; I'll explain later on how race has indeed affected your life, even as a white person)
- If you're having trouble believing all this, I highly encourage you to take Harvard's online implicit bias test (my own results certainly surprised me): Scroll down to "I wish to proceed," then select the Race IAT
- Again, you're not a bad person if you get an unfavorable result (mine showed that I still have a clear preference for white people). The important thing is to be aware of your bias so that you can critically examine some of the initial thoughts that pop into your head around people of color, and so you can work to make different behavioral choices in the future
"Racism" goes far beyond one person's thoughts or actions toward another person.
Racism in America is institutional, meaning it's built into the very institutions that make up our country such as the police system and school system.
This means that people of color can't simply fix things for themselves. They need white people to change the system because white people still have the institutional power.
For example, many states still have strongly racist laws on the books, yet the people in power who could repeal those laws are all white.
It's important to differentiate systemic structural racism from individual bigotry.
Racism goes far beyond the acts of any one individual because it's woven into the systems that run our society.
When it comes to institutional power like the right to vote, the group without the power has to wait for the group with the power to welcome them in.
- First, let's differentiate several words that are often used interchangeably:
- Prejudice is negatively judging someone based on some attribute without getting to know who they really are (this could even apply to white people being prejudiced toward other white people who have, say, a certain eye color)
- Prejudice could be based on assumptions or stereotypes (preconceived, oversimplified ideas about a person based on other people you've encountered yourself or seen in media, advertising, etc. who you perceive as belonging to the same group)
- Discrimination is acting on prejudice, or offering less favorable treatment to a certain group of people based on any attribute such as race, gender, age, religion, height, etc.
- Bigotry is similar to discrimination but it's often accompanied by an element of anger or by an unwillingness to change one's mind even in the face of evidence
- Racism goes beyond that because it includes an element of power. It's a system that allows one racial group to retain their power by marginalizing another racial group (i.e., removing their power or denying them access to the same resources, opportunities or legal protections as another group)
- In other words, the "power" piece is important. If white people were simply bigoted toward people of color but never held any power over them, anti-racism work wouldn't be as important. Racism would still be frustrating, but it wouldn't have such a major effect on the lives of people of color. The reason all of this is so important is that racism is ingrained in America's institutions like the court system, the prison system, and the education system. That's why it's not just about white people calling POC names but rather about white people having literal power over the lives of POC
- You might be thinking that this isn't the common usage of the word "racist," but the dictionary definition is outdated and was written by white people. The way I'm using the word here represents how it's being talked about nowadays by scholars in the field of race work
- As a side note, in arguments about racism, people will sometimes suggest that something isn't racist simply because it doesn't align with a dictionary definition of the word "racism." But please recognize that a dictionary definition probably isn't the right source of truth for such a complex topic
- For example, in a debate about abortion, most people wouldn't think to settle things by looking up the word in the dictionary (because many of the debates around abortion are precisely around how it should be defined)
- Abortion is a similarly complex topic better settled by articles or books (or at least long wikipedia entries) by philosophers, doctors, or experts who have carefully considered all the nuances at play
- Correspondingly, it makes a lot more sense to use a definition of the word "racist" that was developed by scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the topic
- Here's a definition of racism from Solid Ground: "The systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are White and the exclusion of people of color.”
- That's why racism goes beyond the acts of an individual. We can call it systemic and structural because it affects the entire structure of our society, including a wide range of systems such as our court system, our prison system, our school system, our police system, and so much more
- These systems keep reinforcing an unequal distribution of institutional power. The difference between personal power and institutional power is that you alone might be able to do something about the first (personal) but not the second (institutional). When it comes to institutional power, you have to wait for it to be given to you by those who already have it
- For example, women couldn't just take the right to vote. They had to be given it by men. Similarly, black kids couldn't attend white schools until white people allowed them to do so
- One last piece to note is how white people sometimes refer to people of color as "minorities." Calling them "marginalized" instead is more accurate because "marginalized" refers to their loss of power and access whereas "minority" implies a small number of people, which isn't the case in many parts of America
Even if race isn’t real from a scientific standpoint, our society has made it real from a political and social standpoint.
