Let me set the ground so that we can all advance and move forward together. The reason why I want to begin that way is there’s an assumption, a fundamental assumption, amongst readers that are well educated and exposed that we’re all entering this discussion at the same level and, we’re not. I can guarantee you, we’re not.
We all have our ideas and beliefs, and then we all have our experiences. For example, black people that are reading this, are reading this article at a different level of understanding because they’ve lived in the skin and are rarely given any kind of appreciation or understanding of what you have to live with walking through the world defined by the color of your skin. So, you kind of come in at a different level of awareness about the discussion.
Then, there are those folks that come into this discussion that are educated around it. They are clear about it, but can’t really empathise their way through it because it’s not a “feeling” thing, it’s a “comfort” thing and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s very different from a person that lives in the skin because it is personal and it is emotional.
So, all of that is going on amongst ourselves as we try to define racism. But as people committed, it may get uncomfortable and that’s okay. We have to learn to deal with this discomfort and stay in the room, so to speak.
That was a mouthful. Moving on, the work of the writer is to clarify the complexities so everyday people can understand something and therefore apply it, first and foremost, to their own ideals and also be able to imply it to others.
That said, in our culture, you can go through Social Work, Law School, you can be seen as qualified to lead a major or minor institution, to lead a group of people, to supervise people with virtually no ability whatsoever to engage with any complexity and nuance in the area of racism.
Racism can be defined as group prejudice backed by institutional power… a deeply embedded system of unequal power
That said, racism can be defined as group prejudice backed by institutional power… a deeply embedded system of unequal power. Here’s an example; women in the USA got the right to vote in 1920 and there was only one possible way for them to do so and that was by men allowing them to.
Simply put, because women were not in the sits of institutional power, they were not able to cast a vote without the approval from men. What that means is women could not give themselves the right to vote.
That doesn’t mean women couldn’t have personal power. I think that’s the difference between a system and individual acts. Prior to women’s suffrage, they could certainly discriminate against men, be unfair to individual men, but women as a group could not systematically deny men as a group the right to vote.
Now that I’ve tried to define racism, let’s look at the system that fuels it, institutional racism/power.
What is institutional power? What does it look like? Institutional power/racism is a powerful system of privilege and power based on race. Let me give you a thought experiment to illustrate my point; people tend to say things like, “My kids are at a good school”, or “I live in a safe neighbourhood!” without ever thinking about what words like “good” and “safe”, might mean.
You can ask the parent what’s a good school? Or, the realtor, what he/she means by “safe” neighbourhood. Think about it, who uses such words anyways? I think these words are associated with class and racism. I believe they are racially coded words and people use them on a daily basis without sounding racist.
“Good schools” might mean good grades and teachers located in “great spaces”. However, if those schools tend not to be diverse, I would argue that an institutional racism problem may also reside in those “great schools.”
If certain neighbourhoods are predominantly of a certain colour and the people celebrate it, i’d also argue that those folks are part of a racist system. Segregation is at the heart of this beast. Here’s another example; if one spends more time with folks who look exactly like them, what is the probability they will form deep and meaningful relationships with anyone of a different, say, colour?
And, to add a footnote to this; a recent study conducted in the USA has shown that folks tend to hire people that look and act like themselves. This often goes denied and ignored.
To sum it all up, here are 3 points to help you identify institutional racism:
- If your organisational structure has a disproportionate number of a certain colour in all upper-level positions, and a certain colour on lower-level positions, then you may have an institutionalised racism problem there.
- If you don’t have deep relationships with people of a different colour, then you may be part of the racist system. Albeit unintentional.
- If the core team in your department is of a certain colour and language, then you may just have an institutional racism problem.
Other interesting reads: Opinion: Why Aren’t More Women in Power Positions?
Segun is a budding, freelance writer for Newslibre. He loves football, basketball, books, music (all things Birdie and flirts with a bit of Jazz), Philosophy and is an ultra-marathon runner.