Racism and the “Powerless” White: Systemic Racism and Whiteness

shutterstock_100037330Systemic racism/societal racism does not exist against white people in this country and never has. There is no hardship (outside of an individual we may encounter who is prejudiced against whites) we face because of being white. Jim Wallis in, “America’s Original Sin“, says that racism is defined as “Prejudice PLUS power.” Thus we as whites can experience a prejudice, but can never experience racism.

Is there such a thing as a powerless white person?

Powerless? I’d say not. Are there whites who are disadvantaged and poor? Absolutely. Are there whites who have worked hard for what they have and come from the bottom? Absolutely. No doubt about it, but they, nay, we, all have benefited and are benefiting from being the dominant culture and from white privilege.

My friend Isaac Birkins summarizes these matters perfectly:

Two terms:
Intersectionality and mutual exclusivity.
How do these two relate? Mutual exclusivity says that two things CANNOT happen at once. For instance, you can’t make one coin land on heads and tails at the same time. Another example is that you can’t turn left and right at the same time. This ties into intersectionality because they are factors working simultaneously. One can have racial privilege yet still lack class privilege. The two are not mutually exclusive as they can happen simultaneously. Intersectionality explains that one can have privilege in some areas and lack privilege in others, this why why there are also poor whites who still benefit from white privilege and the hegemonic culture.”

Wallis speaks of racism as a systemic issue here, a macro-level oppressive force that is inherent in all our societal structures, especially the justice system.

The dominant culture has the power, which in this country is white. As Jim writes in “Racism: America’s Original Sin“, “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”

Hence why the dominant culture has “prejudice PLUS power,” and why even disadvantaged, poor white folks, still benefit and are in essence, at the micro-level, not powerless.

I’m a white, Christian male living in a dominantly white country with a festering wound of racism yet to be repented of and reconciled. I grew up disadvantaged, poor, living on food stamps in a broken home filled with physical and emotional violence and abuse with drug abuse as a latch key kid who was removed from that situation and received into a private, non-profit Christian school.

I did not have anything given to me nor have I gained anything I’ve achieved easily, but I would say that as a white male, a Christian one at that, I have vastly benefited from my skin color and that I’ve received a position of being ahead based solely on that skin color.

The whole point, in short, is that racism is only reinforced and sustainable, inherent or not, through power. The minorities in this country have never had the socioeconomic and sociopolitical means to have that power, and it takes speaking truth to that power, which is consciously and subconsciously used, for it to come to an end and for racism to continue to be tackled and repented of.

Millennials are misguided when we say things like, “Racism ends if we just stop talking about it,” or, “Acknowledging privilege is itself racist.” It doesn’t work that why, and I refuse to accept that my speaking out about it is pushing some pendulum the other way or enabling return racism against whites by acknowledging my privilege and lack of hardship due to my being white.

Acknowledging the racism a set of people experience isn’t exacerbating racism it’s revealing it for what it is, which is a wound still festering in our society and culture that we must speak truth about and continue to dialogue about if we want to see meaningful change occur in racial relations. Not speaking out about the injustice of racism still prevalent in our lives, often unintentionally and subconsciously, accepting our privilege, and taking action to remedy these social ills is, in reality, truly exacerbating the problems and making them worse. It’s time we get to work continuing the conversation those before us started.

“It is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice… there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others––especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!”
Cornel West, “Black Prophetic Fire

3 thoughts on “Racism and the “Powerless” White: Systemic Racism and Whiteness

  1. What a load of poppycock. Sure there is a majority norm in this country. That doesn’t mean non Whites can’t hold power and spheres of influence in certain pockets or arenas. Furthermore, individuals can hold positions power of power to harm or be physically able or armed to harm others in the ultimate power of life and death over another person. To claim Whites can’t be powerless or that non Whites can’t be raciss is absolute rubbish.


  2. I appreciate your attempt to make sense of it, and I have yet to see a clearer explanation of it. Thank you for that. What I would love to hear is how class and race overlap. In other words, when creating the account of what constitutes racial prejudice against people of color, what content do we fill this account with?

    For example, we might fill it with accounts of a black person scorned merely by virtue of his skin color when he applies for a job interview. Or how a black man is pulled over because he is a black man driving a car, and all else being equal, had he been white he would not have gotten pulled over. How much does this overlap with the problems posed by this same black person coming from a poor background and thus not understanding the implicit rules of etiquette at job interview (e.g. that you shouldn’t chew gum, or something)? Or by this same black man not having access to reliable transportation or driver’s training and drives poorly, or drives a second-hand Crown Victoria (which is notorious as the vehicle of choice for drug dealers). Is there a way to responsibly delineate between manifestations of class privilege and manifestations of racial privilege?

    This might go a long way to help those who dispute white privilege. I don’t think most people bristle at the concept because they don’t believe racism exists (as prejudice with power), but that asserting white privilege often serves not as one of many intersectional manifestations of power, but as a way to rate racial privilege as the only manifestation of power that matters. As if to say that class privilege *doesn’t matter,* “so shut up you racist piece of white trash. You don’t have problems. Just look at what black folk have to face.”

    All this to ask, Is there a way to determine which class of privilege is more devastating for individuals? Can we weight them and say that racial privilege is much more pernicious to an individual life than class privilege?

    If we can’t do that, then we are in no position to dismiss the very real problems of class privilege when talking about racial privilege. We should always (at least for rhetorical effectiveness!! At least that!) acknowledge this intersectionality honestly and truthfully, conceding it as a truth (not brandishing it like an f-ing cudgel) so we can move on to talk about racial privilege.

    Of course, if we want to create enemies to fight, then I suppose we could keep belittling those of the lower classes who haven’t had the time to spend from their lower-class stressors to study the finer distinctions between various classes of privilege. We can just keeping them feeling like they don’t matter, and that they have it good. Of course the down side of that is that the Nazis are perfectly happy to take our disenchanted abused lower-class whites and show them an easier way to get back at the real suffering of their class.

    Alternatively, we could create allies out of those same people by trying to deal with their suffering WHILE also dealing with the suffering of the black community. I would say, moreover, that it is actually the job of whites who have class privilidge to fight both with equal furvor–not to ignore one while fighting the other. The lower classes have enough to deal with. Let them worry about rooting out overt racism and bigorty, and us in the upper classes can work on the systemic problems (since we have the power to do it).

    They aren’t worth much, but they are my couple of cents. Also, I hope my tone didn’t come off as too strident. I apologize if so.

    Liked by 1 person

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