Power & Prejudice

I was searching online for a quote that I was 99% certain I had read somewhere (and now I’m 99% certain that it exists only in my head.) I couldn’t find the quote. Quite possibly my memory made it up.

But I did find a blog post explaining that reverse racism doesn’t exist.

I bristled. So minorities can’t be prejudiced? So what about . . . and I started to tick off all the cases of minority prejudice I had ever heard or read. (That’s not something I’m proud of admitting. My inner racist kicks defensively, and I hate that. I’m working on this.)

Stop. Ask. Listen.

Those weren’t the words Rick had used in his comment on my last post, but the message was there. Ask, “why do you think that?” before immediately defending your stance.

I stopped. Inhale, exhale.

I silently asked Jamie Utt, the blog writer, “Why do you think reverse racism can’t exist?” Inhale, exhale.

I read on.

Utt explains that racial prejudice and racism are two different things.

All people can be racially prejudiced. But racism adds power to the prejudice:

Prejudice + Power = Racism

The power comes from white privilege. I don’t often see my white privilege, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It gives my prejudiced words and my prejudiced actions a power that similarly prejudiced words and actions from a minority don’t have. Mine have the power to reinforce systematic racism.

If someone called me a racial slur, that would hurt.

But it doesn’t pound yet another nail into the solid structure of a racially oppressive system where one race determines the worth, opportunities, and perceptions of all others.

It doesn’t reinforce a negative message about who is in the dominant position and who isn’t.

It doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of discrimination, of slavery, of mob lynchings, of fear and grief and anger.

Nigger. Coming from me, a white person, that word does all that and more.

That is the point Utt makes. (He also makes some other great points about “8 Things White People Really Need to Understand about Race.”) For the first time, the idea that reverse racism doesn’t exist made sense.

Then I had a second ah-ha moment. This explanation answered a question left over from graduate school. We were reading Native Son, by Richard Wright. It takes place in Chicago in the 1930s. Early in the book, Bigger, a young black man, is hired by the wealthy Dalton family as a chauffeur.

One night, he is reluctantly driving the spoiled daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan through the South Side of the city. The couple believe they are working for racial equality and try to treat Bigger like a friend, though every attempt is filled with racial prejudice and white privilege.

Mary touches Bigger’s arm and says,

“ ‘You know, Bigger, I’ve longed to go into these houses,’ she said, pointing to the tall, dark apartment buildings looming to either side of them, ‘and just see how your people live.’ (. . .) ‘I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They’re human. . . . There are twelve million of them. . . . They live in our country. . . . In the same city with us. . . . .’”

Native Son, by Richard Wright

A classmate commented. “She’s using the word ‘they.’ That’s so racist.”

Everyone else nodded their heads, but I scratched mine. I understood that Mary was behaving badly, expressing these sentiments to a black man, and failing to understand that, no, Bigger’s family didn’t live like she did, in her safe, glitzy world. Mary’s father owns the apartment building where Bigger and his family live in a cramped, rat-infested, one room apartment. No, Mary,” I wanted to say, “you don’t live like “them.”

I understood that.

But I didn’t understand how “they” was racist. What other word could she have used? I asked the question on our class online forum. The responses revolved around this:

When Mary uses the word “they,” she distances herself from the very people she wants to understand.

Her words reinforce her dominance in the social hieracrchy:

she controls whether or not she goes into a black home,

she longs to see into the houses but not live in them,

she claims the city for her people and treats minorities as displaced people.

And, after all, the car is her family’s. Bigger works for her father. When she allows her boyfriend to drive, Jan can drive wherever he pleases. When Bigger drives, he is limited to where the white couple direct him.

Even proclaiming that “they” are human calls into question whether or not she truly regards “them” as such. If she regarded everyone as equals, would she even need to say this?

I was still puzzled. After all, Bigger regards white people in much the same way. He’s suspicious, hostile, and rebuffs Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend him. Didn’t he see that their gestures were well-intentioned, if inadequate? Isn’t he racist, too?

Prejudice + Power = Racism

Jan and Mary have white privilege that blinds them. Their words and actions reinforce Bigger’s lack of power. He can’t tell them no:

No, I don’t want to go to a black restaurant with you and eat fried chicken.

