I am one of the organizers of last week’s Race Is Not a Party protest. I am straight. I am male. I am white (mostly). I am comfortably middle-class.
My girlfriend, who also helped organize last week’s protest, is Chinese. And every day I oppress her because she’s a woman and because she’s Chinese. When we disagree, I assume she’s acting irrational. I fetishize her Chinese qualities and use them to massage my own colonial sense of multiculturalism. I relish the notion of having mixed-race children but I remind myself that I would never raise them with a backward Chinese notion of family. I objectify her. I exoticize her. I see her race and her gender before I see her.
It’s obvious. I am a racist. I am a sexist.
I wish I wasn’t. But I am. I understand racism—not completely, of course, but I have a good idea of what it means, what it looks like. I know it’s wrong. But I’m still a racist.
Which means the only explanation I can see is that racism is not just a matter of intentions, or ignorance, or even offense. After all, “offensive” and “racist” are not the same thing. Offensive things are not always racist (or sexist, or whatever), and what’s worse, racism is not always offensive. Offensiveness has to do with perception: It has to do with whether a person experiences pain, hurt, indignation, etc. in relation to the action of others. It’s about the flow of information: how information moves between people, how they send and receive it.
Racism, on the other hand, is a form of structural oppression: It’s about the flow of power (which is pretty much the ability to turn information into action). Racism is the movement of power away from one group to another group on the basis of the social construction we call “race,” thus allowing the latter group to extract as much surplus value as possible from that power differential. At its core, racism is not about feelings; it only sometimes feels “hurtful,” but it is always damaging, because it involves disempowering some in order to empower others.
It has become popular in America (and on our campus) to psychologize racism and other forms of oppression: We focus on feelings. We lie back on the Freudian couch, and we talk about “bigots” and “misogynists”; we talk about “offense,” “immaturity,” “insensitivity.” Which can be very useful, especially in helping people who have more power understand how much it hurts to have less.
But ultimately the implication of such a discourse is agency: It implies that human action is the spontaneous result of free will, which is nice, but false—we know that our environment has a huge effect on how we behave. The effect of this way of thinking is to privatize oppression: How many times in recent days have we heard, “Oh, KSig didn’t mean to be offensive,” or “Asians on campus are just being too sensitive” or “My Asian friend doesn’t really care”? Our attention passes away from large systemic issues and toward small individual ones. Language like this turns public oppression into private neurosis.
But I’m not a neurotic (at least, not like that). I’m not a racist because I’m insensitive or because I offend people—though sometimes those things are true. I’m a racist because I’m part of something bigger than myself: I’m a cell in an organ, a worker in the factory that makes realities. Some part of me is determined—by chemistry, physics, social structures like racism—and some part of me is free; but it’s hard to tell the difference, and freedom rarely comes free.
Does that mean I’m not accountable for my actions? Absolutely not. That’s the thing about living in a group: Your actions would still matter even if you had zero control over them. But unfortunately, as it is, I’m a racist because it’s easier to be a racist in my society, because not being a racist is really, really hard to do, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. The status quo is best left alone. Don’t make trouble. Keep your head down.
But the status quo is not well-built. At every moment in our lives, the status quo is falling apart, crumbling, disintegrating, exploding, fragmenting—and at every moment in our lives, we are scrambling to put it back together again. The status quo is a volatile, unstable machine that requires continuous maintenance, and there is no one to maintain it but us. That is our role: We are the mechanics.
So what if one day, we all woke up and didn’t go to work? What if we just stopped helping the machine that hurts us?
It would be revolution.
Andy Chu is a Trinity junior.