Let’s talk about race.15 August 2019
This is a spontaneous post. I usually spend quite a bit of time planning what I want to write, and how — but recent events have prompted me to jot down some quick thoughts on how we react to conversations about race, the terms we use, and how we use them.
If you haven’t heard, there’s been a slight kerfuffle on Twitter recently about representations of, and interactions with, race on “Edutwitter.” I won’t go into the details other than to say the fallout from the situation has spawned both good and not-so-good conversations about race.
Recently, I read an unfortunate exchange resulting from this situation that really underscored for me the importance of precise language and mobilising terms in meaningful ways that help create a common understanding of ‘race’ and its association with power both in education and beyond.
In this exchange, Party A called Party B “racist” because Party B decided to re-evaluate who they followed on Twitter and include more “people of colour.” While many viewed this as a positive thing, others thought Party B was “racist” because they used race and ethnicity as an “othering” category. They assert Party B was reducing the identity of Party A to a single point of representation – race. This is possible. It’s also possible Party B is taking a “first step” on a journey in which they are examining their relationship to race/ethnicity and their place and privilege in society as a white, middle class person.
Irrespective of these arguments, the recent focus on race has prompted me to quickly jot down my own thoughts of race, racism, prejudice and discrimination. These aren’t “my ideas,” but my current understanding of these topics is largely influenced by research and theoretical work associated with Critical Race Theory.
It doesn’t exist, yet it does. If everyone on the planet was lined-up by skin colour, we would a see a gentle transition from one tone to the next, and not discrete boundaries between “black” and ”white.” This is because the biological aspects of race are far different from how race has been produced and reproduced in society. Race is a social construction. What we call race and the meaning we give it is constructed through our relationships with language, people and institutions in our society. Racial categories are based on assumed, physical (genetic) difference. Yet, we find as much variation within ‘racial’ groups as we do between ‘non-racial’ groups. There is no biological basis for race, but we often treat it as a biological reality.
In Critical Race Theory, racism is a systematic allocation of social, cultural, political and economic privilege based on assumed, ‘essential’ racial characteristics, like skin colour. Like race, racism is developed through language use, human interaction and our relationships with social institutions. But there’s more! Because of its organisational power, it also operates as a type of social institution. Not only does it organise language and social action, it also establishes systems of privilege wherein societal benefits are allocated on the basis of members of different races having variable, inherent value. In other words, society becomes organised to benefit one race (the superior race) over other races (the inferior races). To members of the ‘superior race,’ this is nearly invisible, but to members of the ‘inferior races,’ it’s obvious.
Racism perpetuates, and is perpetuated by, racial prejudice. Racial prejudice is an internal bias against the assumed racial characteristics of other individuals. Racism and racial prejudice have a synergistic relationship where each concept affirms the presence of the other. Prejudices become normalised through the institutionalised discourses of a racist society, and racism – as a system of benefits – is enshrined through the normed language and practices of individuals and the social institutions through which they act.
Racial discrimination is borne from individual prejudice and is endorsed, to varying degrees, through a racist society. Racial discrimination can be described as actions which intrude upon the rights of an individual, or to limit or obstruct, their access to socio-cultural benefits and resources, based upon their assumed ‘racial designation.’ I find, when most people say “that’s racist,” they’re not describing a system of racial superiority that legitimises racial discrimination; they are actually talking about instances of racial discrimination.
The purpose of this post is to emphasise the importance of understanding and using terms associated in race that help us to understand the implications of race and power in our society. If we are to combat increases in racial prejudice and discrimination, which can lead to more robust and oppressive forms of institutionalised racism, we need to use clear terms that promote a common understanding and that allow us to challenge others’ claims, and our own assumptions, that – either implicitly or explicitly – promote racism.