What’s racist

4 Apr

“That’s racist!” has become a popular mock accusation among adolescents around the SF Bay Area. While slung around half-jokingly, the underlying question I hear these students asking is, “What is racist?”

And no wonder. I think most adults are confused on this one.

Is it racist to use the word “black”? Is it racist to make a joke about your own racial group? How about another racial group? Is it racist even to notice people’s skin color?

I’ve encountered all of these questions and a broad range of perspectives on them. Here’s what I think we overlook when we think about what’s “racist”:

Racism isn’t just individual word choice or even actions. Racism is prejudice backed up by social and institutional power. Racism is group-sanctioned and group-powered, by intention or default. Racism is about a system of inequity, perpetuated by individuals, that treats people (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) differently on the basis of skin color and heritage and that has real impact on opportunity, access and the quality of lives.

While racism is, therefore, always situational and social, I would argue that we need to consider the scope of the situation before we try leveling the charge of “racism” at every group any time they are in the majority. For example, researcher and designer Jen Rhee just sent me this graphic, which poses and responds to the question:

Is tech racist?

Now, maybe your first instinct is something like: Are you kidding me? Do you know how many Asians work in tech?? If anything, it’s the white guys who are being discriminated against! (And yes, I embedded a little bit o’ sexism in there, too.) Even if it’s true that Asians outnumber white people in the tech industry (which I don’t know for a fact–I will say that it seems that a large minority can look like a majority to those who are used to smaller numbers of Asians, people with physical disabilities or LGBTQ folks because there’s a pre-set sense of how big a minority group ought to be), I would argue that the calculus of power is more complex than numbers of bodies. It’s about the status and power those bodies have, and whether there’s equitable access to status and power for all majority and minority groups.

But enough of plain words. Take a look at Rhee et al.’s work. A provocative, well-researched and insightful answer about what is racist.

2 Responses to “What’s racist”

  1. mari stair April 5, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    “Is tech racist?”
    Post-post-racially speaking,

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