An Introduction to a Feminist Perspective on Prejudice and Racism
In defining racism, Beverly Daniel Tatum turns to David Wellman’s Portrait of White Racism. According to Ms. Tatum, Mr. Wellman defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race.” (pg. 360, Women) In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh refers to racism as “invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance.” (Pg. 426, Women) In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde writes of “systemized oppression” (pg. 427, Women) and of “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (pg. 428, Women) when characterizing racism. Each of these writers stresses that the nature of racism is systemic and, as such, cannot be perpetrated by a lone individual. Each writer correctly makes a clear distinction between simple-minded personal bigotries and institutionalized wholesale racism.
“Prejudice,” Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, “is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information,” (pg. 361, Women) and goes out of her way to disagree with most people’s tendency to equate prejudice with racism. Ms. Tatum sees racism as extending well beyond the boundaries of personal ideologies. In effect, she understands prejudice to be a mere subset of racism, and believes that people often benefit from (and contribute to) racism without being overtly prejudiced. She sees racism as a system of oppression involving established cultural and institutional standards as well as individual behavior and beliefs. Racism is “prejudice plus power.” (pg. 362, Tatum, Women)
Peggy McIntosh agrees and further elaborates by comparing racism to a double-edged sword; on the one hand it disenfranchises and puts at a disadvantage one segment of the community (people of color), while on the other it confers “unearned advantage” (pg. 426, Women) and privilege to another (whites). McIntosh refers to the advantages she, and other European-Americans gain from racism as white privilege, and writes that this “privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” (Pg. 424, Women) It is important to note that, from her point of view, white privilege is as much a part of racism as is cross-burning at a Baptist church, and she goes a step further. She echoes her colleague Beverly Daniel Tatum’s opinion that anyone enjoying the fruits of white privilege, willingly or not, consciously or not, is a racist.
McIntosh’s and Tatum’s opinions may seem harsh and extreme to some, but as presented by them, make good sense. Humanity long ago reached an evolutionary status that affords each of us a level of understanding that precludes any valid excuse for the persistence of racism. No one may justly plead ignorance. As is often the case, ignorance in this instance, is simply a matter of convenience. “Most talk by whites about equal opportunity,” says McIntosh, “seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.” (Pg. 427, Women)
What these ladies have written is insightful and true. Prejudice is carried out individually; racism is a collective effort. Oafish racial prejudice may be ugly and undesirable, but it cannot be compared to the pervasive cancer of racism. One individual’s narrow-minded and exclusionary outlook may hurt those immediately around him. The damage may even spread somewhat beyond that individual’s scope of influence and life, but it will certainly not alter for the worse the wellbeing and evolution of entire cultures, generation after generation. Prejudice cannot subordinate one race to another. Only racism can enslave a race. Prejudice cannot threaten the very survival of an entire race. Only the virulence of racism has the capacity to wipe entire cultures off the face of the Earth.
And it persists. “Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest…violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living—in the supermarkets, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.” (Lorde, pg. 430, Women)
White women must deal with racism also, but on a whole different level. Audre Lorde warns that white women must guard against “being seduced into joining the oppressor” (pg. 429, Women) in the hopes of sharing the oppressor’s power. Tatum insists that white women “intentionally or unintentionally…benefit from racism.” (Pg. 364, Women) This is not to say that European-American women are immune to racial hatred. White women are victims of racial prejudice. I have met people who openly profess their hatred of whites simply for their whiteness. This, however, does not constitute, by any stretch of the imagination, the methodical assault upon and oppression of a people of the sort referred to by Lorde when she says to white women: “You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.” (Pg. 430, Women)
Kesselman, Amy, Lily D. McNair, and Nancy Schniedewind, eds. Women: Images
and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 2003.