As the lily-white political class continues to evaluate Obama’s denouncing rejection of Angry Scary Negro du jour Sister Soulja Rev. Jeremiah Wright (while remaining curiously silent about Rod Parsley, McCain’s virulently racist and homophobic “spiritual guide”), Kai Chang takes a wide-ranging, nuanced look at how race (and racism) have played out thus far in this primary season.
It seems to me that one of the principal sources of confusion when it comes to racial disourse is the stunning lack of clarity and consensus regarding the exact meanings and definitions of the words “racism” and “racist”. Those of us who spend significant time doing anti-racist work end up developing a variety of nuanced concepts surrounding these words, but many people never explore those meanings and instinctively respond to talk of racism with strong emotions and weak understandings. Racism is a complex multi-dimensional interdisciplinary subject which cannot be reduced to an absurdly-shallow bifurcation of the populace into laudable “not racists” and condemned “racists”. Racism is an overarching, interlocking set of economic, political, social, and cultural structures, beliefs, and actions which systematically advantage one racial group at the expense of all others. A statement, thought, belief, assumption, or action can be described as racist when it plugs into the overarching grid of racism, like a node which lights up once it plugs into its compatible network, thus transcending an individual act of bigotry or prejudice and fusing into broader institutions and societal forces.
As for defining what makes an individual person “a racist”, I think it’s a pretty fuzzy area, and not a particularly fruitful intellectual direction. Most anti-racists are much more concerned with identifying, understanding, and dismantling racism, than in exposing any individual as “a racist”, whatever that means. Clearly, there are hate-crime types out there who organize their lives around advancing white supremacist violence and such; but most of the racism that people of color deal with in our day-to-day lives — especially those of us who interact with a lot of white liberals — is far more subtle and covert, more of a background buzz than an in-your-face threat. White liberal racism tends to manifest in unspoken assumptions, attitudes, and social dynamics which normalize and center white privilege, while deprioritizing, marginalizing, and dismissing the voices, perspectives, experiences, histories, cultures, agendas, and initiatives of people of color. White liberals who engage in these behaviors aren’t “racists” in the same sense as the hate-crime types, but they are nevertheless participating in the replication and perpetuation of racism. Pointing this out is not “playing the race card”; it is accurate socio-political observation. Pointing this out is not the same as running around indiscriminately shouting “racist!” at every white person within earshot in some kind of rageful frenzy; it is constructive anti-racist critique aimed at illuminating an important but dimly-lit pattern, for the purpose of healing wounds which continue to bleed our society and our own humanity.
Of course, as briefly intimated by Chang, there are certain individuals out there who proudly fly the flag of prejudice (and ignorance/indifference) in a manner that defies nuance and complexity.