The spectrum of racism
We all experience and acknowledge racism to varying degrees. Whether it’s anecdotal moments, ad-hoc interventions or opportunities to influence structural constructs, I need to do what I can do. I acknowledge my privilege and I acknowledge the role that I need to play in helping to dismantle racism in everyday life.
As part of my learning process, I thought it would be useful to unpack the spectrum of racism. Not as a way to magically solve racism in South Africa or globally, but rather to understand the nuanced nature of it.
I read a great line that said: “you can’t treat an issue you can’t explain”. I am going to introduce an explanation (in 2 parts) that may be useful.
Racism is race prejudice plus the misuse of power by systems and institutions.
Joseph Barndt acknowledges that this definition doesn’t belong to him, but is rather a summary of many similar views. He goes on to say that racism is more than race prejudice; it is more than individual attitudes and actions. Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group.
Racial prejudice becomes racism when one group’s racial prejudices are enforced by the systems and institutions of society, giving power and privilege to the racial group in power and limiting the power and privilege of the racial groups that are not in power.
Power, obviously, is a subjective word. It’s a triggering word here in South Africa because there is a disparity in the concepts of political power vs economic power. When I refer to racism here, I am primarily referring to economic power, which sits firmly in the hands of white men, who happen to control a lot of the structure on which racism in our country is built. Politics, in this context, is noise.
Another useful consideration when trying to understand racism is understanding who benefits.
Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas. Racist ideas make White people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.
While we’re defining racism, let’s not forget to define white privilege. The denial of privilege in a broad part of our population is in itself holding back our ability to make the necessary reparations.
White privilege is the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally, white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.
To start, let’s consider racism on a spectrum as opposed to a binary construct. A useful set of dimensions could be “accountability” and “acknowledgement”. This construct is useful to us as it will help us to understand the extent of the task at hand.
Dimension 1 — Accountability
It’s so easy to palm off accountability of racism to the shadows of the past. Apartheid, slavery, colonialism are all “things of the past”. We forget about the very real structural constructs that still exist, accompanied by an undercurrent of white nationalism and an unwillingness to change. We look to government constructs or other people to solve societal issues, forgetting who puts politicians in power and who drives economies. Us.
Dimension 2 — Acknowledgement
Whether it’s blind ignorance, apathy or an active acknowledgement of racism in our society, our awareness of the issues surrounding racism can guide what we need to do. It’s not just about the acknowledgement of racism, but the acknowledgement of racism as a scourge of society and that there is great power in an equitable, diverse and inclusive society.
Mapping the dimensions
The Basic model: dimensions mapped
Where zero accountability and a broad acknowledgement of racism meet, we have active racism. People that know and understand the effects and causes of their beliefs, but choose to believe and actively pursue paths that keep this way of life as the status quo. It is also where environmental, societal and governance (ESG) structures are built to serve specific groups of people only.
Ignorant racism is both unaware of the effects of racism, but also unwilling to do anything, they’re seemingly comfortable with their status quo. They typically live comfortably in environments set up by active racism. It’s this bubble that keeps them detached.
Blind racism is potentially one of the hardest to identify. It’s uncomfortable accountability of racism and prejudice but favouring detachment. A world where all people are equal and should have the same opportunities in life — they just aren’t doing anything about it.
Trying to make a difference, the people who understand the wrongs of the past so that they can try and help define the way of the future by actively intervening in racist acts and trying to dismantle racist structures.
Identifying the Stereotypes
Now for a little controversy. We all know the “I’m not a racist” (but willing to do nothing to prove it) person, or the “I don’t see colour” person, who thinks that if they pretend that race doesn’t exist, then racism won’t. I mapped out some stereotypes based on the mapped quadrants.
Identifying the work
Understanding the spectrum, and where people fit gives us an understanding of what kind of work is necessary to affect change. For instance: blind racists need to understand the purpose behind what to do and also need to understand that “seeing colour” is not racist. Ignorant racists may need education and clarity.
This is part of my process. I am a strategist by trade so building mental models is a practice that helps me to understand complex situations and to explain them. That’s all this is — a model. It’s is not a solution to racism nor is it pretending to encapsulate the layered nuanced world of it. It is a lens through which it makes sense, to me.
I do hope you find it useful.
- Racism is a charged issue. Feedback and contributions are necessary and welcome.
- This is not a silver bullet solution to racism, it’s a lens.
- This is a WIP (work in progress) designed to highlight some principles and actions needed to tackle racism.
- I have written this from the context of a white male in South Africa. I acknowledge my privilege and I’m fully aware that my views do not represent other’s. I am also fully aware that my view and understanding of the devastating consequences of racism is not from experience, but exposure.
- This is not an attempt to sanitise or academicise the issue of racism.
- This is not about who or what is at fault — although politically, economically, systemically and culturally we have mountains to move.
Some of the books that I have found educational and inspiring
- Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. Penguin, 2019.
- Barndt, Joseph. Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America. 48665th edition, Fortress Press, 2007. (affiliate link)
- DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. 1st edition, Penguin, 2019.
- Eddo-Lodge, Reni. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race: The Sunday Times Bestseller. 1st edition, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
- Kendi, Ibram X. How To Be an Antiracist. 1st edition, Vintage Digital, 2019.
- Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2019.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Bello, 2014.