Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Redefining Racism

Martha Barry, racial justice programmer at the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, defines racism as "prejudice plus privilege plus power to oppress." The mission of the YMCA of GM is to "eliminate racism and empower women."

Let's take a look at that definition of racism. Prejudice plus privilege plus power. Prejudice alone does not make one a racist according to Barry's definition. One must also have privilege and power.

So what is privilege? Can a black person have privilege? Can a woman? Do all white people have privilege? Where does it come from? Can it be transferred to someone else? Can it be eliminated? Who should eliminate it? Can privilege be eliminated without the use of power? Since power is a component of racism, and racism is bad and should be eliminated, should we elimate power? Given the association of power to racism, why would the YWCA want to empower women?

As for me, I will stick with Webster's definition of racism which is "the assumption that the characteristics and abilities of an individual are detirmined by race and that one race is biologically superior to another."

By redefining racism, Barry by definition lets members of certain races off the hook for being racists. The goal of the YWCA seemingly is to shift power from one race to another. If successful, would this end racism? Aren't we just changing who the racists are? Or are we to assume that a newly empowered and privileged race, lets say black people, would be less likely to be racist than whites?

Perhaps newly empowered blacks and women wouldn't be as racist as white people. But if we assume that upfront, aren't we believing that blacks and women are morally superior to whites and men, since they will be able to resist the temptations of power while white people, or empowered and privileged people, continue to oppress?

Is the YWCA meeting the Webster's definition of racism?


Anonymous said...

The horse you are beating is not only dead, it has been cremated. Argument framed, dissentors racist. Next issue -

Conscious Thought said...

yes, next issue, please...hurry up before Caledon starts wasting his/her time stalking my comments again!

Kevin Lockett said...

The point of linking power to a definition of race is not to let minorities off the hook. Rather, such a definition acknowledges that, because of the history or racism and the power structure in this country, a prejudiced minority and a prejudiced white are not the same thing. Both are wrong, but not identical. Such a definition also acknowledges that racism does not just exist on an individual basis. It is very collective. So, while not all individual whites have "power" they are part of a collective power structure.

Rich said...

"Both are wrong, B U T not identical." (emphasis added)

@KL- Qualifiers like this may appear to some to be an excuse to let racist minorities off the hook.

Seems better to take the high road; call it all wrong, and focus on the real issue of addressing all racism, not just the unpopular kind.

(OBTW, before you fire back, I'm pro AA and have my mother's [God rest her soul] NAACP pin on a pedestal at home.)

Mixter said...

After reading the entire piece, I don't take away the idea that she's redefining racism.

Seriously, Denis -- learn to link to the stuff to which you refer! :) It's simple; I'll even help you if you like!


Denis Navratil said...

Kevin, thanks for your comments. Since "racism does not just exist on an individual basis" and is "very collective" and though "not all individual whites have "power" they are part of a collective power structure"...

Kevin, why stop there? It must be true that all whites are racist, being a part of the racist collective power structure, and no blacks are racist because they are on the outside looking in. Go ahead, just say it, or write it.

Is it any wonder why we are a nation of cowards? The argument is rigged. Whites have to acknowledge their racism, repent, make ammends etc... or else.

Denis Navratil said...

Mixter, I didn't think that the point of the article was to redefine racism, but redefine it she did. You are right about the link problem. If you think you can guide me through the process, I am up for it. For that matter, any FR readers similarly annoyed can call me. 262-752-1451 is my number and I just might be home a good portion of today.

Anonymous said...

The definition of empower is not the same as power. The subtle difference is perhaps beyond your blunt perceptions.

Picking on the YWCA? Don't you have better things to do?

Rich P said...

"Picking on the YWCA? Don't you have better things to do?"

#1. Racism is real. And worthy of being addressed.

#2. Actually he's doing the YWCA a big favor, similar to telling someone that they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe. I know I'd welcome suggestions for improvement.

#3. Free, civil, respectful discussions on the topic should help.

Props to DN for raising the issue.

Kevin Lockett said...

