According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “racism” was in 1933, but the practice of racism was well learned by that time. In the United States, slaves were brought to this land by Europeans who thought that the skin color and customs of the African captives made them less than equal to the “civilized” White settlers. That belief system permeated the treatment of Blacks in this country for hundreds of years, and in many ways, has yet to cease. The term is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “a belief that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” There are some, me included, that believe that power is part of the true definition of racism – combining prejudice with the power to act on that prejudice results in racism.
Today, there are few things worse in this country than being called a “racist.” It’s one of the biggest insults and dirtiest words someone can say. Just the accusation has caused countless celebrities to produce tears and apologies and proclaim their love for their one Blackish friend who might not have known until that moment that they were the token. That fact doesn’t change the truth that there are many people who fit the definition of being racist, but because the word itself has been so maligned, people often feel that they have to do something heinous to be described that way.
The truth of the matter is, racism permeates most things done in this society, from the content of our television shows and blockbuster movies to who receives corporate promotions to the way we police our communities to where we live to who we hire to how we treat our customers to what we sell our consumers to how we educate our children.
We see racism in every facet of life. Sometimes it’s intentional and there are times it may legitimately be unintentional, but the greatest disservice we do to ourselves as a nation is to pretend it doesn’t even exist.
We live in a world where even when something or someone is legitimately racist, we have trouble identifying it. Racism has become so nuanced, that even the racist person believes that their racism doesn’t exist. So when Michael Brown gets shot 10 times walking down the street, even though his hands were up, we struggle to say if it was racism. When Marlene Pinnock gets brutalized by a White highway patrol officer or when Trayvon Martin is followed home and turns up dead after a struggle with the shooter, some struggle to say that it was racism.
The problem with racism is that the perpetrators say that they aren’t racist. But the power part of the definition will always allow them to define the terms – until we tap in to our own power.
We cannot be afraid to call out racism when we see it. It exists and every day, someone in some place across this nation is experiencing it, feeling like they are alone and not knowing how to deal with it. The worst thing we can do is to pretend right along with those who don’t want to admit that racism exists. We must speak truth to power and begin to create the equality that we’ve been striving for.