Unit 1: Definitions
This 2-3 part unit we are going to gently ease back into the material by beginning with some basic definitions. As we move forward in both understanding the context of the issue and what ordinary people can actually, practically do to change the dynamics of race in this country, it is important that we all have some common understanding of how terms are being used. (For those who use the internet the links is here: https://tools4racialjustice.net/beginnings/definitions/ and https://tools4racialjustice.net/common-definitions/)
So some of the questions I will be addressing are: What is racism or white privilege? Why is white supremacy relevant to us and the nice community groups we occupy or with which we interact? How is the attitude that “I don’t see a person’s color/race and live MLK Jr. axiom to judge people only by the content of their character” problematic? But wait, I’ve had a very hard life, I’ve been very poor, or discriminated against because of my gender or orientation, am disabled, etc., how could I possible be privileged?
The basic, commonly used definition of racism is prejudice with the power to enforce it. However, there are differences in what this actually means and there are a host of other terms used in this work. Like this picture that portray a wide range, a palette of colors (used in ceramic glazes); definitions are nuanced. Just as you see many colors of green, there can be many definitions for “racism” and often the different definitions have distinct uses.
In the summer of 2020, 22 year old Kennedy Mitchum sent an email to Merriam-Webster not expecting any results. “I kept having to tell them that [the then current] definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” she told CNN. “The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice, it’s the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of black Americans.” While no racial group is immune to being or experiencing prejudice, bias or discrimination, racism is any attitude, action, or institutional practice backed up by institutional power that subordinates people because of their skin color. This includes the imposition of one ethnic group’s culture in such a way as to withhold respect for, demean, destroy or co-opt the cultures of other races.
What is meant by institutional racism? Systemic racism and institutional racism is organizational policies and practices at the structural level that indirectly target communities of color and maintain white privilege. This includes racism in the criminal justice system (e.g., police profiling based on race); racism in the educational system (e.g., all-white authors on a course reading list, “masters” in the arts or science all being of European descent), etc.
What about reverse racism? Since the term racism is defined as prejudice with the power to enforce it, and people of color in the US and other countries where European people colonized, don’t have institutional power, they can be bias but not racist. But what about black police officers, or judges or even a President? While they might have more power as an individual then other people, they still actually don’t have control over institutional power. Institutional power exists in the context of who and how it was created, who it was designed to advantage, promote or protect and the stakeholders, people who have to power passively or overtly, to hold other’s accountable for violating the organization’s or institution’s norms.
For example, as we learned in the 1st unit session on Black Codes, Slave Patrols and Policing Today, since the police departments were put in place to catch runaway slaves or protect the white male owning class assets, there is a culture that is still imbued with these attitudes and assumptions. Therefore a police officer of color often can act in even more discriminatory ways then their white counterpart in order to prove they are a legitimate member of the team. Even a President is accountable to the political institution that promoted them, their funding sources and the shadow power of hidden stakeholders. (For those who use the internet the links is here: https://tools4racialjustice.net/the-legacy-of-jim-crow/ which has a video I produced soon after President Barack Obama was elected. The video ends by saying: “The legacy of Jim Crow will not be over with the election of a man of color who is the best and the brightest. The legacy of Jim Crow will only end when average people of color have the same access, opportunities and privileges as average white person. Only then will we be able to create a peaceable world and fulfill our mandate as spiritual beings.” (hint: turn up your sound) More on that in the next session.
In closing I want to share one of the streams of historic Quaker experience of the Divine with the following quote from George Fox: “let not prejudice boil in any of your hearts, but let it be cast out by the power of God, in which is the unity and the everlasting kingdom;” 1658 Epistle. Yet many throughout Quaker history right up to today find it too disruptive to dislodge racism in themselves and our Society. The message has come to me strongly again and again over decades that we are all connected and are part of the same ecological system, that hurt done to others effects everyone’s souls. Immediately following this message comes the query “What does love require of thee”.
Thank-you for being part of this journey,
Comment from a reader:
“Thank you Rachel! I wanted to share something that hit me from one of the links: that race is “an arbitrary and disputed classification of modern humans.”
I liked the word “arbitrary” and the idea that grouping people by race is arbitrary to start with. Then you have people like my half Cape Verdean/half Irish neighbor who is engaged to a fellow of Korean descent. I’m thinking of their future children and how more and more people must have to choose “other” when asked for their race on a form. ”
Great observation Deena!
One objective of the website is to present a wide variety of perspectives of people who genuinely are seeking truth and authenticity on the subject. In various ways we try to convey the fact that we are all one human family. However this reality is often contradicted by how some humans divide up people in what my father used to describe as a “pecking order”.
When I first started working on racism in the late 1990’s, a F/friend and an elderly gentleman from Yarmouth Meeting (Bob Pyle), came to me saying he had a solution to the racism problem. I was curious and he whispered “Its simple, just make it a law that everyone has to marry someone from a different race.” However history shows that it is not a certainly that people of mixed heritage that can pass for white or parents with children of color are immune from racism. It is also not assured that institutions dismantle systems of oppression with changing demographics.
One really, really good piece on this was written by James Varner and I highly recommend reading it: copied below and at https://tools4racialjustice.net/walking-in-my-shoes/. He also speaks to the heart and videos of him can be seen here: https://tools4racialjustice.net/at-the-maine-state-house/
Thank-you so much for being engaged in this seeking!
