Dissent: Understanding the definition of racism

By Terimarie Degree

Member of MSAB

This article is in response to the one written by Carolyn Davids [Oct. 26] about the MSAB definition of racism as equaling `power + prejudice.' Davids said she agreed with the first part of the definition but had a problem with the second part. The main objective of this article is to show that not only did she contradict herself because the two parts of the definition actually say the same thing except using different words, but also that she simply misinterpreted the definition. Her appeals and claims that followed clearly displayed a lack of involvement and huge ignorance pertaining to the specifics of handling the problem of race relations here at Calvin.

First we should look at what Davids says she agrees with and what she dismisses about the definition. Not only does she agree with the first part but she deems it ``wonderful, all-encompassing, and something that captures the issue very well.'' The first part states: ``Any attitude, action or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of their color. ...Racism is not just a matter of attitudes: actions and institutional structures can also be a form of racism.'' Davids goes on to say that she disagrees with the second part of the definition that states: ``Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions.'' Davids is entitled to her own opinion and can agree or disagree with whatever she would like; however, is it possible to agree with and then disagree with the exact same thing? I don't think it is, but that is precisely what Davids did. The first part of the definition says that racism is carried out through acts of subordination against someone because of their color, while the second part says that racism is carried out against someone because of their color through acts of power. According to Davids, these are different, but according to Webster's New World Dictionary they are one and the same. The word ``subordinate'' means that someone is below another in rank or importance and that someone is under the authority of another person. In other words, to have subordination over someone is to have power over them. I believe the remainder of Davids' claims are unfounded because of this humongous oversight.

Second, due to all of the confusion as to what this definition of racism means, it is apparent that it needs to be explained. The definition says that racism and prejudice are different. Davids took that distinction of the two to mean that one is better, morally and spiritually, than the other. However the definition is not fashioned as a qualifier of morality degrees, rather it is meant to point out dissimilarities. It does not say that people of color (even though Davids ignorantly made this an issue of only blacks and whites) cannot be prejudice, or show hatred, or discrimination based upon race; they in fact can and do. They however cannot be racist because as the definition states, that would require them to posses power over another race and exhibit it against them. Prejudice is wrong just as racism is, yet the two are different: one requires power while the other does not. The truth is that people of color could be guilty of the greatest extent of racism, but the mere fact that they are denied possession of the power that is required to do so is in itself an effect of racism. Just as Davids' example of sexism being a subset of prejudice in which one gender is preferred over another, I agree when she says that racism is likewise under the umbrella of prejudice. I cannot follow, though, how she can allow for two subsets under this umbrella and no more, or how she can say that the ``-isms'' are not extensions from prejudice. If racism and sexism were the same as prejudice we would not have the terms to make the distinctions. I agree racism is a modifier for a type of prejudice; it a specific type of prejudice, one that uses power over someone due to their race, just as sexism is a specific type used against someone because of their gender.

In personal interactions and on the micro levels of society, a person of color can exhibit racism. In last week's paper, a letter to the editor slightly touched on this point. For example, if a white student attended a high school where the white population was less than 2 percent, they could experience racism because they could be treated differently due to their color not being the same as that of the majority of the school. However, people of color (in the contexts of the United States and more specifically Calvin College) cannot be racist on the institutional or macro levels of society because they do not have the power to do so. Within this same example, the white student who potentially could be a victim of micro level racism can appeal to resources which, due to institutional racism, will lean more in his favor being ran by whites: the school board, the police, the media, etc. Flip the example around and place a child of color in a racial situation at school and the unfairness, the wrongness and the sin of the act is still horrible, but the child of color is left without the same options and without people in power who can do things for the betterment of their situation.

The definition says if the power is accessible to a person of any race, they can be racist. It is a common misconception that racism is only contained within a person or a specific group of people like the KKK. The definition points out racism is a bigger problem that involves how structures of help or service meant for all people can be biased, as in the aforementioned example.

Third, many statements Davids made have no basis. First she had concerns regarding the unfair depiction of white racism in the image of the KKK member. Davids obviously overlooked the MSAB posters that addressed those exact concerns. On one side of the poster was a picture of a KKK member. On the other side was a picture of a racially diverse crowd of young adults wearing business attire. The title above the pictures said ``Pick out the True Racist.'' This expressed the feelings of MSAB toward the image of who practiced racism and the image of who needed to heal from it. Second, she made statements about the media and crime statistics that were completely absurd. How can anyone say that we do not hear about crimes committed by minorities? Most white people who live places where they are not exposed to minorities have misconstrued pictures of them because of the media. People of color are seen as one of two things: criminals or entertainers. That being the case nationwide, how can Davids complain about the specific titles placed on these reports? Is it more unfair that there can be a newscast with 10 crime stories, all of which are about minorities, or 10 crime stories all about minorities which are not specifically labeled hate crime or non- hate crime?

Fourth, she claims that a victim mentality is perpetuated for people of color by this definition of racism. I wholeheartedly disagree! If that were true, Davids would have never had a reason to write her article in the first place because there would not have been an anti-racism week, nor would the MSAB exist, nor would I (an African-American) be writing this article. Very few white people on campus helped make anti-racism week happen and even fewer are members of MSAB. And if Davids thinks that a passive, victimized person of color could have organized the first week in over 125 years of the college's existence dedicated to dealing with race problems within this ``Christian community,'' then she really is clueless about race relations at Calvin. It took action and determination to plead for control of chapel for a week and a space in Johnny's (which was violated at least once), as well as participating in daily events, putting up posters (which were torn down or vandalized), getting the UNLEARN T-shirts made and distributing literature and UNLEARN stickers. If we had been the victims of Davids' portrait, none of this would have gotten done. Calvin went 125 years without it and it could have gone longer. It took people of color to stand up and be the opposite of helpless, pitiful beings to get the job done.

Fifth, this definition is not unchristian, but the resistance to facing the ugly truths about racism is. Being Christian means working around things even if you do not like them or they make you uncomfortable. Obviously Davids misunderstood and so took offense, but we as Christians are instructed to do otherwise. It is more helpful to ask questions when a disagreement comes up rather than to ignorantly make assumptions and negatively critique what are genuine Christian efforts for positive change.

Davids spoke for a lot of people when she said that the MSAB efforts built up walls and caused resentment and anger; she also did that when she said they caused whites to see blacks as ``niggers.'' White students are very scarce in the work toward curing racial issues here at Calvin. Opinions like Davids' are not present to give feedback or suggestions to prevent such negative results. Our message did not judge, yet presentation plays a large role in how anything is interpreted. If people like Davids cared enough to come out of their comfort zones to help with the solution, maybe problems like the ones she mentioned could be solved or at least better avoided.