Dealing with Everyday Racism
by Katrina Messenger (Hopkins)
This article, based on a talk by Katrina Hopkins, originally appeared in RQ #79, Summer 2000.
Download the full issue #79 at our Back Issues page.
Starting in 1992, the year I joined the Sojourner Truth Congregation of Unitarian Universalists, till 1999 when it ceased to meet as a congregation, I gave a series of lectures and sermons on the topics of racism, sexism, homophobia, and diversity.
This particular talk started as an hour long lecture as part of our 1994 seminar series on African Americans and race relations. It was later shortened to a sermon and delivered to a suburban congregation the following year.
Mine was the last lecture in the series and the topic was chosen as a provocative ending to a hugely successful six month run. When I sat down to write this talk, I realized that there was nothing about racism that wasn’t everyday and every waking moment from my perspective. And that realization poignantly set the tone and tenor of my talk.
What audience should I address with this talk? Well, there is not much I can tell other African Americans or Native Americans about racism or how to deal with it. And I cannot speak for the experience of Asian, Latino, and other oppressed groups. We all, in some sense, deal with oppression every day of our lives and all of us have developed complicated strategies just to live out our everyday life. Each and every one of us is an expert on our oppression. No, there is not much I can tell victims of racism about how to deal with it. I can only share my personal strategies in dialogue.
So, if I cannot target my talk at victims of racism, maybe I should target my talk at people who benefit from racism. The problem is that most who benefit from racism are not aware of it. There are no announcements, such as “We do this because you are not Black”, or “not Latino.” The “For Whites Only” signs are gone, and just about no one uses the n-word in polite conversation nowadays. It is all very hush hush, buried in coded words, under wraps.
So much, in fact, that many well-meaning white people in this country sincerely believe that (a) racism is an isolated phenomenon restricted to poor uneducated whites and the Nation of Islam; (b) Black people have just as much access to opportunities as whites, although they seem not to take as much advantage of it; or my personal favorite (c) Black people are prone to immoral behavior but it’s not their fault, really. It is a pathology caused by the anti-poverty programs of the 1960s and 70s. So targeting a talk on dealing with racism to a group that doesn’t even acknowledge its existence is kind of difficult.
It was when I contemplated these dilemmas and others, that I decided to focus my talk on strategies for allies. What is an ally? An ally is someone who, although not the target of an oppression, is outraged by its existence and is willing to act on that outrage. We are all potentially allies in the struggle against oppression. We may not always know what to do, and sometimes what we do is not helpful, but our actions are rooted in a sincere wish to stop oppression. And so I am directing my talk to anyone who is or can be an ally in the fight to end racism.
As a bisexual woman of African and Cherokee descent, from a working class background, I am an expert on my oppression. There are others in this room who may be experts on the various facets of racism. I will share my personal insights and strategies. During talk back, other experts on racism will have an opportunity to share their insights as well. At times our statements will appear to be contradictory. Our challenge as allies is to find the common within the dissimilar, the pearl of truth within the contradictions. To be an ally is surely not an easy role. You must learn to trust the eyes, ears and heart of another person, a person with whom you may have nothing in common or just about everything in common save one aspect. You must believe what you can not see, hear, touch, taste or feel. It is a lot like faith. This is surely the reason why we are gathered in this sacred space.
Prejudice versus Oppression
I need to make a distinction between prejudice and oppression. We all have prejudices. We usually understand and accept differences amongst people like ourselves, and for convenience sake have categorized “the other” into easily remembered stereotypes. Tall people play basketball, blonds are dumb, fat people are jolly, women are weak, men are strong, Asians are smart, Blacks are dumb, Southerners are slow, Jews are good in business, the Irish drink too much, and bisexuals are promiscuous. But if you are from a family of tall people you will probably know at least one tall person lousy at basketball. Most Swedes will attest to the wide range of ability amongst blondes. I know plenty of depressed fat people, strong women, weak men, Asians with average SAT scores, Blacks with doctorates, and innovative southerners. Jews fail in business sometimes, not all Irish people drink and I, as a bisexual, wish I could be promiscuous. A prejudice, no matter how foul on its own is not enough to be called oppression.
No, oppression, requires something more. It requires the state apparatus or its equivalent. When your personal prejudices are backed up by the military, the legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as industry, academia, and religion it becomes more than just being impolite or ignorant or rude or displaying poor taste. It is oppression. When entire classes of individuals are denied access to areas of life routinely allowed for others, it is oppression. When elaborate justifications are offered to explain a simple denial of rights, you are on the road to oppression. Oppression is more than just having a bad day, a personality conflict or a simple misunderstanding. When oppression becomes symptomatic of an entire system, entire countries, entire cultures, it warps the whole structure to serve its own end. Oppression has its own logic, rhythm and laws. If you are oppressed it is “for your own good, you deserve to be treated badly because you brought it on yourself, the opportunity is denied because the oppressed person is incapable of handling the access.”
Oppression is systemic discrimination, prejudice, hatred and devaluation of a class of individuals. The system breeds it, supports it, nurtures it, transfers it, enforces it and rewards it. Oppression is a denial of humanity, a denial of selfhood, denial of self determination, a denial of freedom, culture, history, language, self definition and self love.
Working definition for racism: Oppression based on race. In the U.S. it is historically rooted in the genocidal attacks on Native Americans for land acquisition and the slave trade. It has been expanded to include all people of color and the third (2/3) world.
