My unapologetic intention when I teach is to open students' minds to ideas they may not have previously considered. If this sounds like something scary, keep in mind that the whole process of socialization--from birth--is exactly and nothing more than this. We're not born "gendered," for example; the attempt is made to carefully and with great intent turn us into "little girls" and "little boys"--for life. Similarly, one of the perfectly understandable difficulties with our legislative system is that virtually all of those who make it to Washington were born rich and have really no clue in Hell what the rest of us--the vast majority of U.S. citizens--are dealing with.
Anyway, by the time most young people get to college, they've had at least 18 years of non-stop exposure to the "party line." By this, I don't mean necessarily a particular political view, although that can certainly be part of it. What I mean is that this nation was founded on principles that are very, very intrinsic to its nature and pretty much consistent to the present. And youth being raised up under these principles and impressed with their veracity come to see them as the only way to think. This is what many people call a "world view." Every society has one.
Now, if the principles in question were the principles we hear touted all the time when people are running for office or selling a war--principles such as truth, peace, and freedom--there wouldn't be a problem. And I'd probably be somewhere rocking on a porch. But from the inception of this nation, we have talked out one side of our national mouth and barked orders out of the other without seeming to recognize or care that those to whom we are barking the orders are not confused about our motives one iota.
We rave about truth while telling huge and malicious lies and then simply shrug when confronted with reality. We smarm about freedom and have the hands-down worst reputation of all time for forcing our will on anyone who will stand still for it and literally millions who have fought us to the death (such as the Native Americans)--allies and enemies alike. And we pontificate sanctimoniously about peace while having built and maintained our nation on the back of a military machine that began with men shooting other men in the back from behind trees and has now become a force that will go down in history with the most infamous and misguided despotic societies that ever existed.
So it is that people who have been raised under this system have learned to say that they believe in one thing, and yet actually live their lives out very pointedly in directions that manifest something totally different. Such as, on one hand, screeching "just say no to drugs" at the top of our lungs, while popping every imaginable substance--prescription, street, or otherwise--at every imaginable opportunity. Whether it's crack, valium, Jack Daniels, or Starbucks, we espouse one theory and live another.
Similarly, people in the United States, and most particularly European-Americans, spout a supposed belief in "equality," whatever we think that is, while being unconscionably comfortable with the greatest gaps (between rich and poor, between White and Black) of any industrialized nation of the world. And we are so committed to this idealized belief in equality--as opposed to the actual practice of it--that people who look like me purport to be stunned when presented with the idea that the equal treatment does not, in fact, exist, however well documented this reality may be.
One way to protest or mask the reality of racial oppression and its ramifications is to use the word "racism" to mean any prejudicial attitude by anyone of any "race" anywhere who feels superior in any way to someone of a different "race." That way, a European-American can point at an African-American who has buckled under his or her grief, frustration, and discouragment, finally becoming filled with bitterness and maybe even hatred toward the White establishment and those it privileges--and call that person of color a "racist." Which, in turn, allows White folks to declare, "See--anyone can be a racist."
The reason this doesn't hold for me is that, to start with, as I mentioned before (see "'Black.White.' Part Two or Keep My Name Out Your Mouth," March 4th), Europeans expressly constructed the very concept of "race" in the first place. And they didn't do it to make it easier to identify someone in a crowd either. They did it to create a hierarchy wherein people that look like me would automatically get the most of the best and the least of the worst--primarily by stealing from everybody else in one way or the other--while whoever was left got what they could, if anything. This was done for the purpose of making a very specific group of Europeans extremely rich. And White-controlled science, White-controlled law, and White-controlled religion worked together to legitimate this construct by announcing in no uncertain terms that White folks are superior to all other peoples on the face of the earth.
In other words, the very social construction of "race" itself was the act of White oppressors for the purpose of exploiting and dominating people of color. Having gone that far, some Europeans took their grandiose new status and proceeded to immigrate to North America, dragging with them millions of Africans, who they brutally and violently forced to build a new nation from the ground up for the benefit of its White citizens. It goes without saying, of course, that all of this new nation's social institutions, then, were originally established and have been continuously maintained by those with the power to define the culture--White people and those they allow into the inner circle.
This has not changed to date. We no longer drink at separate water fountains, it's true. But African-Americans, as a rule and across the board, because they don't have the power to do anything about it, are still paid less than White folks, own less than White folks, are more likely to be unemployed than White folks, are more likely to go to jail than White folks, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And most White folks are convinced that this is because people of color are, in fact, inferior. Let me repeat that: most White folks, yes, most White folks believe that people of color are, in fact, inferior. Even as they say, "I don't see color. I just see everyone as a human being," by which they mean, they don't intend to acknowledge all the studies showing how exploited and dominated people of color still are in the United States because the White speaker has already decided that Black people's problems are the result of Black people's inferiority. "Some of my best friends are Black," they will say, while discounting what African-Americans themselves say about the quality of their lives in the good old U.S. of A.
This rampant perception that people of color are inferior creates such a mindset that it's actually part of our national world view. We've taught ourselves to believe it for so long that we now think it's the natural truth. And to make matters worse, we've taught people of color to believe it, as well, in the face of overwhelming documentation to the contrary. Why do you think we dare not treat "African-American history" as a regular part of the history curriculum in this country rather than just breaking out Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech once a year in February? If people of color understood clearly who they are and what has been done to them, they would have long since burned this country down. And if White people were taught the truth of this nation's history and their own participation in and benefit from practices of White power and privilege, it would humble them so much that they might not recover.
Consequently, I (and I am not alone here) don't believe that it's possible for a person of color to be a racist. A Black person can be prejudiced against members of other groups, can be mean-spirited, can be cruel, can be hateful, can even be dangerous to members of other groups, but they have never had the power in the United States to define the nature of their own lives and therefore, to me, they're just being prejudicial, mean-spirited, cruel, hateful, and dangerous. The erroneous belief in White superiority and the inferiority of all others is directly responsible for the racist oppression that is entrenched and lethal in its daily application to the lives of people of color in this country today. It's no wonder African-Americans don't like White people. And since White people chose to construct the category of "race" in the first place specifically to gain from the denigration and destruction of other's lives, only White people, in my opinion, then, can be "racist."