Structural racism and privilege

This post is based on some ideas presented by Grosfoguel on racism. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Edit: the first part is a presentation of Grosfoguel’s argument, which I later problematize slightly. I don’t believe prejudice from marginalised -> privileged groups can be termed a racist system, but that doesn’t mean it is not problematic. I also don’t believe that racism can only be institutional; I believe it is both (and others) which is what makes it so complicated. Just wanted to clear this up 🙂

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Racism is not just about having a prejudice against someone. This doesn’t count as racism if it doesn’t have the power to affect the person you have this prejudice against. Rather, it is racism when it’s institutionalised & has real effects on people. This is why “anti-white racism” is bullshit. If I have prejudiced views against whites, it affects them minimally since there are no institutions or discourses that turn my prejudice into real discrimination against whites. (So please, no more talk about reverse racism. Yes, brown people might have prejudiced and discriminatory views against whites. Women might have prejudiced views against men. But they do not have institutional and discursive power backing these views up, so it is not a racist system.)

I find his ideas very useful in the sense that he highlights structural and institutional racism and violence, which is often left out of debates on racism. As he siad, we are often told that modern societies have “some racists on the fringes” – the KKK, the neo-Nazis, Wilders, fascists. This automatically constructs racism as a small issue that exists within a minority of  “crazy Europeans and Americans” and automatically constructs the rest of society as not racist.

This of course ignores the fact that institutions and structures produce and reproduce racism. This is important also because even privileged people who do not necessarily hold prejudiced views still benefit from prejudiced institutions. The recognition of this prejudice is crucial. To give a more personal example, because I am half-white and half-Arab, I am often seen as white in Egypt, which brings a lot of privilege with it. Just because I may not necessarily hold prejudiced views that often come along with being European does not mean that I do not benefit from being associated with European-ness.

So my main question is: how can we theorise the complex linkages between racism at the individual level and the institutional and structural level? How does racism produced at both these levels interact and mutually reproduce each other? Can we speak of prejudice against privileged groups as racist if it doesn’t have any structural or institutional power backing it up? How to address institutional racism in countries such as the Netherlands where it has been invisibilised?

Finally: how to address the concept of privilege? We all have some form of privilege, whether it be class, racial, gender, etc. Can we use this privilege, as Spivak suggests, when she writes: “We cannot unlearn or undo our privilege, we can only use it on behalf of others.” But how to this without imposing our own narratives and frameworks on those we are trying to “help”? For example, if I want to use my class privilege on behalf of others, how to do this without being condescending and without having experienced or understood the lives of those with different class situations? How to even speak about this without being elitist?  Should those with privilege simply acknowledge it, recognise how it affects our lives, and realize that others do not have the same privilege?

In other words, how to act in solidarity? If we see racism as a product of institutions and structures, do those with privilege have the obligation to challenge these institutions and structures? For example, when Dutch people ask about how they can “help the Middle East” wouldn’t the best (and possibly only) solution be to focus on changing things domestically – challenge the ways in which the Dutch and European governments are implicated in perpetuating global inequalities that negatively affect countries like Egypt? (Although I have to say that Dutch people usually aren’t happy with this response, ahem.)

Lots of questions again. Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, and I hope I haven’t been too essentializing in using terms like white, race, class – these terms are of course complex and problematic, but also somewhat unavoidable.

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15 thoughts on “Structural racism and privilege

  1. Guttend

    I disagree fundamentally with your assertion that something is only racist if it has tangible effects. Racism is EXACTLY about having prejudice against other people, regardless of whether you have the power to enact action based on that prejudice.

    Where do you think these racist power structures come from? If not for the engrained notions of racial superiority of past generations, the engrained racist social structures would not exist, and they wouldn’t be passed down to the next generation.

    Even if anti-white racism has fewer tangible physical effects, it is still a huge barrier to addressing racial issues in any integrated society. Hate begets hate; all sides of intolerance and prejudice need to be addressed as simultaneously as possible to prevent a backlash.

    You cannot break down existing racist power structures (or prevent new ones forming) without addressing the prejudiced ideas at their core first. The people have to be willing to recognise them, and cast them aside.

