2 May

Last weekend, “after decades of separate proms for white students and black students, Wilcox County [had] its first integrated prom” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/us/in-rural-georgia-students-step-up-to-offer-integrated-prom.html?_r=0).

Yup, until 2013, Wilcox County had separate “white” and “black” proms (by the way, I’m wondering if there are students in the county who are neither black nor white? Or multiracial black and white? What prom do they attend?)

Here’s what struck me in this story. According to NY Times journalist Robbie Brown:

Wayne McGuinty, a furniture store owner and City Council member, who is white, said he had donated to fund-raising events for both proms in past years and saw no problem with separate proms. They do not reflect racism, he said, but simply different traditions and tastes. When he was a senior in high school, in the 1970s, he said, there were separate proms for those who liked rock music and country music.

Separate proms do not “reflect racism”? It’s just like having different proms for different musical tastes?

What exactly is McGuinty’s definition of racism, I wonder.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how people define racism. Note the responses to Suzy Weiss’ letter “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me”  (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324000704578390340064578654.html). Yes, I am still thinking about this.

Among the comments posted on the Wall Street Journal website:

  • As a 44 year old mom of three, who has experienced the same with our eldest… can I just tell you, Suzy Lee Weiss, I am so proud of you! Stay vocal.
  • You deserve a place at the best colleges with your sense of humor and writing skills.
  • I don’t care where (or even IF) you go to college. You are a WINNER. Anywhere, any place! Go girl – NO ONE will stop you!
  • May I say that several Admissions Officers missed a real jewel when they let you slip by.
  • You write well, are funny and really gifted. And kudos to the WSJ for giving you this forum. I’ll bet there are thousands of kids applauding your grit. ..Good for Everyone involved (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324000704578390340064578654.html?mod=WSJ_article_comments#articleTabs%3Dcomments).

Far too many comments on the WSJ page where this letter appeared support Suzy’s frustration, and therefore, endorse her entitlement (and her skewed sense of history: in her Today show interview, Suzy asserts that “in this day and age, we’re being judged by things we can’t control.” Hmm, as opposed to in the days of slavery, Suzy? Or the days when only men could attend the colleges that rejected you? Perhaps you mean the days when women couldn’t vote in the US?) And according to Suzy, she has received job, internship offers and other rewards for her hate speech her “satire” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/05/suzy-lee-weiss-high-schoo_n_3022159.html).

Yes, there have been some critical responses to Suzy’s letter. For example, “To (All) the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into The College Of Their Dreams” (http://www.racialicious.com/2013/04/10/to-all-the-white-girls-who-didnt-get-into-the-college-of-their-dreams/) and this comment post in the WSJ:

When this is read as if it were satire it’s hysterical. Since these are Ms. Weiss’ real opinions I worry for her. Judging her based on these opinions, just like admissions officers judge applicants based on personal statement as well as achievements, it is no wonder why she was not accepted at her top choice schools.

This is a great example of “yes, and…” thinking. The question is not whether this letter is satire. The question is how can this letter be read (because text is never just about intention; it’s about interpretation as well). So rather than argue what it is, I’m interested in considering all of its impacts.

But by and large the responses to Suzy’s letter that I have found sidestep or downplay the racism and homophobia of what she wrote. Case in point: Suzy’s Today show interview (accessible through the Huffington Post link above). Notice how the interviewer softballs her questions and doesn’t hold Suzy accountable for effectively saying: kids with two moms and kids of color categorically don’t earn their college acceptances. According to Suzy, while other students work hard (whether sincerely or just to look good on paper), these two groups skate by on their overwhelming privilege. And the polite interviewer smiles as she listens to Suzy speak glibly about how “diversity is great, but…”

Krystie Yandoli of the Huff Post embodies this fear of naming the homophobic, racist elephant in the room in her observation:

While Weiss’s letter attempts to lightheartedly address the competitive nature of the college admissions process for high school students, some argue it contains hints of underlying racist and offensive comment.

Some argue? Hints?

I’m tired of the implication that racism is a matter of opinion, and it all depends on your point of view. While there is debate about how to define racism, there is also agreement about what constitutes racism at the core. And anyone who uses, considers, fears, rejects or otherwise engages passively or actively with the word “racism” has a responsibility to educate themselves and think critically and intentionally about its definition.

Here’s how I break it down:

Bias is an inevitable inclination towards or against a group of people, based on innate hard-wiring, personal experience and cultural norms, that we can choose how to act on.

The key here is that bias is human and unavoidable. However, acting out a bias in our relationships and encounters with other people is a choice. One that we can only consciously make and alter if we admit our biases.

Prejudice is a bias that has become, consciously or unconsciously, one’s default valuation of and attitude toward a specific group of people.

Circumstance can facilitate prejudice. For instance, the college application process, which is stressful and competitive, can encourage a bias to manifest as an explicit behavior (like writing an open letter) or an implicit attitude (like believing that separate proms aren’t at all racist. The prejudice behind separate proms doesn’t need to be visceral hate. It suffices to believe that, of course, “they” won’t like it “here” with “us.”)

Discrimination is the attitude and practice of a bias, whether by default or conscious choice, to advantage some over others.

Suzy’s letter is discriminatory in that she glibly perpetuates the idea that minorities enjoy unfair perks while acting as if her own unfair advantages (ex. her sister works for the WSJ) are just. This is the definition of entitlement: believing that your privileges are your right.

To be clear, discrimination works in any direction. In the case of separate black and white proms, each event discriminates by allowing only some students to attend, based simply on racial identification.

Racism is the perpetuation of a social bias, whether by default or conscious choice, to advantage one racial group and its culture through systemic actions and permission.

What distinguishes racism from racial discrimination is that racism has institutions and cultural norms backing it up, whereas discrimination just needs someone to act on a prejudice. Racism is not an individual act. It’s a whole system of prejudice, facilitated by individuals, cultures and institutions.

The debate about defining racism is whether this is a better definition:

Racism is the perpetuation of a social bias, whether by default or conscious choice, to advantage white people and their culture through systemic actions and permission.

In other words, is racism about white privilege, as opposed to any “empowered” racial group’s privilege?

I tend to take a macro level perspective: when I survey the distribution of power globally, yes racism advantages white people. And even when it appears locally that white people are not the dominant group, colonialism, internalized racism and prejudice in favor of white culture and norms are evident. Take South Korea, for example. While I wouldn’t argue that white people are the majority or dominant group there, an advantaging of and deference to whiteness is evident in the country’s politics and culture.

Again, this is the debate, so we can disagree on this point. But notice that the debate is who benefits from racism, not whether or not racism is a systemic level of oppression. So the question of whether or not something is racist should have a common basis for consideration. Sort of like whether or not something is capitalist. Yes, we can debate this, and our debate can and should have different interpretations and perspectives of a concept that isn’t just relative: it also has a denotation that we both have to negotiate.

Back to segregated proms and letters of entitlement. By entertaining what’s racist or homophobic as being a matter of opinion, we as a nation collectively give permission for racism and homophobia to rage on. And so I urge us all to be intentional, clear and inclusive of denotation and common connotations when we talk about -isms so that we can have a conversation that isn’t just talk but that potentially helps us understand and create social justice.

** Thanks to my colleague SK for the prom article.

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