Walking in my Shoes – by James Varner
By reading the articles in the Healing Racism Toolkit, you have chosen to explore an experience that can change your thinking and interaction with other human beings that seem different from you but if you really, really think about it, we as human beings, are very much alike. We may have, as races, different shades of skin and maybe eye shapes, but underneath our skin we are identical twins — humans, known as mammals and as a species known as Homo sapiens.
Under the skin we have the same organs; hearts, livers, brains, red blood of different types A , B, O etc. Different races can exchange blood as long as they are the same type. Different races can even exchange various organs, heart, liver, kidney, etc. as long as there are other matches like blood typing etc. As mammals different races can reproduce offspring and babies. If our Creator had intended for us to be different, reproduction between the races would not be possible.
What about the terms “black” and “white” that we used to refer to Negroes and Caucasian people? if you would put a black piece of paper next to the average Negro like me I am brown not black however some of our African ancestors in Africa are black. If you put a piece of white paper next to a Caucasian he or she is not white they are pink like the palms of my African or Negro hand. Caucasians should be glad they are not white because if they were they would be very, very sick because they would be what is known as an albino, very sensitive to the sun and light with reddish eyes. So let’s stop with the black and white business that is causing so much hate in our lives. We have no choice of who our parents are, whether we are a Negro or a Caucasian, male or female, gay or straight. What if you were a flea on the ass of a skunk? Wow what a stink!
When you look at me, a man of color, or any human being, say “but for the grace of God there go I”, JV a Negro who has been catching a bit of hell in America for 83 years. They say you never know another person until you walk in that person’s shoes. You know, I really don’t want to have you walk in my shoes because there is so much hurt, daily pain, fear for yourself, your children and loved ones on a daily basis. When you go to sleep at night your prayer is that none of your children or loved ones are victims like Trayvon Martin in Florida or the nine innocent black brothers and sisters murdered in that church in Charleston that included a Reverend and State Representative by a young white man that hated colored people and wanted to start a race war. I have had to run for my life; yes for my life, for my very life, in Maine on two locations when groups of drunken white males wanted to kill me, yes kill me, just because of the color of my skin! Now at 83 years of age, I would just be another person of color killed by sick Whites. White privilege allows this treatment of people of color like me to continue and this is what Black Lives Matter is saying, our lives matter just as much as white lives, the lives of all God’s children matter, all of them, from the cradle to the grave.
Imagine if you were in my shoes as a Negro with three sons of color and one daughter, my dear sweet April Joy, and you heard of the sad, very sad and tragic murder of James Earl Bird a Negro man of color, like me; the same first name as me and skin color in Jasper Texas on his way home to his family. He was grabbed by four drunken white men, one of them he knew. He was tied by his ankles then tied to the back of a truck and driven down the highway until his head was torn from his body. Can you ask yourselves to imagine how he must have pleaded for his life and screamed in pain as he was dragged behind that truck? I can. As a man of color and having had my life threatened on two occasions, I can hear his screams and feel his pain. Why! How can one human being do this to another human being who is really just like themselves and their families and loves one another the only difference being skin color?
Where does this kind of hate and disrespect for another human being come from? Racism. Racism — hate that it is a part of the American lifestyle. Yes, and white privilege which, my white brothers and sisters, you must face up to! Our Healing Racism Toolkit will help you do this!
Love my friends is the answer. After the James Earl Bird murder I cried for four days and couldn’t sleep because what happened to James Earl Bird could happen to me and almost did on two occasions but worst of all this is that it could happen to one of my three sons and even my lovely daughter April Joy Varner. On one of my sleepless nights at about 3 AM I went down to my dining room table and the Lord gave me the pledge to undo racism and discrimination in Maine and America. A copy of this pledge is located here. (https://tools4racialjustice.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Maine-Human-Rights-Personal-Pledge.pdf) Please consider printing it out and posting it in your bathroom or refrigerator and look at it every day. Please consider being a part of the Maine Human Rights coalition, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax exempt organization which I serve on as the volunteer president.
White privilege is something only you can change! it is something me, my children, and brothers and sisters face daily. Examples of this are; being followed in stores because the management thinks we are going to steal something just because we are people of color, being stopped by the police sometimes for no reason, being denied housing in certain areas, being turned away from certain apartments that rent only to whites, being the last hired and first fired, being hired at a lower salary than white counterparts, being jailed at a higher rate than white counterparts (which is the reason people of color like myself make up more that moat more than 50% of the people in our prisons when we do not make up 50% of the population in America.)
It is a very sad fact but one out of every three negro males born in America will serve time in jail. Many of you know that people who serve time in prison lose the right to vote. This is true in many states. People of color convicted of using drugs are 10 times more likely to go to jail and serve time while whites are given a warning and no jail time at all. We have a very broken justice system when it comes to the treatment of people of color. The US Federal Justice Department has discovered that in Chicago and many of our large cities the police department frames innocent negroes of crime scene they never committed. Several years ago the Governor of Illinois did away with the death penalty because innocent negroes were being sentenced to death. This is true also in many States. The US Justice Department has also found that places like in Ferguson and places in the south, negroes were being falsely fined then jailed after they couldn’t pay the fines which increased with time. These innocent brothers and sisters now have prison records for life which has negative effects on them and their families — for life.
I can only hope and pray that you will follow up on what you’ve learned here. I hope you will get others to read this and use the Healing Racism Toolkit. You can make a difference for the betterment of all our lives in America and the world as we help empower that of God in everyone, so vital in the co-creation of the beloved community! God bless.