on racism, discrimination & bigotry

Yesterday morning, a friend's friend left a comment on a Facebook post, expressing outrage at the hashtag #whitepeopleendracism.  She felt that racism was something every race was guilty of, and expecting one race to "end" it was unrealistic. As I read her comment (and her subsequent responses to other commenters defending her position), it dawned on me that there was some confusion between discrimination, bigotry and racism, as I understand those terms are currently used in the United States. I responded to her, and the following is an edited, slightly more-thought-out version of that response, in case it might be informative to someone else.

[INSERT NAME], we don't know each other, so please know that I am saying this with all due respect. But I think that what might be happening here is some confusion about the term racism, and how it differs from the terms discrimination and bigotry, as those terms are used by those who do anti-racist work today in the United States.

Discrimination and bigotry are about hating someone because of race or sexual orientation or gender identification or even religion. Both discrimination and bigotry are wrong, and can unfortunately be perpetuated by anyone, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.  All of us have a duty to fight against discrimination and bigotry.

Racism, on the other hand, is generally intended to mean the oppression by one race  -- usually the majority, always the one in power -- of people of other races, who are usually the minority, and very rarely the ones in power. It is considered a systemic problem. In the US, because whites hold the powerful seats in government and business, the system of racism is therefore created and perpetuated by whites. It has been this way since the founding of the United States, and continued after the slave trade was abolished, through Jim Crow laws, the American civil rights movement and persists to this day.

This, of course, does not mean that all white people are hostile, or bigots -- it goes without saying that there are many, many good white people in America, and indeed, my world (I am, after all, married to one). But it does mean that in this country, white people have the privilege of their skin colour (just as I have, for example, the "privilege" of being able-bodied, or heterosexual, in a country where society values those traits to a higher standard). Our privileges can blind us to the situations of those who don't hold the same privileges, which is why we need to be aware of the privileges we hold. My able-bodied or heterosexual privilege does not mean that I'm a bad person, per se;  just as white skin doesn't make you a bad person, per se. However, in the case of racism, your white privilege does mean that you have an advantage when dealing with those in power that I do not.

Since you have white privilege, especially when dealing with people in power, then you necessarily also have the privilege of having those in power listen to you more than they would listen to me, especially when it comes to anti-racist work.  For example, if you go to an organization that has failed to be inclusive or diverse (and that sort of thing matters to you), the leader of that organization is more likely to listen to you about why things should change than they would listen to me.  Extrapolating that further, if you have a friend who IS a racist, your convincing your friend to change how she thinks is more likely than me being able to do it. 

With discrimination and bigotry, of course we are all more likely to have an effect convincing people who look like us not to be bigoted or discriminatory. (And this is where awareness of our individual privileges and how we can use them to help others comes into play.)  But because racism is systemic and perpetuated by the race in power (white), the onus is on white people:  white people have to work together to end it. Remember, racism is about the race in power -- not about how each race feels about all other races.

I hope this makes sense. Again, what I'm talking about here is how the terms are used nowadays, in America. I'm not talking about historical textbook definitions, or how they would be used in other countries. I offer this just as an explanation of where the hashtag came from. 

I'll leave comments open, if anyone would like to respond.  Please keep your responses civil and kind to each other.  Remember, Chookooloonks is a love-and-light kind of place.  And incidentally, if you'd like to learn more about privilege, please watch to this wonderful Facebook live video by my friend Brené Brown.  She nails it, and I wholeheartedly endorse every word.