But what is everyday racism? Everyday racism consists of the daily manifestation of racist oppression. It is something people of color encounter on a daily basis. It can be interpersonal, internal, institutional, or in any combination. These manifestations serve as a reminder, in case we forget, that our very lives are perpetually in danger. It is a survival issue. I contend that it is the silent killer, the leading cause of stress amongst Black people. Because of racism, we are denied access to proper health care, given poor care when we get any, and die from preventable diseases. We receive too little care too late, have a shorter life expectancy as a result. Infant mortality rates for Blacks in some areas of the U.S. rival that of our brethren across the seas. We are incarcerated for crimes for which whites are given verbal warnings. We are charged higher rates to receive substandard goods and services. Our unemployment rates are higher, and our college retention rates are lower. And every day of our lives we suffer untold indignities at the hands of individuals representing the system. One could argue that all racism is everyday racism.
Deal with Racism: See It, Believe It, Say It, and Act on It!
What do we mean when we say “Dealing with Everyday Racism”? Let’s focus for a moment on the concept of dealing with racism. What does it mean to deal with racism? Well, we surely don’t mean to ignore it or downplay it. We do not mean to explain it or excuse it. We could not possibly mean to embrace it or condone it.
When I say deal with racism, I say it a special way. I say “Hey, deal with racism.” When I say deal with racism, I mean you must See It, Believe It, Say It, and Act on It!
I remember something Alice Walker once experienced when she dined at a restaurant with two friends. A couple of white men started singing a racially charged song. One of the women simply sat eating as if nothing had happened. The other woman was outraged and complained to the management. Both women were white, but Ms. Walker noted that the woman who took action was Jewish. She told this anecdote to illustrate the long history of Jews taking action against racism. What really amazed her and me was the woman who either did not recognize racist behavior or chose not to act. If I take the tack that this woman was in fact an ally, the problem may have been that she simply did not see racism.
One might pose the question what would have happened if the Jewish woman had not been in the room. Maybe after a time this woman may have noticed Alice’s discomfort. Maybe if it still wasn’t clear she might have inquired as to the cause of Alice’s discomfort and maybe she too may have acted. In either case one must see racism before you can challenge it.
Some of you may have wondered why maybe Alice Walker had not acted first. Who knows, maybe her ally was quicker on the draw or Alice was not sure about her relative safety in a strange town. I only know that many times a victim of oppression, after evaluating the relative risk, may themselves choose not to act. In any case, one of the main roles of an ally is making it safe for a person to challenge their oppression. They can challenge the oppression themselves, support the victim’s challenge or refuse to benefit from the oppression.
I remember once during a department meeting at work, I had brought a demo tape of a commercial about a new product I was developing. After watching the demo, the group broke into spontaneous applause. At which point instead of thanking me for my presentation, my boss immediately began commenting on how happy he was with someone else’s project. It was an awkward moment. My friend Ken, an ally, was outraged. It was the response of two other colleagues that amazed me however, both were adamant that my boss’s behavior was just impolite, not racist. They refuse to believe that this mild mannered man could engage in racist behavior. An ally must accept the truth of the perceptions of a victim of oppression. If I say it hurt me, it did. If I say it was racist, I know what I am talking about. And two people of color do not have to agree that something is racist. If even one feels it is racist, an ally should treat it so. Scary, isn’t it, this faith thing?
My friend Ken, a very dear man, came to me troubled one day because of something that had occurred when he was trying to sell his home. One of the potential buyers made a racist statement during the tour of Ken’s home. He and his wife were shocked speechless. They quickly ended the tour, but felt that they should have done more to challenge the words spoken within their home. I asked Ken why he did not simply say “That is racist, and I do not condone such language within my home.” He confessed that saying the words had not occurred to him. He thought he had to lecture or shout or jump up and down or something. I said he should only jump up and down if he were wearing comfortable shoes, but that simple direct statements works whatever the wardrobe.
Act on It
Alice Walker’s friend took action. White abolitionists ran the stations on the underground railroad. White college students across the country joined the freedom rides. We have always had allies in the fight against racism and many of them engaged in action to challenge the systemic nature of racism. At this stage, an ally pays a heavy price, they may lose their access to privilege, often they are treated worse than the oppressed people themselves, and some have paid the ultimate price with their lives. In some areas of my life, I have reached this stage of being an ally. I wrestled daily with the added exposure. It is often very uncomfortable. At this stage one finds it painful watching yourself fall back into old habits. Sometimes I truly wish that my eyes had not been opened to the reality of someone else’s oppression. I can only imagine the pain and confusion of an ally against racism. If you are in this stage, I honor you and stand with you in our mutual struggle for freedom.
We all have an opportunity to be allies in the fight against oppression. It is risky to step outside of ourselves and see the world through the eyes of another but it is necessary if we are to change the world for the better. As Witches and Pagans, we know how our energy can affect the world around us. With love, compassion and intent let us take the first steps toward healing and lasting change.
Katrina Messenger, a radical feminist of African, Cherokee & Irish descent, is a refugee from the communist, labor, feminist, and black nationalist movements of old. She now busies herself with revolutions of a more immediate nature - changing herself. Katrina, a Wiccan mystic, is the founder of the Reflections Mystery School based in Washington DC. She is a Reclaiming teacher and elder, and taught at witchcamps from 1997-2003.
Katrina's website: katrinamessenger.com