My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
The other day I got an [angry, condescending] anonymous message saying that a claim I had made online that only white people can enact racism was “patently untrue.” The anonymous writer backed this up by saying that racism was discrimination, prejudice, or hate based on one’s race. I strongly, passionately disagree with this definition. Here’s why. I’m a mixed person—my mother is a white American, and my father is an indigenous Mexican immigrant. I identify as a light-skinned Chicano. I share this because I think it is very important that I speak to my specific experience (and no one else’s.) In my life, being a light-skinned Chicano has meant receiving and accessing an incredible amount of white privilege. I frequently pass as white, or am labeled as “racially ambiguous” by fellow people of color and white people alike. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a largely white-liberal city in which my racial and ethnic identities were often misread. This meant that, though I was raised in a bilingual, multi-culturallly identified household, a household in which discussions of racism and politics were frequent, my primary identity was shaped through a lens of whiteness. I, like many of us, received messages all of my life (from school, society, the media) that racism was a personal act of prejudice against someone based on their skin color. Because I had not yet begun to identify my white privilege, and because I was not only comfortable with the pervasive, unquestioned whiteness that surrounded me but actually benefitted from it, I accepted this definition of racism. I have a distinct memory of the first time I was asked to question this. I was 14, a Gay Straight Alliance organizer at a training retreat in St. Louis, attending my first “Anti-Oppression” workshop. A simple formula was presented to me: POWER + PREJUDICE = RACISM While it seems simple enough, I became outraged. The facilitators were proposing that only those with POWER (white people) are able to perpetuate racism. This means that those lacking power (people of color) are not able to perpetuate racism. Somehow my whiteness felt wronged, insulted. I had been bullied plenty for being “white” by kids of color growing up, and I wanted desperately to call it something that it was not. What I came to understand in the following years is that racism (and sexism, and ableism, and heterosexism, and shadism, etc.) is not an isolated act. It is not a personal prejudice or an individual problem (though it does indeed operate interpersonally and internally as well). Its true destructiveness lies in its pervasiveness: racism operates at every systemic and institutional level. I believe that racism is an institutionally supported system of perpetuating, enforcing, and valuing whiteness and white supremacy in our society. Racism operates at every level to marginalize, criminalize, devalue, imprison, and yes, kill off, people of color. Our prison industrial complex*, our economy**, our “War on Drugs”***, and our criminal, family, and environmental**** laws, are racist in that they work to maintain incredible rates of poverty, incarceration, health disparities, inadequate housing, and unequal pay for people of color. So when I say that people of color can’t enact racism, I mean it. We may have a black president, we may think of ourselves as highly evolved or “post-racial” (BARF), but our society remains firmly entrenched in racism at every level. People of color can be just as prejudiced and hateful as white people. I have no interest in denying this. What I am hoping to clarify is that, without POWER, prejudice is just prejudice. It takes the centuries of power and supremacy that whiteness carries with it to enact racism in this country. As a person that still regularly receives white privilege, regardless of my identity as a person of color, I actively work to dismantle my internalized racism and work against racist systems and white supremacy at personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels. I believe that, if you are white and are not actively anti-racist, you are a part of the problem. A mentor of mine once described whiteness as a moving sidewalk. In order to be part of the solution, in order to not work with the system to enforce racism, you can’t walk with the crowd, and you certainly can’t just stop moving. You have to turn around and you have to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.