I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group
– Peggy McIntosh
This piece was originally written as a response to a local group that was accused of racism, and failed to address it. I updated it because I’ve heard lots of the same arguments about ‘equality’ and ‘divisiveness’ since then, and I wanted to revisit these arguments myself. Racism is thought to be a distraction, a divisive issue, or a prejudice held by ‘those people’ ‘out there’ (but not by me). For anyone who has spent a bunch of time reading about or working on anti-racism and white privilege, reading this might be a waste of your time. I’m not writing to anti-oppression activists; I’m writing to myself five or six years ago, when I believed in equality and fairness, and saw all this “identity” stuff as a distraction from the real change that needed to happen in the world (‘the economy,’ ‘the environment’).
I’m against equality when it comes to conversations about racism. Also, I’m racist. These are two statements that run against the grain of polite, liberal views on racism (especially among white people like me). White people love equality (when it suits us): everyone should be treated equally, and then we’d all have equal opportunities. I used to hold this view myself, and I think it needs to be challenged. Not only does it fail to address racism; it can reinforce and hide it. In fact, white supremacist groups throughout North America regularly use the language of equality to challenge any “special status” accorded to indigenous peoples or people of colour (“we should all be treated equally”). Racism is not just the way that people treat each other, based on the colour of their skin. Racism–like capitalism–is a structural system, and interpreting racism as simple prejudice merely hides this structure. It’s the equivalent of saying corporate capitalism is fine as long as we all treat each other with respect (this works out great for the guy with a yacht and two summer homes).
Lefty white people often have a structural analysis of capitalism: we talk about debt, consumer spending, elite control of the monetary system, all that stuff. But instead of seeing racism as something just as structured and deep-seated, it’s often dismissed as “identity politics” or a “distraction.” The politics of feminism, racism, and colonialism have been labelled as divisive for decades, often by white men who didn’t like challenges to their authority, were uncomfortable with new ways of organizing, and had no interest in acknowledging or working through their own white male privilege. The same thing plays out over and over: white folks get called out on racism and they respond with anger, defensiveness, and condescension. That this happens over and over just shows how deep-seated whiteness is: when white folks fall into these patterns, we are the worst kind of cliché. For radicals or progressives or people trying to transform our world and make it less shitty, this defensiveness isn’t just oppressive, it’s also strategically unsound, because all these forms of oppression are inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Rinku Sen says it better than I could:
While the racial dimension of the criminal justice system is obvious to many people, the movement to reform Wall Street may be less so. In economic justice, it is particularly tempting to ignore the links between race and poverty, as well as the profound influence of sexism and sexuality on economic hierarchies.
Everybody’s suffering, and these wedge issues are so often used to divide the working class that many activists lean toward a universal framework for making change. The problem with a universal framework is that what is dominant also gets called universal.
Racism, colonialism and heteropatriarchy are just as complex as capitalism, and they are tied up with that economic system. In Victoria, for instance, when capitalism started taking off in the later part of the 19th century, capitalists began enclosing land at a rapid rate. Local indigenous people were criminalized, forced out of the city and onto reservations, and became targets of genocide. In particular, indigenous women became subject to intensive policing and violence (and still are). Indigenous peoples had ties to the land, so enclosing land and making private property meant breaking these ties. The racist hierarchy and the Chinese head tax was absolutely central in creating a cheap labour pool for factories and infrastructure projects like the railroad. A patriarchal and racial hierarchy was created in Victoria and elsewhere in North America, with indigenous people and black people at the bottom, Asian people (sometimes above them) and white people at the top.
There were debates about the relative positions of the “red, yellow, black and brown” races, but of course the consensus was that white people were at the top. This is part of white supremacy: whiteness is associated with cleanliness, civility, goodness, intelligence, and progress. People of colour are associated disease, savagery, evil, stupidity, and backwardness. This hierarchy has been strengthened and reproduced not only by policy, but by popular culture. It has powerfully shaped Canadian consciousness, especially that of white people. And this racist, hierarchical structure is still around: indigenous people and people of colour are more often arrested and incarcerated in Canada. They are more often targets of violence and rape. White men are still the most common heroes and protagonists in TV and film. Today, racialized global apartheid and border imperialism divides families and communities into labour pools in accordance with the needs of capitalism (there’s a reason that temporary foreign workers come to Canada from the Global South, and not the other way around).
