From October 3, 2003: Who can be racist

On the John

Forrest Gump, seen here pondering race relations in America.
Forrest Gump, seen here pondering race relations in America.

Who can be racist

Originally published in the Indiana Daily Student on October 3, 2003

For the past three weeks, many letters have been sent to the IDS concerning race relations at IU and in America. Exchanges like these between whites and non-whites are important because honest discussion between people of different racial backgrounds is the first step toward solving America’s racial problem. Oftentimes, whites do not feel comfortable talking about race because they do not want to be labeled “racists.” The honest arguments by white people are commendable, because by joining the discussion they will discover more about themselves and those they discuss. But in order to communicate clearly, we must first define all terms that are being used.

One of the biggest misunderstandings in discussions of race-relations is due to the ambiguity of the term “racism.” Many white people get frustrated with the concept that people of color cannot be racist. To say that black people cannot be prejudiced toward white people or other races is foolish. No one is saying that black people cannot be bigots. They can. But when people talk about power and use the term “racism,” they are using a very specific definition: prejudice plus power equals racism.

In other words, due to the power structure in America, white people have power behind their words and actions that minorities do not have.

Look at the power of racial slurs. Most racial slurs directed toward white people are for small, defined groups. “Rednecks,” “white trash,” and “trailer trash” define only poor whites. “Kike,” “polack,” and “wop” are among the words that break white people into smaller ethnic groups and thus cannot be applied to all white people. The only words I can think of that apply to all white people are “honkey” and “cracker,” and those are more humorous than insulting.

But think of the power of the word “nigger.”

That word carries a great deal of power because of the oppressive actions of white people toward black people in America. Most Americans would agree that the terms “honkey,” “cracker,” and “nigger” are not equal in their hatefulness. When was the last time you heard a white person upset because a person of color used the “h-word” around him? Words only have meaning because people give them meaning, and the power structure in America, along with the history of white oppressiveness, can make one word more powerful than the other.

It does not mean that every white person who utters a racial slur wants to kill or enslave black people. In the same way, every person who uses the word “faggot” or “fag” may not actually hate gay people. But those words carry meanings whether people like it or not, and that must be recognized.

If we are ever going to solve the race problem in America, white people have to accept the fact that white people owned slaves and that the repercussions of slavery are still felt today. It is impossible to make dead slave owners face the consequences of their actions, yet consequences must be faced by someone. Who does that leave?

This has all been rather harsh and probably insulting to the white letter writers who I have indirectly linked to severe incidents of racism. Based on their letters, I do not think they are hateful individuals. They are just among the large majority of white America and they do not understand or acknowledge the advantages they have as white people. Like Chris Rock once said, “No white person would ever trade places with me, and I’m rich.”

Copyright 2003, jm silverstein

Jordan River Forum (IDS letters to the editor) from Oct. 7, 2003

Jordan River Forum from Oct. 14, 2003


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