No, I don’t want to tell you slang terms so you’ll sound “black.”

No, I don’t want my friends to see us together.

No, I don’t want to answer your nosy questions.

He is powerless, and he knows it. They have power, and they don’t know it.

I have power, too. How often do I realize this? And how often do I recognize how my actions and words reinforce a system of oppression?

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15 thoughts on “Power & Prejudice

  1. I’ve been making a concerted effort to use the word “bigotry” when I mean general racial prejudice and “racism” when speaking of institutionalized power issues. It’s still not as exact a division as I’d like, but it’s generally workable.

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  2. This post struck a chord in me.

    In 5th & 6th grade I was bused 45 minutes each way to a predominantly African-American school in Inglewood for during the integration period in the Los Angeles. My best friend was half-Japanese, half African- American, and she grew up poor and in a dangerous neighborhood. Her librarian mother was single and worked full-time, supporting her mother and daughter. I was very conscious of what I had in comparison to my friend. I never felt “superior” to her in any way, but I felt guilty for being born into relative riches compared to her.

    Meanwhile, my grandmother taught 6th grade in Harlem, New York; she was divorced in the late 1930”s when divorce was very rare. She was a very dedicated teacher who saw African Americans as equals, unlike many of her narrow-minded neighbors. Granny was the type of teacher who actually showedup on her student’s doorsteps to speak to their parents, and she mentored a future Congressman. She stayed in touch with him until she died in her 80’s.

    What’s the point of my bringing this all up? I guess I knew I had “power: while my best friend did not have power, so I was different than the character of Mary, thank God.

    I was very close to my grandmother and she influenced me to never, ever use the “n” word – she explained what that meant early on.

    Sorry to ramble – I know I’m not touching on the most significant concepts of your post the way I’d like to, but I wanted to share my experiences here nevertheless. I read this post several times, and it definitely made me think about the nature of prejudice, power and racism……and for that, dear Laura, I thank you!!!!

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    1. How fascinating, Dyane! I grew up in a “white bubble” and my grandfather was (and probably still is, though he’s not able to talk much anymore, so it’s hard to know what’s in his head) very racist. I was probably far more like Mary in Native Son that I’d like to admit.

      Your grandmother was an unusual woman and I appreciate you sharing your experiences. You should write about her on your blog! BTW, my great grandmother was also divorced in the 1930s; her husband abandoned her, along with two children, and she eventually remarried my great-grandfather, had several other children (including my grandfather), and they divorced, too. All of this was in Chicago in the 1930s; from my grandfather’s descriptions, it sounds like it was a city filled with racial tensions and poverty.

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  3. Interesting. It took me a long time to understand this concept, although I don’t think racism is as prevalent in the UK. At least, it never used to be – it is certainly rearing its ugly head lately :-/
    I wonder if the same applies to other prejudices and to other forms of oppression/power, e.g. gender, poverty, deprivation?

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    1. Also interesting when we compare this to our saviour – the saviour who *always* took the side of the powerless and whose gentleness became a storm when confronted with those who misused their power – until the time came when He surrendered His power to become the one who was the epitome of the oppressed. It’s late at night here and I’m not sure I’m coherent. There’s something profound but I can’t quite find the words. I’ll sleep on it.

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    2. I think it does apply to other prejudices. Any time prejudice and power are combined, it leads to oppression. (Not always intentionally, though. So much of our personal prejudices are hidden from us, and much of our power is, too. I never thought about my “white privilege” until a few years ago.)

      Racism might not be as prevalent in the UK. From what I’ve read, class prejudices are more of an issue. Racism is a major thing–and an obvious thing–where I live in the South because of our history of forced slavery and the civil war between the Northern states (where slavery wasn’t legal) and the Southern ones (where slavery was legal and was a HUGE part of the economy and culture.) That’s a simplified overview of the American civil war, of course, and there are more particulars, but it’s a major cultural baggage for everyone in the south.

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    1. Nihar, thanks for reading. What was most challenging to me in writing this post was knowing that I’ve unknowingly participated in the power+prejudice, and knowing that I need to actively work to undo this damage. Thanks again for reading!

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