This actually-existing racism isn’t because of ‘prejudice;’ it’s because the racist structure of Canadian society (and global capitalism) is still intact, despite declarations that we’re all equal now. In some ways, structural racism has strengthened. Indigenous people are still denied access to and control over their territories, and their communities are the most frequent targets of environmental racism, where huge projects like the tarsands dump their toxic waste. White flight from cities has created ‘food deserts’ where communities of colour have no access to fresh food. Gentrification systematically pushes out poor people of colour to make room for white yuppies. These are not accidents, but they’re also not caused by a few bad racists either. They happen because mainstream North America is based on a racist, colonial, patriarchal, ecocidal and capitalist structure.
This structure is where white privilege comes from. It comes from a centuries-long process where policies, law, policing, popular culture, and economics have come together to systematically privilege white people. This racist structure hasn’t gone away just because Canada has declared that we’re all equal now, or because some people of colour are rich now. What this has done is make the racist structure harder to see and understand (especially for white people), creating the perception that “we’re all equal now” and generating anxieties that white people are now disadvantaged, because certain policies (like affirmative action) don’t treat everyone equally.
If you’re a white person who has been raised in mainstream Canadian society (like I am) then you’re racist. I’m racist. And I benefit from white privilege. That doesn’t mean I’m evil. It means I accept that racism is everywhere in our society; it’s the basis of “Canada;” it’s not some rare accident that happens every once in a while when I say the wrong thing. It has shaped my sense of who I am, how I relate to people, and how I deal with conflict. At my worst, when I’m embodying the cliché of whiteness, I’m entitled, defensive, guilt-ridden, and condescending.
A recent article by Sarah Milstein points to some of the ways that white people can address our own racism:
- Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless.
- If you feel defensive when talking about race with a woman of color or reading about race in a piece written by a woman of color, assume the other person is saying something especially true
- Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not.
The upshot of this structural understanding of racism is that it’s not the end of the world when I say something racist. That doesn’t let me off the hook; it means that it’s bound to happen, and what matters is how I address it, and learn from it, and make myself accountable to the folks pointing it out. Or alternatively: how I get defensive, argue, justify, explain my good intentions, and become the cliché of a white guy who can’t even acknowledge his own shit.
Acknowledging racism and being accountable when we’re called out is just a way to avoid being a giant asshole; it’s not a path towards an active, anti-racist politics. Because racism is a structure, it needs to be challenged structurally–‘out there’ as well as ‘in here.’ Saying that is easy, but this is way more complicated (and more demanding) than just avoiding white defensiveness.
A friend recently suggested that I should shut the fuck up about love and trust and radicalism and just embody those values, if I care about them so much. Maybe the same goes with racism and the other oppressive systems I benefit from: I need to struggle with them, and feel it, and dig deep into myself, and I’m much better at reading and writing and thinking. I’m becoming more and more ambivalent about my own writing on oppression and activism. It’s not that writing is useless, and we should all stop reflecting on practices, but does this reflective work do the unsettling, discomforting work we talk about, or are we narrating our own I-know-better-than-you-ness? Does this writing on structural racism end up creating more distance between ‘those people’ who don’t know yet and myself (who says he didn’t know before but now he does)? Smack-downs and quippy truths feel good, but if unlearning racism is about discomfort, maybe my words should be less comfortable (this paragraph was the hardest to write). How can white folks write and talk and learn about racism collectively, and fumble around together, rather than setting ourselves as up as teachers or knowers or allies?
I’m not an active anti-racist organizer, and that fact makes me uncomfortable too. It’s even more uncomfortable to disclose it publicly, while writing about racism. But there are lots of inspiring, ongoing conversations and resources from experienced organizers: