Institutional Racism or Acts of Meanness?

Recently I’ve been working a lot with the YWCA Dialogue on Race again. The dialogue process is invaluable, important, necessary, and problematic.

On Intersectionality

First off, the conversations about race with sympathetic people of all races in Louisiana are generally flat because they don’t broach essentialism, intersectionality, or identity politics. While racism in Louisiana feels much more entrenched and deep-seated than in some other places, the general understanding of racism here lacks recognition of crosscurrents and interactions. Of course, some might say, “what is there to understand?…racism is racism. The people who are suffering under the burden of racism already understand. They’re oppressed. They live it. Simple as that.”  But racism isn’t simple and to eradicate it, we need to understand it beyond broad brushstrokes. The Dialogues help by giving a more sophisticated vocabulary for people to talk about race, and by making a safe and structured space to have important discussions about race. Unfortunately, there is little room in our community for problematizing identity politics.

On Intellectualism

The second is a personal problem: As an academic (or former academic) my feelings and thoughts about racism are framed by philosophical and theoretical readings on the subject that many people here don’t seem to relate to.  So I get frustrated trying to talk about high theory in everyday conversation. The writings by “public intellectuals” like Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Mari Matsuda, Patricia Williams…you know the list don’t translate well.  The whole issue of accessibility and the gap between theory and practice in academic writing is bothersome. I suffer from a sort of academic, white arrogance…”You mean you haven’t read this?” But these are ideas and writings are important to the conversations. For example, Henry Louis Gates came to LSU for Black History Month ten years ago, and he talked about Afrocentrism without essentialism. No one resonated with that takeaway. How can we communicate about this frame to others, even ten years later.

On Ranking Oppression

Some of the specific frustrations in the everyday conversations here are the way people barely acknowledge the game of “ranking oppression” (mine is worse than yours), and the problem of “horizontal hostility” from people of color toward other people of color or other oppressed people.  Comments that speak from places of horizontal hostility or ranking oppression are rarely challenged and interrogated. People comfortably leave in place the myth of Asians as the model minority, for instance, or the belief that illegal Mexican immigrants have it easier because they’re not black-skinned or the descendents of slaves.  This approach also ignores other dynamics of oppression such as sexism and heterosexism, as if these dynamics can be bracketed off, but ok..let’s focus on race to make the point.

Horizontal hostility, ranking oppression, identity politics, and avoiding deeper discussion serves to reinforce two interwoven power dynamics. First, the patterns reaffirm whiteness as the center of power because people of color compete with each other for access to the privileges and opportunities of white people. Second, the pattern equates ending racism and oppression with achieving a level of success as defined by contemporary white standards of economic success.  In other words, ending racism means everyone gets their “fair share of the pie,” which fails to acknowledge that the pie is finite and that the recipe sucks.

On Institutional Racism vs. Acts of Meanness

One issue specifically with the Dialogue is its definition of racism as purely institutional (with institution narrowly defined as school, government, workplace, church, etc.). Now, for the sake of the dialogue process, I support this definition while participating in or facilitate the dialogues. As a facilitator, I try to stay “on message” to keep our focus on institutional racism. As a participant, I don’t want to force an argument since it’s a dialogue and not a debate, so I let it go. The Dialogue’s basic definition of racism is not simply the standard “racism = prejudice + power.” Dialogue defines power as institutional. Even though one of the readings names the foundational level (philosophical, cultural, etc.) of institutional racism as the most difficult and insidious to identify and eradicate, this aspect rarely comes up. The conversation rarely goes there because it’s a difficult space to encounter. Instead, the focus remains at the policy and procedure level.

Now, the focus on institutional racism is smart and important. It serves multiple strategic purposes. It allows people to move beyond racism as acts of “personal meanness.”  It also allows whites in the group to set aside wallowing in individual guilt, so we can move on to larger institutional issues.  Last, the “let’s all get along” personal-level responses that so many people provide as a solution to racism just don’t work.  Ending racism requires institutional change.

The Personal is Political

Nonetheless, I’m not ready to give up on the personal so quickly. After all, one thing we learned from the women’s movement is that the personal IS political.  This was a profound statement in the 60s when it first emerged as a slogan. It deconstructed the public/private split that relegated women and women’s issues the domestic realm, making them unimportant politically. It politicized personal issues such as identity, sexuality, body image, motherhood, and so on.  It opened up a world of political action and thought. It also raised our consciousness that our personal actions had political impact, from voting to choosing food and clothing. Now, admittedly, this radical idea has become deflated and diminished. Our narcissistic, consumption-driven culture has gutted the political meaning of the slogan. People feel like they’ve actually done something if they’ve bought recycled toilet paper from Whole Foods. The original lesson is still important, though. We are our institutions; our personal actions have consequences; the problems caused by racism are both political and personal.

Also, as Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman wrote ages ago in “Have We Got a Theory for You,” friendship (one of reciprocity and deep knowledge of the other) is one of the only ethical, non-oppressive, non-imperialist motives for feminist theorizing. This is also true for ending racism. “Doing the right thing” and “being fair” as white people’s motives for ending racism are often riddled with imperialistic and paternalistic sentiments. Relatedly, one of the questions the Dialogue asks is what would motivate people who have privilege and power to give it up? Citing globalization and the increase in minority populations in the U.S., many people answer that those in power have to give it up because the world is changing. The arguments that the marketplace drives social change and pushes corporations toward diversity and tolerance are just bogus. Yes, corporations will be driven to social change in pursuit of profit, but it’s never without a cost to someone somewhere, usually to women of color in third world countries. This is not the type of change I’m interested in.

Your Personal Acts of Meanness Matter

There are many other reasons the institutional racism focus difficult, but I’ll only end on this one point. Talking about “personal acts of meanness” as mere prejudice acquits individuals of the racism in their racist acts. For instance, when the students in Jena hung a noose on the “white” tree in their schoolyard, that statement was not simply a personal act of meanness. It was a racist expression of white privilege and white power designed to keep the black students “in their place.”  The responses by the school system and the legal system were examples of institutional racism. The students who committed this act were not doing so in the name of these institutions or as the faces representing these institutions. Even though they were acting on their own, it was racism.

When a black man is lynched by a white mob, this is not a personal act of meanness, it is an act of racism, even though the mob does not represent any formal institution. Indeed, the white mob has the weight of whiteness behind it, the backing, protection, and sanction of white institutions, but it is not an institutional act in the strictest sense of the concept.

So, these are my many frustrations. Nonetheless, I’m glad to be discussing racism with people who care and who want to make a difference. The dialogues are lively, intense, and productive. I have learned much from them. I am always reminded that racism is a highly local phenomenon, even while it’s global. The dialogues are making a change in the local culture, which is what matters most.

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