Omowale Akintunde, Multicultural Education v. 7 no. 2 (Winter 1999)
Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Further, this view of racism disguises its true essence, thus allowing its tenets to proliferate.
Racism conceived of in this way ignores the societal, systemic, institutional, and political institutions which both overtly and inherently ensure minority subjugation and protect white privilege. When racism is regarded in this way, it also helps white society to erect defense mechanisms to ignore its direct implication and involvement in the maintenance of white racism, white privilege, and the construction of “other.” After all, if racism is conceived of as the conscious employment of certain acts, using certain taboo terms (i.e., nigger, spic) and one does not consciously perform “racist” acts or utter certain taboo terms, then one can reasonably assert that one is not a racist.
This notion suggests that racism is an abstract hypothetical that functions outside of our human and social systems and that without conscious human choice cannot occur. This notion of racism and American society is illustrated in Conceptual Model 1 (see below).
Another view of racism in America, however, is that it is a phenomenon constructed by Americans socially defined as “White,” and that its primary role is to ensure that group’s primacy to the exclusion of all others at whatever cost. This view of racism refutes the notion that racism is an abstract hypothetical that exists outside of the social milieu that requires conscious and deliberate acts to manifest. Further, this view asserts that racism is integrally and inextricably bound to all of our “human” and social processes and that, in fact, American society itself is a function of racism and lies imbedded in racist ideology. This notion of racism and American society is illustrated in a Conceptual Model 2 (see below).
Racism is thus perceived of as abstract hypothetical cause for the emergence of other fallacious syndromes. If racism is perceived as functioning outside of societal processes and as having to be consciously chosen and enacted to become concrete reality then racism in theory can be practiced by anyone. That is, “non-Whites,” too, may engage in practicing racism and thus Whites themselves may be victims of racism.
Such a notion is exactly how racism is mostly perceived in American society, so that the possibility of deconstructing White supremacy, the progenitor and true underlying problem of racism and racist ideology, does not become the focus of racial investigation. That the entire infrastructure of American society is based upon and emanates from the Western canon; that European Americans raped the continent and decimated its indigenous peoples, instituted a system of society- and government-sanctioned chattel slavery for over three centuries; that the present population that is deemed “White” is still benefiting from these systems and institutions; these, it appears, are all points to be ignored.
By ignoring the historical specificity of the construction of race by “Whites,” as a tool to ensure that group’s supremacy and subsequent degradation of “others,” and by promoting the concept of racism as abstract hypothetical, White society not only can ensure that the system of White supremacy remains intact but can, in fact, successfully create smoke screens that actually implicate “others” in the maintenance of such a system.