A Little Guide To Understanding Anti-Racism:

Source: USC School of Social Work

This article was written in the summer 2020 and republished to Medium.

2020 has been a heavy year. We have all been required to take a step back and reconsider how economically, socio-politically, environmentally and scientifically aware we were. In the middle of a pandemic and national lockdowns however, we still witnessed the rise of the biggest social movement of the century, when the Black Lives Matter movement took a new turn.

Black people have been fighting for their rights for centuries, though. So how is it, that after decades of fighting for racial equality, it all still came as such a shock to many.

The problem today is many do not understand what racism actually is, and therefore cannot realise it still, very much exists. Many terms are misunderstood and therefore misinterpreted leading to more tension and division. The fight against racism starts by making sure we understand its roots, the different definitions, as well as the forms it can take.

  • Racism VS discrimination:

Racism starts when you develop a prejudice against a certain community and use it to justify your feeling, consciously or not, superior to them.

There is a difference between racism and discrimination. Because as we saw, you don’t necessarily have to consider yourself racist to discriminate. Most humans, however open-minded they claim and believe to be, will discriminate in their life. Because discrimination starts when you alter the way that you react or interact with someone, based on parts of their identity, here their ethnicity. Discrimination happens within people and institutions who praise themselves for not being racist. And it is this behaviour that shows racism, whether conscious or not, still very much exists.

  • Institutional racism: Also known as systemic racism. Systemic racism explains the part about racism not always being conscious. It defines racist and discriminatory practices within the system. Prejudice is so embedded in our minds that it has polluted the legal, political and economic institutions in place. These institutions in many cases were built on racist grounds and are unlike mentalities, not changing. Therefore, as long as institutional racism is in place, and we don’t do everything we can to dismantle that, racial discrimination will continue to exist.

When we talk about race, the notion of privilege often comes up. In fact, when we talk about any societal issue where power balances come into play, privilege is mentioned. So what exactly do we mean here when we talk about privilege?

  • White privilege: The word is pretty self-explanatory. White privilege is the privilege you inherit from simply being white. White privilege is described by feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh as “the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally, white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.” Examples of this can go from being less likely to be stopped and searched as a white person to having bandaids that actually match the colour of your skin. These benefits are some that help build character and live a life freer of daily microaggressions and aggressions in general.

This divide between dark and light-skinned can, like most issues to do with race, be traced back to the slavery days. Indeed at the time, slaves with lighter skin, who were often mixed-race, were given more domestic work when dark-skinned slaves were to be left to do the outdoor physical labour. Today, it takes different forms. A 2011 study conducted in Michigan showed that of the 12 000 African American female prisoners, light-skin women were sentenced to 12% less prison time for similar crimes. Light-skin privilege is something so many lighter-skinned or mixed-race individuals benefit from because they are usually the ones used to promote a non-racist environment which enables them to break through societies biggest barriers first. This is not to say that these people do not deserve the opportunities they get or don’t still face discrimination daily, but failing to recognise light-skin privilege would be failing to understand the fight against racism.

So when talking about issues to do with race, it is important that every person involved recognise their own privilege. It could lie in the colour of your skin, but also your gender, socio-economic status and any other factor that makes up your social identity.

  • Cultural Appropriation:

Let’s get one thing straight, contemporary pop culture is SO heavily influenced by black culture. From fashion to music and dance, most art and entertainment forms initiated or take inspiration from African and Caribbean culture. Let’s take music as an example: the most popular genres today are pop, hip hop and RnB. All these genres take their foundations from Jazz and Blues, which both originated from black culture: Jazz from the African-American community in New Orleans in the late 19th century and blues, founded around the same time, also originated from the African-American communities in the southeast of the country. Both genres take roots from African musical traditions, chants and sounds. Without these, we might never have had access to the music we all highly consume today. And blues and jazz would not exist if it wasn’t for African cultures. The West has profited from African culture for centuries, and people are finally starting to realise that. But when they do, a new debate sparks, are they appreciating the culture or appropriating it? Let’s talk about the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

  • Cultural appreciation:

By recognising the African influences on mainstream pop culture, people can, credit and enjoy being able to express themselves through trends that initiated from black culture. Consuming something in a respectful manner that acknowledges and respects black culture is, therefore, more than encouraged.

  • Cultural appropriation:

This fine line between appreciation and appropriation is crossed when behaviour offends and discredits the black community who have been fighting to be recognised for their worth for centuries. Braids are a good example of cultural appropriation and its negative effects on the black community. In Africa, braids have always had a lot of meaning: women express their creativity through braiding hair, and the hairstyles also served as an identity symbol and recognition of status.

Again, here, things turned sour when the slave trade began. Black women were judged and put down for the texture of their hair but also for their hairstyles, braids being the main one. Their hair was considered uncivilised and non-lady like. But, paradoxically, white women were jealous of the fancy and original hairstyles and the women who wore them and also saw, as we know, their white husbands rape the female slaves often. Black women, therefore, had to start covering up their hair, with laws even being voted in to make this mandatory. Black women lost part of their identity, confidence and creativity due to this. Since then, the connotations and stigmas around African hairstyles became so ingrained in everyone’s mind, that black women started wearing wigs, straightening and dying their hair, which they still do today.

What is infuriating to the black community, however, is how braids suddenly became trendy and innovative within society overnight. And how? White women started wearing braids. Without ever understanding the cultural meaning of oppression these hairstyles held. Black women wearing braids was considered ghetto but when white women started braiding their hair it became edgy, exotic. Black women were not ever included in the debates over these hairstyles, that THEY created. And to this day, you will often be considered “too ethnic” if you walk into a job interview with dark skin and braided hair. But when seen on a runway, worn by a white woman, it becomes fashionable again.

So appreciation becomes appropriation when you take something that is not your own and reclaim it whilst refusing to acknowledge the cultural and sometimes spiritual symbol and meaning behind it. In the process, the black community feels disrespected and ignored.

  • Reverse racism:

“All Lives Matter.” is often used to try and “tackle” reverse racism, or “what about when a black police officer kills a white man, that doesn’t make headlines.” The issue with society today is that our own reflection has become so hard to look at that we’d rather put the blame on others rather than take it in.

No, reverse racism does not exist. And here is why. In Western society, life centres around the white. Whether it is from a historical, social or cultural point of view, the “white race” is considered the “default race”. So how can you claim to feel oppressed in a society that was built to benefit you?

For some, life starts with the advantage of having institutions that were built to fit you. People of colour do not have this. Racism goes far beyond certain individuals feeling superior to others due to their ethnicity, racism is societal. This is not to say that a white person cannot or will not experience discrimination in their lifetime. However, they are protected by the institutions put in place and therefore the prejudice a black person has over a white one is very less likely to impact his rights and everyday life. Because of systemic racism however, black people have access to fewer opportunities. Therefore, a term such as reverse racism, when we know that racism is both individual and societal, has no meaning and does not hold its place in debates surrounding race.

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Julie Ngalle

Journalist passionate about social issues, change and spreading awareness. Host of Juicy Conversations podcast. https://linktr.ee/juicy_conversations