There is so much uncertainty about racism because we have not been consistent in the language used to describe these things. We throw terms and coined phrases around, but for the actual discussion of race relations and prejudice in this country we have to be very specific. Discrimination in this country is so nuanced and entrenched that we must be clear on what we’re saying and what we mean when we decide to address it. Otherwise we corrupt the language necessary to describe the nuances racial prejudice.
The term racism is often used when we mean racial prejudice. Racism in its truest form is simply the belief that race determines certain traits and capacities about a person. For example, believing that all Asian people are smarter than people of other races. However, often when we use the term racism what we are really referring to racial prejudice or racial discrimination. Although the two terms are slightly different we do not always make the distinction and there lies the confusion.
Prejudice, whether used as a verb or a noun, is related to the outcome of preconceived notions (this does not have to be an action). Prejudice is the behavior and beliefs associated with having preconceived notions about a group or individual. For example, a woman grabs her purse when a young man steps onto the elevator or an employee following a person around a store. These notions can be based on race, gender, or religion, but they regardless of the basis the acts are discriminatory. Racial prejudice is an ideology that believes certain prejudicial. An ideology may inspire actions and behaviors but it is not specifically that behavior. For example, if a person believes that a college education is necessary and important to life and success would be an ideology. A person would not need to have gone or be going to school in order to ascribe to this ideology; they only need to believe it. If that person does go to school then it is possible that act is motivated by their ideology but it can very well be attributed to something else. Racial discrimination is about the actual acts that are committed against a person because of racial prejudice.
A person who is racially prejudiced doesn’t need to do something such as use the word “nigger” or not hire a Black person simply because of their color. All they need to do is believe the ideology of racial prejudice. The Paula Deen controversy is a good example of the kinds of situations that occur because of our lack of specificity in the terms we use to describe racism. Paula Deen admitted to having used the word “nigger.” She also stated that she is not racist. Her denial is plausible because what she is actually referring to when she uses the term racist is racial discrimination. What she is actually saying is that she has never discriminated against a Black person – which may very well be true. However, it actually says nothing as to whether or not she is racially prejudiced. When we review Paula Deen’s behavior and the things that she has said, it is obvious that she holds certain racial prejudices.
What took place in the above clip is pure, genuine, racial prejudice. Not to mention that Deen never actually states that she has no prejudices. She states that she feels “we all have prejudices.” Deen, like so many other Americans deny their racial prejudices because the base that statement upon whether or not they have ever committed acts of racial discrimination which is actually not necessary to be racially prejudiced. People who are racially prejudiced tend to interact only with people of their race. They engage people from other races only in the most public of spaces like at their jobs or at school. These types of spaces, because of laws and social rules, have a code of conduct that they are willing to follow. But those laws and rules do not change their perceptions.
George Zimmerman is a good example of what happens when a person with racial prejudices is able to act and respond without the immediate threat of laws and social rules. Zimmerman stated that he found Trayvon Martin suspicious. It was suggested that perhaps Trayvon’s attire or the time of day that he was walking or that he was walking through someone’s yard, but in truth none of things are objective evidence for suspicion. The truth is that Zimmerman holds certain racial prejudices regarding Black people (Black males in particular) and because of those prejudices he performed discriminatory acts (following and accosting the boy) that led to the death of a child. The root of the problem is not whether Zimmerman had the right to shoot and kill Trayvon. The root of the problem is why did he feel that Trayvon was suspicious (racial prejudice) and why did he feel he had the right to take action based on those feelings (racial discrimination).
The point is that racial prejudice is subtle and ignorant, even of itself. Paula Deen and George Zimmerman are evidence that we are confused. This is why our discussions on race and our efforts to combat racial discrimination fail. It is because we fail to acknowledge and actually grasp the root of our problem. The reason we are unable to grasp the root of the problem is because we have not adequately described it. James Baldwin said, “If you can describe it, then you can control it. If you can control it, then you can outwit it. You can get beyond it, if you can describe it. In order to describe it, you have to face it.” If we are going to tackle America’s problems with race relations and actually attempt to create this post-race era – that so many want to believe already exists – then we are going to have to face the root of our problem and describe it. Only with a universally understood language to discuss racism will we control it and, then, get beyond it.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man