Whiteness tries to equivocate about what racism is so that it can falsely equate prejudice with racism and thus ignore the compounding effects of the history and systems of race in this country.
Racism is prejudice + power.
Prejudice is wrong. It is hurtful. It harms people and relationships. Racism is insidious because it ties prejudice to systems of oppression. When individual prejudice is carried out, it can be hurtful and damaging to the recipient. The recipient might feel unsafe. Their feelings might be hurt. They may even have to take legal action against the actor.
Personal prejudice is not okay, and we should work on our prejudices so that we do not do harm to others (not just racial prejudice, but prejudice in all its different forms).When personal (racial) prejudice is tied to systems, it becomes racism.
When individuals from the dominant racial group enact their racial prejudices, they are reinforcing these systems (in America, and most other places, this is people who are identified as white).White people’s actions cannot be divorced from the historical context of race nor can they be construed as individual bad acts because they are intrinsically related to the history of racial oppression in this nation.
Defining racism as prejudice + power allows us to put prejudice into a broader context instead of making racism about individuals and their motives. White individualism demands that racism only be seen as interpersonal conflict and not as upholding and benefiting from a system. Viewing racism in the broader context of history, power dynamics, and systems clarifies why racism is bad.
Prejudice is part of human nature. People have found reasons to dislike or be suspicious of others pretty much since the beginning of time. At the same time, we recognize that prejudice is unethical (if not immoral) and so we often find ourselves wrestling against our nature. Racism is bad because it is systematized prejudice that does nothing but wound and oppress. It’s way more than one group of people disliking another for dubious reasons.
In America, racism is weaponized prejudice that has systematically dehumanized, tortured, enslaved, killed, and robbed opportunities from certain people because of their race. This is not the same as “garden variety” prejudice. When white people act on their prejudice, their actions add to the weight of oppression that others experience. Their actions are like caulking or nails that reinforce the system.
When people of color act on their racial prejudices, they may wound white people but their actions aren’t systemic oppression. This does not take away from the damage that their actions might cause, but it is not racism. Side Note: When POC enact prejudice against one another it is called lateral oppression. I make these distinctions because they are critical to understanding why racism persists.
If racism were simply about people being prejudiced toward one another, then desegregation, education, and engaging in personal relationships should have solved the problem by now. Racism exists because personal prejudice reinforces systemic oppression and vice versa. We break the cycle of oppression by dismantling the systems that justify it.