Racism has been defined by this simple equation: racial prejudice plus systemic institutional power.
Along with this equation goes the argument, “people of color can’t be racist because they don’t have the power to oppress.” That is, in order to be a racist, you must be able to oppress persons socially? So, if you are a socially colored black person who abuses a socially colored white person because of their ‘race’, you are not a racist because you are not oppressing them? Well, what are you doing and why is it somehow not as bad as oppression?
It seems that there is a hierarchy of offenses when it comes to race and abuse is acceptable depending upon who is the recipient. Such an argument suggests that while the action is inappropriate, it is understandable. It is not as bad because it didn’t happen to the whole group.
But, I disagree with the definition cited above. While racism is systemic, it begins with us as a system is built one person at a time. To suggest that because it is widespread and affects millions of this cultural group but not millions of another– because of race– is prejudice. Racism is a personal sin that is practiced communally. Racism is individual acts of unkindness, hatred, violence and familial, educational, ecclesial, economic and political isolation. Consequently, anyone can be a racist.
So, what qualifies a person to be a racist?
1. If you believe that you know a person and their societal worth based on the social coloring of skin, then you are a racist.
2. If you believe that one’s inferiority and supremacy is determined by the social coloring of skin, then you’re a racist.
3. If you believe that without race, human beings can know nothing of themselves or others, then you are a racist.
A racist is one who believes in the supremacy of race above all other truths– social or otherwise. She and he use their personal power to create a world wherein they can only see persons as oppressed and oppressor. And if they do not have the systemic power to oppress, then they utilize their personal power for the purpose of micro-oppression (Roger E. Olson writes about it in A Few Words About Oppression. These micro- oppressions are small in scale but impactful nonetheless: silence, distance, separation, hate, jealousy and the like.
It is not just in the obvious transgressions of history or that of present hate crimes. It is in the little things that we say about “those people.” Those are hate crimes too.
It is a painful truth but an obvious reality in our world that the sin of racism has infected us all, that there is a little bit of racist in each of us. God, deliver us from race. Amen.