Wow, forgot to check the "email follow-up comments" box.
I'm not saying that all whites are racist. Again, you're thinking on an individual level. I'm making the argument that white America is a collective power structure. You're interpreting that as a judgment on individuals. That's the same as if I said "the average Texan owns 1.3 guns" and you accused me of calling all Texans murderers. All I'm saying is that this power structure exist, and it impacts the cause and effect of prejudice from all communities.

Rich, I agree that we have to address all kinds of prejudice. However, it seems that you are acknowledging that there are various kinds. So, if we're to address these various kinds of prejudice, it stands to reason that we need to understand what they are and what makes them different so that we can develop appropriate approaches.

If a poor urban black youth says that he hates whites because they want to screw over blacks, and a suburban white thinks he can call blacks the n-word because they're inferior, and a poor white hates Latinos because he thinks immigrants are the cause of all his problems, and we have laws that cause minorities to be OVERrepresented in prison, we can't address all those issues the same way. Part of understanding this is discussing the role power - both individual and collective - play in prejudice and racism.

Rich said...

"Rich, I agree that we have to address all kinds of prejudice."

@KL- I feel ya, but then why support a very narrow definition? Especially when it can make you appear to be giving some people a free pass. It seems to contribute to an Us vs Them mentality, when assimilation cultures and appreciation of diversity seems more productive (at least to me).

IMHO, the cause doesn't need the negative press. 'The message' can be improved.

Even the accidental appearance of giving a free pass should be avoided if possible.

But I could be wrong, I often am.

Kevin Lockett said...

Rich, I guess it just comes down to balancing the risk. On the one hand, you don't want to risk ignoring when minorities are prejudice against the dominant group. On the other hand, if you refer to all forms of prejudice as the same, you run the risk of ignoring the important differences and the role that power structures play.

Rich P said...

"I guess it just comes down to balancing the risk."

IMHO balancing the risk seems to resemble: "I'll let you get away with it as long as I can appear as if I'm not ingnoring reverse prejudice."

IMHO that's eeerily too close to, "You get a free pass until you are a politcical liability."

Again, I hear ya. No one can afford to completely alienate their political power base. But just as the GOP gets a bad name from haters amoung us; so too can your cause.

Just sayin...maybe calling out all of the haters could do you some good.

And yes, touche, I have to do the same in my own conservative circles too. Glass houses being what they are...

Kevin Lockett said...

I'm not saying "don't call them out." It's just that, when I think about black people that don't like white people, you're not going to change them with the same approach that you'd use for white racist. It's two different problems with two different solutions. If we lump them together as the same thing, we'll only solve one half of the problem.

Rich said...

So, in other words, what Martha Barry meant to say is that "One of the many various forms of racisim is prejudice plus privilege plus power to oppress." ??

Kevin Lockett said...

Now your getting into semantics. Some prefer to call only prejudice + privilege + power racism.

When you think about what the word "prejudice" literally means (prejudging a person because they are part of a certain group) and then look at racism in it's historical context (an excuse for the oppression, enslavement, and colonization of people of color around the world, that later morphed into a sudo-scientific justification on white supremacy), this definition makes sense.

But what's really happening here is that when you and I use words like "racism" or "prejudice," we're not using the same definitions, so it comes off as if we're disagreeing.

Also, try to understand why, again considering the historical context, it may be difficult for minority groups to use the same word to describe prejudice from within their communities as oppression from outside.

Denis Navratil said...

KL, if we are to have meaningful conversations about race and racism, it seems to me that a prerequisite would be agreement on the meaning of words. Why not just use the dictionary? Why tamper with the meaning of easily understood words?

I agree that historically blacks have suffered far more as a result of prejudice and racism than any other people in this country, but that is hardly a sufficient reason to change the meaning of words.

So yes, it is semantics. It is semantics brought on by people who are tampering with the definition of the word racism. Now you offer a rather benign explanation for the change in meaning. Fair enough, but I believe that a sizeable number of people use the redefinition as a sort of blunt rhetorical weapon, attempting to put white people on the defensive, to achieve political goals, to change the balance of power as they see it etc...

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