A quick note about “racism”, “prejudice” and “bigotry”

I begin this with trepidation . . .

In any discussion of the situation aboriginal people in Canada of late at some point some variation of the statement “White people can’t experience racism” comes up.  And, inevitably, a White person will reply with “huh? what’s that noise? I myself remember that time when . . .”   I well remember reacting the same way (thankfully, silently, to myself).

Yet, I can also remember being discriminated against on the basis of my fair hair and tall stature.  I can remember being offered only inferior products and being refused service because of my appearance or language.  This discrimination is the sort of thing people like me may bring up as examples of how their position is not exclusively one of privilege.

But, embarrassing as it is to admit, it’s only comparatively recently that I’ve come to realize that being offered bruised, green tomatoes because the southern Italian farmer saw your fair hair as German, or  being denied service because your English “yeh” was mistaken for a German “ja” is not in any way similar to what people of colour go through every moment of their lives.  Most obviously, I was able to use the magic word “Canadese” and suddenly I became a welcome liberating Loyal Eddie instead of the hated Fallschirmjäger I’d been a moment before.  There is no such magic word available to people of colour in White dominated Western Society.  What I experienced a few times in the 1980s in Italy was decidedly not racism. I was experiencing misdirected prejudice and bigotry based on a fairly justified forty year old grudge. Anti-German feeling in southern Italy was a painful memory of recent hurt, not an unconscious attitude running deeply through every part of Basilicatan society.

Not unexpectedly, the word “racism” has different connotations for those on opposite sides of the phenomenon.  For the person of colour, “racism” is a systemic aspect of the dominant culture, an inescapable part of life, colouring every moment.  There are countless essays on line explaining this fact.  I kind of like this one by Sara Luckey.

On the other side, “racism” too often is just another word for “prejudice” or “bigotry”.  Their experience is limited to individual acts of racially, ethnically, religiously based assumption.  A Canadian being mistaken for a German, for example. They’ve never experienced the systemic racism faced by people of colour.  An individual White person may well, however, be prejudged and face bigotry simply because of their apparent ancestry. Ill treatment may be based on an ugly prejudice and a contented indifference to the individual. Sometimes a magic word can turn the discrimination into special treatment, as I learned at that farmer’s cart beside the road from Avigliano.

As so often, particularly with charged issues, definition of terms is vital to shared understanding.  This situation is not helped by the fact that serious contributions are made to the discussion without clear definition, as in this Psychology Today piece in which “racism” is used to mean “prejudice.”    Contrary to what Dr. Mendoza-Denton seems to suggest, a white person being told “all White people are racist” is not in any sense the equivalent of living as a person of colour in a society in which the standard of personhood is a White male.  The White person is free to leave the conversation. The person of colour lives the conversation every day without escape, without any magic words.  The phrase Dr Mondoza-Denton mentions, “All White people are racist”,  is prejudice and bigotry, and so, distasteful, offensive, and of no help to anyone except those who want to shut down the conversation.  But, because of the real structure of power in our society, nothing is served by describing the statement as “racist”.

I’m sure that no cause, especially the struggle against racism, is aided by individual prejudice or bigotry.  I sincerely wish that such might be avoided in discussions of pressing social issues.  I also think it vital that everyone make a distinction between racism – systemic racism – which is a devilishly difficult problem, and simple prejudice and bigotry, which, while a lesser evil perhaps, serves subversively — one way or another and whoever it comes from — to prop up the systemic problem.

White people who claim to have experienced racist discrimination are, wilfully or not, belittling the experience of systemic racism.

And, on the other hand, anyone who judges an individual based on the colour of their skin rather than on the content of their character . . .

I think you can see where I’m headed.

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