America was a country designed by white people for white people.
Because this country was built upon structural racism, people of color are affected in a myriad ways that make their lives more challenging (including stress that studies have shown leads to everything from depression to heart disease).
Those differences that cause the lives of POC to be more challenging are why white people are said to have “white privilege.”
- As white people, we take many privileges for granted that people of color can’t. For example:
- Our kids can easily find picture books, dolls, and TV shows starring people who look like them (i.e., white)
- We’re unlikely to be asked to represent our race when answering questions (e.g., why do white people always do X?)
- If you ask to talk to the “person in charge” somewhere, you’ll probably be facing a white person
- If you work in the corporate world and need to give an important presentation, you probably won't be the lone white person presenting to a room full of people of color
- It’s possible for a white person to move through life without ever really thinking about race. But that’s not how it is for people of color. That’s why it can be so frustrating for them to hear white people say things like, “Why are you always bringing up race?” or “Why does everything always come down to race with you?”
- In asking questions like that, there’s an implication that race is only an issue because the POC keeps bringing it up (i.e., if they would just "chill out," it would go away). But because of structural racism, even if that POC doesn't happen to encounter a particularly bigoted person that day, there are still all sorts of systems in place around them that make race impossible to forget about. So, telling that POC to stop bringing up race is discounting their experience of life and implying that everything is fine simply because you as a white person aren't able to see everything they have to deal with
- You grew up in a culture centered around the white experience—a culture where white people (nearly always men) were the ones creating the laws in a way that benefited themselves. You probably haven't had to think about race much in your life, and that's because the American experience was designed by white people for white people
- The human nervous system is designed to react when we’re in danger. Research has shown that emotional pain triggers the exact same areas of the brain as physical pain
- For people of color, continually being the only non-white person in the room or hearing casually racist remarks over and over again can have a very real impact on the body over time
- A woman of color who led a workshop I attended described it like this: Every day when she arrived at work, it felt like she was being punched in the stomach as she walked out of the elevator
- It's well-documented that people of color experience more negative health outcomes compared to white people. It's often assumed that's because white people tend to be of higher socioeconomic status. But, in a recent study, it was shown that even wealthier African Americans and Hispanics suffered higher rates of chronic disease and shorter life expectancy
- One of the researcher's theories is that the stress of micro-aggressions (small acts of discrimination) on people of color over time result in major stress that manifests physically
- That belief is backed up by other studies as well—it's increasingly clear that racism can cause traumatic stress that leads to depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and more
It’s not that people today are becoming "fragile snowflakes" who are too easily offended.
Rather, it's that we're finally as a society talking more openly about issues that people of color have been dealing with for hundreds of years.
- While many of the concepts we've gone over might be new to you as a white person, people of color have been impacted by all this for a long, long time
- So why has race seemingly become such a hot topic lately in the minds of white people?
- Technology is one big reason:
- Thanks to social media, voices of color can now be amplified and videos of police brutality can be easily shared
- Thanks to modern analytics and Big Data, objective data can be gathered on biases in hiring, schools, and the prison system
- There are also cultural reasons—for example:
- Increasing globalization has required Americans to become more familiar with how to do business with people from other cultures and how to work effectively with teams spread across the globe
- The movement toward "bringing your whole self to work" has opened people's eyes to the fact that their colleagues are more complex than they might have imagined, and it's led to a greater need for training on diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Similarly, the younger generation is much more focused on authenticity and ensuring that the companies they work for and brands they support are in line with their personal values
- Again, it's important to remember that even if a lot of this is new to white people, it's not new to the people who have been marginalized
- People of color have been speaking up about this stuff for a long time, but a lot of white people haven't been willing to hear it (and, the history books that we were taught from haven't told us the whole truth)
- Even though it's great that white people are listening more and these conversations are finally happening, please keep in mind that it can be very hard for people of color to suddenly feel like they have to be the spokespeople for diversity and have to answer the same questions over and over again
- Also, this isn't to say that all POC are somehow aware of all the history here
- Many are, but many others have been marginalized without knowing exactly why (other than that it has to do with their race)—because the details of the truth have been hidden from them as well (not only through the general whitewashing of history, but also because of the more limited educational opportunities available to POC, as discussed earlier)
- Some people of color might just believe that they're worse off than others without knowing all the mechanisms by which white people throughout American history have systematically structured society to keep power and privilege in white hands
Talking about “reverse racism” (i.e., “racism” against white people) is missing the point.
