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Some questions from readers

A Black scientist wrote to me in response to my list of white privileges:
I prefer to stay out of discussions about race for personal reasons, but in reading your most recent blog post, I keep feeling that there is an undercurrent of "class-ism" that is generally overlooked.  For example, I would add to Dr. McIntosh's list something along the lines of "I can enjoy a meal in a wealthier part of town without having my presence questioned because of my race," the assumption being that I must be too poor or uneducated to be in such an establishment given my race.  I imagine that this would be an unlikely occurrence for a member of a majority group.  Is this something you have come across?
My answer:
I agree with your addition to Dr. McIntosh's list. This highlights how class and race are intertwined.  
I strongly encourage you to read Seeing White. Chapter 5 covers the intersection of socioeconomic class and white privilege.  
In that chapter, the authors point out that the things we associate with upper class (classical music, art, wine) are things that are also a part of white society. For example, a person from India might enjoy classical music that has roots that go back centuries further than Beethoven, but Indian classical music, while a class signifier in India, is not in our country. For an Indian person in the US, they need to switch to listening to Western European classical music to have the proper musical signifier of class. They need to be more white to be more upper class. 
The reason upper class is associated with white is because throughout history Black people in particular have been forced into a lower socioeconomic class. Even today, a Black family earning $150K/year is much more likely to live near poverty than a white family earning the same amount. And no matter the income of a Black family, there exists a 18:1 wealth gap (where wealth = assets - debts).  
Finally, class is mutable. A white person from Appalachia can go to Hollywood, make it big, and enter into an upper class. Or they can go to college, graduate to Wall Street, and become upper class. But a Black person, no matter their accomplishments, will remain a Black person. When people see Oprah, they may see a successful woman. But they more likely see a successful Black woman first. But when people see Martha Stewart, despite her criminal record, she's just a successful woman, with no mention of her whiteness. 
In a discussion about racism, focusing on class is like walking into a room full of people with tuberculosis and saying, "Jeez, I wish someone would do something about all this coughing!" Yes, coughing is bad. It spreads germs. It's a problem. But the root is the disease (tuberculosis). The root of class differences for Black people is racism. Racism is the disease, and we have an epidemic in our country. 
I hope this helps!
From a white scientist:


First off, I've seen the "racism = prejudice + power" line a fair amount recently, but only recently. Has this idea of what constitutes racism been around longer and I've just not noticed, or is it a relatively recent idea? By modern standards, it mostly means that one can't be racist against white people in the United States. It may just be the unfamiliarity of the newer definition (or proper academic definition I wasn't aware of), but something about it just doesn't seem right to me. To my mind, there's a difference between systemic racism (which is largely what you were talking about) and individual racism (which, from the right people, ultimately powers systemic racism). I see that this will be discussed in a future post, so I hope that ends up being enlightening. In the paragraph where you mention this, you seem to imply that the individual racism could (or should) be called bigotry instead. Am I reading that properly? I think just by writing this out, I've been able to get some things straight in my head, but I need to bounce my thoughts off of someone who knows more than I do.
First of all, I received this email more than a month ago, so I hope the reader looked into this a bit more and has been following my subsequent posts. Here's an excellent discussion of the various definitions of racism. Here's another essay on definitions. Here's another that I just found by Googling "Definitions of Racism."

My take-away from these resources and others is that, first of all, precision in the words we use matters. As George Orwell wrote:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.
Our language must be precise and carry maximal information content in order to advance society. I think that refining the precision of racism to focus on what matters, namely the power imbalance that allows for active oppression at the systematic level and reinforcement at the personal/interpersonal level. A Black man can intensely hate white people, keep his kids from playing with white kids, call them names behind their back. But do these actions affect the privileges that white people enjoy? Does his hatred toward white people increase is ability to acquire wealth or exert political/social power in his life? 

Hell no. 

So if we want the word "racism" to carry precise meaning, it's important to distinguish it from prejudice and bigotry, and keep the focus on the power that makes racism so much more powerful than these other concepts.

Another question from a white reader:
What can I, as a white guy, do to help? I've read your posts and I'm feeling like my viewpoints are changing. But when I go to work, I feel like I don't know how to influence my coworkers or change our work environment. 
First, thanks for your desire to help. But let me start by saying that I've never received the question "how can I help" from a white person who has done their homework. People who have dug into multiple books, joined anti-racism discussion groups, started following other blogs, and embarked on a journey of discovery rapidly start seeing where and how they can help. 

Secondly, I spent months not responding to this question because I was busy answering this very question through my writing. The message I keep pounding on is straight-forward but not easy: read, read, read. If you didn't know anything about quantum mechanics, then of course you'd be confused about how to solve the time-independent Schrödinger equation. Of course the concept of a probability distribution for an electron's position would make no sense to you. How could you fix it? Well, I suppose you could email a physicist. But once she figured out that you've never taken a Quantum class, never read a book on the subject, and therefore lacked any meaningful background knowledge, she'd probably stop responding to your emails. 

Finally, white people need to recognize that their local person of color is not the designated race relations officer of their department. The average person of color is putting in more work with more on their mind and dealing with more shit than the average white person. So rather than burdening a person of color with your basic questions, do a Google search and/or pick up a book. I'm sorry to sound harsh about this, but if you want to learn, its on you, not the nearest Black person. 

And just to prove that I'm not trying to be all righteous on that last one, here's me catching myself almost doing the same thing about an LGBT issue:


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