Sunday, September 12, 2010

So What is Racism?

One of the things I love about the fall semester is that I get to teach Multicultural Education to a group of brilliant seniors (that's in case any of them are reading this). We're discussing some interesting questions -- what is racism? Why are whites the only ones accused of being racist -- can't other people be racist, too?

Quoting David Wellman, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College, defines racism as "a system of advantage based on race."* This definition positions racism as systemic, institutional, and structural, like the practice of redlining I mentioned in my last blog. It follows, according to Tatum, that while anyone can be prejudiced, only whites benefit from the racially based system of advantage that our country was founded on. So, by that definition, only whites can be racist.

Hard to swallow for us white folks, isn't it? Maybe Tatum's definition is too narrow; maybe she's splitting hairs. We all know that when we use the word "racist" we're talking about people AND systems. It does make you think, though, doesn't it?

*For more on this, check out Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

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