Racism includes power and access being taken away, and that's usually not the case when a white person complains about being marginalized.
- As modern America wakes up to these realities around race, some white people have complained that they're now being marginalized. For example, if a white person feels like a POC was admitted to a university or got promoted ahead of them, they might complain about "reverse racism"
- Here’s why that's not the same as true racism:
- Yes, it can feel bad if someone received a small advantage over you simply because of their race. But remember that that's literally what's been happening in the opposite direction (i.e., in favor of white people) since this country was founded
- Remember that American society was designed from the beginning to prioritize white people. Being white has been the "default" for hundreds of years—most laws were put into place by white people, and being white has come with a huge number of inherent privileges that most of us never really think about
- Remember that "race" is different from ancestry. Your ancestral lineage can be legitimately traced back, whereas the concept of race was invented. There's no "black" or "white" country of origin. Race was specifically created to take power away from a certain group of people by calling them all "black" and giving the power to the people called "white." So, race and thus racism are specifically about a structural power imbalance
- Still, that's not to say that all white people have had easy lives, or even that every white person has had an easier life than every person of color. It's simply saying that if you take a white person and a person of color of similar socioeconomic levels, similar levels of health, education, and so on, the person of color will have a more challenging life in America in a variety of ways
- Certainly, people of color aren't the only ones who have experienced hardship. Every white person has faced challenges in their lives as well, and many white people have had very difficult lives in a number of ways: growing up poor, experiencing abuse and trauma, struggling with health issues, and many other disadvantages
- But there's something special about race. Harvard research found via brain scans that the very first things we notice about another person are their race and their sex. And given everything we've covered around implicit bias, structural racism, and the negative depictions of people of color in media, it's very likely that other associations come up too as you're noticing that person's race
- By the way, I've heard some white people say that they've traveled or studied abroad, so they understand exactly what it feels like to be a POC in America
- I do think it's very helpful to have that experience of being the only white person in a space—that can certainly help you start to empathize with POC in America. But, there's still something fundamentally different about the experience of a white person abroad
- Throughout much of the world, darker skin is associated with lower class (for example, because of the idea that peasants toil away in the sun while the upper class relaxes inside). So even if you're a foreigner, you still have some extra status as a light-skinned person
- In fact, white people are sometimes even treated almost like celebrities abroad because the locals associate them with Hollywood movies (I myself had that experience studying abroad in Japan). Now compare that to how people of color are portrayed in movies, and how dark skin is associated with the working class
- Remember that racism isn't just about individual bigotry—it's about one race removing power, access, and opportunity from another
- So yes, white people experience a range of hardships as well—but racism is not one of them. The majority of white people are not growing up in a society where they're nearly always seen as an “other"
- Remember the studies from earlier showing how even upper-class people of color have more negative health outcomes compared to white people, and how people of color get treated differently by police, and how children of color are perceived by teachers to be more violent
- Yes, white people suffer a wide range of hardships as well (e.g., poverty, disability, sexism, etc.), and I don't want to discount those at all. But, people of color can experience all of those plus other race-based issues that will simply never apply to people who live in a country where they're part of the dominant race—the same race as those who predominantly hold the most power in terms of wealth, law-making, and law-enforcing
- (If you're still feeling some objection because you perceive that kids of color are stealing all the scholarships from white kids, I address that myth in part 3.2)