“Racism is the belief that there are inherent differences in people's traits and capacities that are entirely due to their race, however defined, and that, as a consequence, racial discrimination is justified.” In 2008, hip-hop video blogger Jay Smooth, formally John Randolph, posted a vlog discussing a strategic way of calling someone out for sounding or acting racist. Known as a minor star for bringing thoughtfulness to blogging and hip-hop, Smooth posts videos on his website, Ill Doctrine, about his nuanced take on the music industry and politics. He makes a point of being not just good-humored and defiant, but also explicitly feminist and anti-discriminatory in his videos – qualities evident in his video “How to Tell People They Sound Racist.” In today’s mainstream society, there are two funny misconceptions about race – the notion that race is a natural, biological phenomenon and that racism as a form of discrimination is an obsolete problem; his video reminds us that this is certainly not the case.
No society is composed of genetically “pure” people. In spite of this, members of society have a tendency to rank themselves into hierarchies based on race, with one race assumed to be superior to the others. Traditionally in Eurocentric societies, white has been ranked higher than black or other categories in a pseudo-evolutionary scale, leading to the justification of slavery, colonization, economic and social exploitation, and genocidal policies. It is now understood that humans do have great phylogenetic variability, but we are in fact only one race – human. If we know that race is not a biological phenomenon, we must understand that race is a social construct. A social construct “is ontologically subjective in that the construction and continued existence of social construct are contingent on social groups and their collective agreement, imposition, and acceptance.” In other words, we must understand that…
There is nothing absolute or real about social constructions in the same way as there is something absolute and real about rocks, rivers, mountains, and in general the objects examined by physics. For example, the existence of a mountain is not contingent on collective acceptance, imposition, or agreement. A mountain will exist regardless of people thinking, agreeing or accepting that it does exist. Unlike a mountain, the existence of race requires that people collectively agree and accept that it does exist.
Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg argues that our daily lives are affected by race, whether we are aware of it or not. Right down to mundane everyday activities, we are advantaged or disadvantaged based on our skin-color, the only visible ‘indicator of difference’ and the sole aspect that defines our concept of ‘race’. Despite popular belief that racism as a form of discrimination is no longer an issue in modern society, one need look no further than public policy, wealth distribution in the US, immigration laws, and our own everyday experiences to see that racism is still a problem. Peggy McIntosh writes of an interesting angle to racism, known as White Privilege. She points out that, as a white North American citizen, we are taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but taught not to recognize aspects that put us at an advantage. She says, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” To make her point more clear, she begins to list the ways in which she enjoyed ‘unearned skin privilege’ including;
Ø I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
Ø When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
Ø I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
Ø I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
Ø I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
To ignore the fact that racism exists is to ignore these aspects that I take for granted each and every day and, much like McIntosh, I was not even aware of such advantages. Nevertheless, by understanding race as a social construct and becoming aware of the advantages and disadvantages caused by racism, we can begin to dismantle it. One way to overcome racism on an institutional level is to address public policies and private attitudes that perpetuate it – awareness is key, which is the goal of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On an individual level, just as Jay Smooth says, it is almost inevitable that you are going to have to call someone out for sounding/acting racist, and to do that you have to be aware of avoiding the “rhetorical Bermuda triangle ‘what-they-are’ conversation.” We have to make sure that we are holding each person accountable for the impact of his or her words and actions. As for members of the “dominant race,” we must always be aware of our subject position and what we do with the knowledge is an “open question [of] whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily-awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.”