From until the 1970s until about the 2010s, the “right” way to oppose racism was to be colour-blind – to avoid considering race as much as possible, and perhaps to even argue that it didn’t exist. Nowadays, the concern is systemic racism: the observation that even our attempts at colour-blindness haven’t lead to equal outcomes, and so the institutions (and the people in them) may be inherently anti-black in a way we didn’t notice before. Recently, “anti-racist” has become suggestive of “pro-black” – treatment like affirmative action, or quota systems, or treating minority students in a way that reflects their unique life experiences are the ways to go. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the legacy definition of racism as “treating people differently depending on their race”.
Race and Racism
When talking with my dad, I feel that the definition of racism is changing out from under him. He was born in the 1960s, which were marked by the passage of the Race Relations Act 1965 – the first attempt by the UK to legislate on racial discrimination. It applied to both minority and majority groups: three years after the passing, Michael X was convicted for stirring up hatred against whites. Modern activism, generally from the US, focuses on discrimination against minorities – a “prejudice plus power” definition, which was rejected in the UK when considering the murders of Ross Parker in 2001 and Kriss Donald in 2004.
Whether race inherently exists or not can change depending on the area of discussion.
In discussions about race and IQ (the question as to whether different “races” have different average “IQ” scores, to the level that either of those terms are meaningful – generally used as an excuse for scientific racism), one argument tends to be that race doesn’t exist – or if it does exist, it’s only a social construct.
On police brutality, I expect the concern would be whether somebody passes as black, as a racist police officer wouldn’t be able to do either a genetic or ancestral survey before deciding how badly to beat someone. This doesn’t require a genetic or social construct, only phenotypical differences that together construct a notion of “black” to the individual officer. However, it might imply a social construct if the police officer determines the likelihood by looking at census data for the area they’re in (in addition to visible characteristics).
When speaking about transracialism, blackness has an ancestral component – to self-identify as black is cultural appropriation, and forbidden (at least in the US: Charles Mills suggests that it’s more fluid in Brazil).
This becomes trickier in the modern climate where there are benefits to being a member of a minority group. Benefits for Native Americans tend to use blood quantum (requiring descent by percentage of ancestry), reminding me of an inverse to the “racial classification” of the slave societies of the Americas. I think, but am not sure, that other benefits generally rely only on self-classification – due to racial mixing, folk with minority ancestry can look very white, and it’s generally rude to pry or exclude people because of how they look. I am reminded of Anthony Lennon, who describes his childhood experience of looking mixed-race, being racialized as black, and finally coming to terms with and identifying as being black – only to later be told he’s white, because he can’t trace his ancestry.
Racism and Anti-Blackness
There have been a few incidents recently where folk have said “All lives matter” without knowing the wider implications of the statement. I guess this is a problem with movements that have names that are meaningful sentences and not necessarily what the movement stands for, and also a problem with how easily an apparently benign phrase or gesture can be re-interpreted (e.g. the “white power okay sign” has got people fired). Inside my family, I’ve raised that BLM called attention to the shooting of Daniel Shavers, one of the few white people killed by police who made it into the media, but at first blush the name still sounds exclusionary and can easily be misinterpreted. It’s an inclusive movement, whether you believe that the focus should be police brutality or the normalisation of assumption of criminalisation of black people – more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely to be arrested instead of let off. The tenet of “abolish the police” also has its variance – from “rethink how police departments work and look into a more community-centred approach” to “yes, literally abolish the police”.
Racism is a very general word, and often unrestricted by adjectives – you look at the wider context to see if the author means anti-black, or anti-Asian, or anti-Arab, or historic or personal or systemic. There’s currently a movement to make the default “racism” refer to “systemic racism”. I’m not sure what personal, non-systemic racism would be called under such a system, or whether we’d be split into the camps where one side uses “racism” for personal and “systemic racism” for systemic, and the other side uses “racism” for systemic and denies that prejudice without power is negative at all.
Separately, there’s a series of smaller opinion pieces (such as Racism harms black people most. It’s time to recognise ‘anti-blackness’) calling for splitting out racism against black people into “anti-blackness”, similar to how discrimination against Jews and Muslims have become “anti-Semitism” and “Islamophobia” respectively.
A UCLA professor, Gordon Klein, was accused of racism for refusing special treatment for black students. Under the classical definition of racism, this is backwards – racism was all about treating people differently depending on race! Under the modern definition, this makes sense – by refusing to treat students differently according to their lived experiences, he is perpetuating systems of racism. There are calls to talk about anti-black racism specifically, or to go further and speak about the anti-blackness that pervades reality, and I can only see this as a good thing: by being more specific, we can ensure that both sides know they’re talking about the same thing.
CBT and Microaggressions
In the UK at least, for the past decades the assumption is that it is each individual’s responsibility to own their own feelings: that as we control our thoughts, we control our feelings. With relation to race, at least, that seems to be starting to become inverted. The science of microaggressions seems an inverse of CBT: while CBT condems “mind reading”, or believing you know what other people are thinking that causes them to act the way they do, microaggressions seem to encourage it – your coworker fails to pronounce your name correctly not because it’s unusual or unfamiliar and they lack the skill, but because they’re secretly implicitly racist and are othering you. In CBT, the burden of dealing with the actions of others is placed on the person themselves, but under the assumption of microaggressions the burden is placed on everybody else to do a more thorough job policing their speech.