You are an hourly worker in a non-union (euphemistically called “right-work-work”) state. Your immediate boss is abusive and unfair often, but in ways that are nearly impossible to prove.
This is your first real job, and you develop a deep resentment for that boss—eventually coming to despise all bosses and people in authority.
That manager uses tactics that workers believe are abusive and unfair because the manager has decided all workers are lazy and unwilling to work without threats and constant authoritarian oversight.
The worker attitude about bosses and the boss attitude about workers are, however, not the same because of the imbalance of power.
In the beginning, I mention “non-union” because unionization grew out of a recognition that an imbalance of power (owners/bosses/managers versus individual workers) was often conducive to abusive working conditions (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle).
Now let’s transfer this workplace dynamic to how people (usually white people) misread racism.
Too often individuals with race or class privilege respond to charges of racism at the individual level: “What about black people who hate white people?” or “What about this white cop shot by a black man? Nobody’s making a fuss about this incident!” or “I am not a racist!”
Decades after his death—and much like the warped legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—Malcolm X lingers in the white psyche as proof of black racism toward whites because of his “white devil” refrain.
And just as my hypothetical workplace scenario above shows, there exists, in fact, whites who reject all blacks simply for being black and blacks who reject whites for being white.
But, as with bosses and workers, several aspects of these facts expose how they are not the same.
The worker above develops antagonism for all bosses based on actually being mistreated by a boss; now this is possibly an unfair overgeneralization, but it is grounded in real evidence.
Black distrust, black anger—these are expressed in the context of real historical and current inequities that give whites privilege and negatively impact the lives of most if not all blacks.
Both white privilege (advantages not earned) and white animosity to all blacks simply for being black (what most people view as “racism”) are primarily grounded in inequitable systems and stereotypes (not credible evidence).
To make understanding racism even harder, we must try to untangle the recognition that race is not a biological fact (and thus, racial tags cannot be used as valid claims that whites are smarter or blacks are faster, etc.), but a social construct.
And here is where, despite that complexity, racism can be better understood.
Racism cannot be proven or disproven by an individual example. One white person refusing to hire one black person does not prove racism (even when it is clearly a racist act); one black man shooting a white police officer does not prove “reverse racism” or disprove racism.
This individual-gaze has made examining racism and admitting racism a persistent social problem in the U.S. Barack Obama being elected president was never proof of a post-racial society because one event cannot prove (or disprove) a systemic reality.
We are left then with some important elements to understanding—and thus, for many whites, resisting and denying—racism.
Racism is systemic, and while race is not a biological fact, it is a social construction that can be relatively easily managed (we can usually see race, or most people believe they can).
That “believe” is important because racism remains a reality because it, like privilege, works mostly in invisible ways.
Yes, some people remain overt in their oafish racism—the KKK, etc.—but most racism occurs along with privilege without people making conscious decisions to be racist (since virtually everyone is aware that “racism” is a negative behavior) or consciously benefitting from their privilege (a person inherits money or parents secure him a nice profession, after which that person genuinely works hard and is very successful; for that person, the initial privilege is invisible).
So let’s think of another parallel: While men certainly can be raped and physically abused just as women can, virtually all women walk around with a pervasive sense of threat to them physically and sexually because men tend to be physically bigger and stronger but also disproportionately have more power and wealth—while men rarely consider the threats of rape or violent attack.
And this is where understanding racism raises the central element of power.
Systemic racism in the U.S. is exclusively white power over black and brown people—just as sexism is exclusively men’s power over women. When black or brown people hate or demonize whites, this is racial, but not racism because black and brown people lack the systemic power to create the large scale consequences that whites can and do for black and brown people.
Despite being well educated, black women in the U.S. on average earn less than white males because of systemic and inequitable forces, racism and sexism.
Just as we can prove and should be able to see sexism in domestic violence data, rape culture, and inequitable workplace pay and promotion, we can prove and should be able to see racism in access to all sorts of opportunities in the U.S. (education, work), inequitable incarceration rates for blacks and shootings by police, and disproportionate underrepresentation in positions of authority.
Denying racism—as with proving racism—cannot be accomplished at the individual level and and cannot be treated as if race is the singular element in racism.
Racism is systemic and about imbalanced power dynamics that can be correlated with socially constructed racial categories.
Privilege and power are inequitably pooled among white straight men, and thus, a key to eradicating all types of inequity—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—is for anyone with privilege to resist denying inequity, especially by focusing on individual examples and by ignoring the central role of power in all types of inequity such as racism.
When confronted with claims of racism, then, “I am not a racist” fails, turning all of the gaze onto the self and thus failing to see—leaving racism both invisible and corrosive.