I remember the exchange as if it occurred yesterday. During a cultural sensitivity workshop that I was conducting at a local college, I intentionally piqued the interest of the multi-racial group attendees with the following question. “Can Black people be racist?”
As expected, even those who were hesitant to share in the earlier exercises sat up straight in their chairs and eagerly raised their hands to expound upon the matter. I was not surprised that every person in this workshop agreed that African-Americans can be as racist as their counterparts from other races/ethnicities.
I must admit that it was amusing to see many of the white participants grow red in the face, a sign of what I would term not an increasing anger, rather an uncontrollable nearly psychotic rage that they had held for far too long. The alluded to rage increased with each and every soliloquy that the multi-racial group of participants shared. Although I am not seeking to make light of their stories, they amounted to little more than some conflict that they felt ended with them being wronged by a person of another race/ethnicity.
After each participant released their pent-up frustrations regarding when they were wronged by some racist incident, I simply stared at them and stated that they had absolutely no idea of what racism actually was. As if cued up, one participant challenged me with the following assertion, “Of course, you do not think that Black people can be racist, because you are Black.”
It was at this moment that I told her that although I was “Black” my reason for stating that African-Americans cannot be racist was grounded in an understanding of what racism actually is. This white woman was visibly angered by my response, as indicated by her entire face becoming a flaming red. I thought that she may be on the verge of a stroke of some kind as she continued to glare at me.
I thought that I should move quickly in explaining why African-Americans cannot be racist before huge segments of the participating audience who vehemently disagreed with my belief tuned me out for the remainder of the session. So I moved quickly to ask the entire group, “What is the difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism?” As expected, they answered with blank stares.
It was at this moment that I took the opportunity to share with them that each of these three words — prejudice, discrimination, and racism — had different meanings.
The white participants, although still worked up from recalling moments when they were victimized by what they thought was racism, finally realized that my workshop was not a ‘beat up on whitey session’ when I related that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible for ordinary citizens, regardless of their racial/ethnic identity, to be racist. They usually did not possess such power.
Unbeknownst to them, racism is a complex system that usually involves — financial institutions, businesses, educational institutions — that work to disenfranchise a group of people based upon their race/ethnicity. I then asked how many of them held that type of power. Not one hand rose.
I then explained to the white participants that what each of their earlier stories about racial injustice actually denoted was their engagement with a person harboring prejudiced views toward them. I pointed out to them that at the end of their personal conflict, after they calmed down, they were able to resume their lives without having their homes, jobs, children, or lives either challenged or endangered. For the vast majority of those in the room, this was what Oprah Winfrey is known to call an “Aha” moment.
After explaining racism and prejudice, I then addressed discrimination in the following manner. “An ordinary citizen who has the power to hire workers for a construction job can very well practice discrimination by refusing to hire a specific racial or ethnic group. Consider discrimination, prejudice with action. Consider discrimination a primary pillar of racism.”
As usual, the vast majority of those in the room who had decided early on in the process that they would engage the workshop with an open mind understood the seismic difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism by its conclusion; others, were not so fortunate as they refused to consider anything that was being taught and subsequently refused to budge from their initial undeveloped understanding that collapsed prejudice, discrimination, and racism into a single entity.
I simply sigh at such individuals and focus upon those who are able to understand racial matters beyond a superficial level. Maybe the others will get it in due time. Or at least I hope so.
James Thomas Jones III
©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015.