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Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society. As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475). So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination). Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:
- Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
- Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
- Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).
When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play. Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life. We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play. This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society. And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.
Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:
Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).
The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism. By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism. Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.
In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job. This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination? was that because I’m Latina?” Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play. That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).
Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions. Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed. This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.
Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment
I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment. It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic. I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur. And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace. So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.
My optimism is a gift. And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment. An example:
I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago. Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other. I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse. (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.) I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days). I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me. With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out. Two people were ahead of me in line. I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later? Oh, you can pay for this then.” Such trust. And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.” It is what it is in this racist country.
Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line. I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer. Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior. The other customer began checking out. The person who cut in line did not check out with her. She did not move behind me upon seeing me. I became angry. “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?” I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully. My anger started to beat out my logic. I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention. Nothing. With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable. Nothing. She checked out. I checked out.
Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction. I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on. I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van. An opportunity for revenge! I stood in the way of their exit. I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times. When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line. Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.
The entire event disappointed me. Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism? And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me. Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation? But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction). We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?” And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.
The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.” Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive. Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.
I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people. But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person. I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.