05 October 2008

Racism Without Racists / White Privilege

This recent NYTimes op-ed does a great job of explaining "racism without racists". I've been meaning for a while to post on this topic, and the related one of white privilege, but this article says it much more succintly and clearly:

Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.

For example, when the black job candidate is highly qualified, there is no discrimination. Yet in a more muddled gray area where reasonable people could disagree, unconscious discrimination plays a major role.

White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time.

That is, blacks are sometimes discriminated against even though the person doing the discriminating is doing it unconsciously -- even though the person is not what we would call "a racist".

To my thinking, racism without racists, and white privilege are two sides of the same coin. Racism without racists explains white privilege in the here and now: why whites may be more likely to get certain jobs, not get stopped by police, etc. White privilege as a whole, though, includes more than just what's going on today: it includes history. That is, how did I get here? Was I advantaged relative to my fellow black Bermudians because of the color of my skin (and that of my parents and their parents and so on...)?

I personally believe in both of these concepts, and believe that they affect us in Bermuda today. At the same time, I don't advocate the kind of approach that some (especially white) activists take, which is to beat themselves and those around them over the head with white privilege. I believe the thinking is that whites need to confront their terrible history in order to move past it. That may be so, but making people feel miserable is never a good way to get them to buy into your cause. And, there is no doubt that lots of white Bermudians worked their tails off to get where they are today, even in the face of much opposition from the infamous Front Street families. So those hard workers are obviously not very interested in being told that they got to where they are today solely on the color of their skin.

To me, it makes more sense to approach these whites (that you hope to convince about the reality of white privilege/racism without racists) using concrete examples like that I quoted above. Because the reality is that most people (black and white) are concerned about being truly fair. And if you can show to them examples of unfairness & how it can be promulgated by even well-meaning people such as themselves, I think it will start them reflecting upon and truly examining their day-to-day interactions. And they can do it at their own pace without being bullied.

My last point is that although I believe in these concepts, I don't buy into the "racism as power" orthodoxy that comes from North America, which holds that blacks cannot be racist. There is not doubt that racism as practiced in the U.S. was significantly about power. But our reality here and today in Bermuda is different: there are many blacks with power, especially in Government, who by virtue of their position have the ability to act in racist and xenophobic ways that negatively affect other people in Bermuda.

By the way, check out this post earlier this year from politics.bm.

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