So When You Say “Racism”, You Mean What?


Photo Credit: Stock Photo

I've been wanting to write a post like this for a very long time. Sensitive as it is, I've prolonged it that I might better write something coherent and respectful. Racism in North America is certainly alive and well, creating destruction between people and groups, but it also seems acceptable to shout "RACIST!" towards people genuinely not so (or not wanting to be so). I certainly won't be perfect in what I say here, but I hope it can help clarify some terms that may help us to enter some common space. Can we start from there?

Unlike what many of us are led to believe, the actions of racist people or groups is NOT "racism". As you can see in the diagram, those are expressions and outcomes of racism. Racism is far more insidious, more deeply emebedded in our cultural strata, and more often than not invisible. So if someone says to you: "The Holocaust was an example of racism", you can carefully explain that this was not so. It was a terrifying result of racism. The pressurized heat of the magma below led to the violence above ground.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start from the bottom ground up.

Racialization — identifying people or people groups based on their physical features (for example, pointing someone out of a crowd as that "black person"). Discussion continues over the rightness or wrongness of this practice, however it has led to racial profiling and stereotypes. When was the last time you pointed to someone in the crowd and said: "Look at that white guy"?

Xenophobia — an instinctive fear of "the other", with a natural inclination to defend our own at all costs, including making unfair/ignorant assumptions of the other person or group on the basis of survival.

Prejudice — the thoughts and attitudes one group makes towards another, based on limited or wrongful information. For example, perpetuating the false notion that ALL or MOST First Nations people abuse aeresols.

Discrimination — the actions taken upon prejudicial thoughts and attitudes. For example, refusing service to First Nations people in grocery stores or drugstores because ALL First Nations people abuse aeresols.

Let's pause for a moment here. All of this is happening underground where very few can see what's happening. Colonial power (in North America, this would mean Caucasians) oppress people of colour through segregation, reservation, removal of children, creating relgious theology to justify any actions that maintain our power, focusing law enforcement on areas where there are large concentrations of people of colour, and creating laws that continue to enhance the ruling power and suppress all others. Colonialism took land, people, life and legal structure all from aboriginals of Turtle Island and from people of colour brought to North America in slavery.

To most white people, we are completely unaware of our "invisible white privilege". In fact, we become offended by it believing we have evolved from our forebears. We point to affirmative action programs, scholarship programs for marginalized groups that take up spaces in competitive post-secondary programs away from hard-working white youth, or the government subsidy programs that give away "freebies" to marginalized groups, and we feel justified in our anger and finger-pointing that WE are the ones being accused.

500 years of colonialism does not go away overnight. By saying "we're sorry" doesn't heal wounds or address systemic racism still living under the earth.

As white people, most of us:

  • have never been followed around in stores for fear of us shoplifting
  • have never had our children taken away en masse to be reprogrammed into another culture
  • have never been forced into cultural school programs
  • have never been denied work in professional vocations based on our skin colour
  • have never been told culturally we are all drunks, rapists, thugs, free-loaders or savages
  • have never been targets of verbal abuse, jokes, bullying or remarks based on our skin colour
  • have never been told that as a cultural group, we just aren't working hard enough
  • have never had our women trafficked deliberately because oppressed females are easier targets
  • have never be scoffed at when we've tried to break these cycles… & been seen as failures

We often suffer with "The Bootstrap Mentality". That is, "because we worked hard enough for what we have, everyone else should be able to do the same". This is an arrogant and erroneous assumption for a couple of reasons: 1) it assumes equal opportunity AND support for all people, and 2) it assumes everyone has boots to strap up. This is known as "white privilege" or "invisible privilege". As white people, we don't like this. We like to think that our Puritanical work ethic is an equivalent to godly obedience, and anything else is… less.

Institutionlized Racism: social structures created
by our dominant white culture dictating what people of color can and cannot do
within the macrocosms of government, education, the workforce, immigration,
housing, and the church.

Internalized Racism: the phenomena whereby
oppressed groups begin to believe the racial lies and hatred coming from the
oppressor group.

Hegemony: those in authority using the media, creating acceptable rules for life, norms, and even common sense in
order to pass onto all groups what is acceptable and what is not. 

When we understand that racism becomes institutionalized, it is not a one-to-one phenomenon. Culture, education, relgion, politics, the economy are all largely controlled by white Euro-centric powers that oppress people groups of colour to the point where when they speak out against these powers, they are the ones to look like they are "playing the victim", acting as liars, accusing good people of being racist, refusing to 'get over it' or other such things. 

Interalized racism sees oppressed groups believing what they are told by oppressor groups. For example, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people groups believing that they are communities of unfit parents after the government and church forcibly took away aboriginal children in order to Euro-nize them — either through residential schools or through the foster care system. Without understanding this violent history, the average Caucasian would see present day and agree that aborginal children are at-risk, bar-none, and need to be removed for their own safety. And the cycle goes on and on.

When ruling powers continue to spread prejudice and discrimination towards other groups, all the lies, hatred, confusion and hurt MUST explode at some point. It is here we see things like the aboriginal genocide of North America, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Internment of WWI, the Japanese internment of WWII. We see fear-mongering of what Islam truly is, as dominant evangelical Christianity struggles to maintain its power hold in North America. Are ALL evangelical Christians power monsters? Certainly not! But our society is still largely ruled by Judeo-Christian ethics, and challenges to this sees even humble churches searching for ways to keep a hold over the people. But even here… when someone or some group challenges our power structure, we revert to Scripture and dare call it "persecution" (being hurt for the sake of Jesus). We are still the dominant power, and we whine about being so oppressed by "—–" (minority groups, LBGTQ groups, left-wing media… and everyone is labelled with an agenda thus neatly cutting off those groups and burdening them with destructive motives to the kingdom of God. How foolish!).

When explosions of violence and hatred happen, there is fallout. People are hurt. People die. Divisions are widened. Confusion is great. 


As in the case of physical volcanoes, fallout can create environments of devastation (retaliation, generational racism, etc)… OR… it can create environments so radically new that people of all racial lines rise up and live in new ways that break the cycles of racism as we know it. Knowing that community is messy, I am certain we do not fall into either/or camps but fall on a growth continuum that still favours the white class, but seems more white people understanding life through the eyes of people of colour.

There's the rub.

Empathy and Christ-like love are not measured by how well you love your enemies, but rather how well you accept who you are through the eyes of someone else who has not experienced life as you have. This process is humbling… and humiliating.

Retaliation from either side will fuel the fires below. 

Continued daily choosing of living altogether differently… with dominant power groups relinquishing invisible privilege as one vital step… will eventually, with shalom and love, see the volcano eventually lie dormat… and go out altogether.

A new post will address potential ways present-day racism can be addressed in forgiveness, peace and love.


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