Some racism is worse than others. At least, I think that is true. We shudder at the racism of a white cop holding a hand-cuffed black man on the ground by placing his knee on the man’s neck. Or as happened in Winnipeg a few years ago an indigenous man left in an emergency waiting room for more than 24 hours before he died without being attended to. If the cop does that because the man is black that is racism. Or the hospital staff neglect the man in the waiting room because he is indigenous that is also racism. In both cases, it is bad. It’s wickedness is easy to see. Because it is easy to see it is easier to address. Subtle racism is harder to see and therefore its effects can be more pernicious. That is why I think it is much more dangerous.
When a group in a position of power holds prejudicial views of another race and those views are supported by the power of legal authority and institutional control, that racism can easily be transformed into a system of racism that might be difficult to discern exactly because it is so common and so pervasive. The reason it is so powerful is that such racism does not require an intentional act on the part of the racist. It just happens. In such a system racial prejudice functions implicitly without anyone consciously deciding to act on the basis of the prejudice. People function independently of their intentions or their own self-image. They don’t realize they are acting out racism. When that stage is reached it is incredibly dangerous. That is the stage that we are at in Canada and the Americans in the U.S..
That is why J. Kēhaulani Kauanui said, “Racism is a structure not an event.” Institutional power by people of influence can transform prejudice and discrimination into what Robin DiAngelo calls “structures of oppression.” Such structures are so important because they can inflict harm without anyone doing it intentionally. None of us look like we are racists, but we operate inside a racist system.
And then, as if that is not enough, such structures are often invisible for exactly the same reason–one does not see anyone intentionally doing a bad thing. This is what I called invisible racism in an earlier post. It all seems so normal, so natural. What could be wrong with that? The answer, of course, is that everything is wrong with that. As DiAngelo said, “Everyone has prejudice and discriminates, but structures of oppression go well beyond individuals.” That is because institutions have so much capacity to inflict serious harm. Power converts minor havoc into irreparable harm.
An example might help explain this. A good friend of mine constantly and rightly that me reminds me that women are guilty of discrimination too. Not just men. This is obviously true. But it is also a fact, that very few women have the ability to inflict as much harm as the institutional system that is controlled by men. Women cannot match that power. That usually makes discrimination by the system much more effective and hence more heinous than the discrimination by women. Men have been able to deny women their human rights for a long time because men controlled the institutions.
That is why systemic racism is so powerful and leads to so much harm. That is what we have to be on the look-out for.