    Like a weed, racism has to be attacked at the root, otherwise it cannot be killed.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      Actually I didn’t make that assertion. The first part of my post was a summary of what Grosfoguel said, as I said. I later go on to question whether racism can be limited to institutional structures, and to ask what the relationship between the two types of racism are.
      However I do agree with him that when marginalised groups have prejudice against dominant groups, it is nothing like when the opposite happens, precisely because there is no institutional framework backing it up.

      “Even if anti-white racism has fewer tangible physical effects, it is still a huge barrier to addressing racial issues in any integrated society.”

      I don’t agree with this. I would see it more as a reaction to institutional racism and personal racism coming from the dominant groups in society – but this doesn’t mean I think it’s okay.

  2. Misha

    “Racism is not just about having a prejudice against someone. This doesn’t count as racism if it doesn’t have the power to affect the person you have this prejudice against.”

    This kind of self-exculpatory discourse should be eradicated from existence. The system and the personal are different levels in a continuum in which power structure and hierarchy of suffering can change and reverse almost arbitrarily on a temporal and geographical basis.

    1. Which is exactly what I go on to say afterwards, when I pose the questions that highlight exactly the tensions you mention. My post was a thought process, the first paragraph doesn’t represent my entire view, as is clear by the end (I hope).

  3. This raises a question for me: what is racism? I had the – apparently old-fashioned – impression that racism is the conviction that race defines who you are, makes you superior or inferior in some way, and discrimination based on race/ethnicity.

    It seems you define it as something institutional, but at the same time you question the link between racism and institutions, which suggests the two are separate. Also, does non-institutionalised racism not have any effect on people?

    The reason I ask all this is because I do not think it is helpful to discriminate (pun intended) between objects of racism. Rather, we should discern how the consequences of racism differ depending on other conditions, such as majority/minority positions, economic status, etc.
    Because yes, of course, there’s a difference between being stigmatized as a minority or as a person in a ‘priviliged’ position, between experiencing it constantly by the ‘structures that be’ or occasionally by some rude person. Still, I think it is important that racism is recognized as what it is, as part of the cause the problem, not as identical to one problem with fixed victims and agressors. When you identify one specific problem with racism you run the risk of losing sight of what it actually means, which can lead to the contradictory assertion that certain people cannot be victims of racism because of their race or background.

    Racism is something that starts in people’s minds. Sometimes it’s just there and relativley harmless because the racist has no power over others. That makes him less dangerous, not less wrong. Sometimes it creeps into places of power and spreads big time, in which case the danger is clear and seriously harmful.
    If we fight only the visible, institutional racism, we are fighting a sympthom, not the real cause.

    1. As I went on to say later, I think racism is both personal and institutional, but that racism coming from dominant groups tends to both, while racism coming from minority groups tends to be the former.

      “When you identify one specific problem with racism you run the risk of losing sight of what it actually means, which can lead to the contradictory assertion that certain people cannot be victims of racism because of their race or background.”

      True, but I don’t see this being done in the post? Like I said, white people (for example) can be victims of prejudice, but not of institutional racism, because institutions support the dominant group – whites.

      “Sometimes it’s just there and relativley harmless because the racist has no power over others. That makes him less dangerous, not less wrong.”

      Agree. I never spoke about morality – I spoke about cause and effect.

      “If we fight only the visible, institutional racism, we are fighting a sympthom, not the real cause.”

      Interestingly I would argue that in NL and other European countries, institutional racism is what is invisible while personal racism is made visible. But that’s a longer discussion.

  4. Arun

    Whoever thinks like this: “This doesn’t count as racism if it doesn’t have the power to affect the person you have this prejudice against. Rather, it is racism when it’s institutionalised & has real effects on people. This is why “anti-white racism” is bullshit. If I have prejudiced views against whites, it affects them minimally since there are no institutions or discourses that turn my prejudice into real discrimination against whites.”

    is plenty wrong.

    A Mahatma Gandhi would ask about the effect of racism on the possessor of prejudice, and how it poisons them. If you have prejudiced views against whites, it may affect them minimally right now, because you have no power. But have you thought of how many revolutions simply replaced one oppression with another. Do you think South Africa would have had a chance at all, if Nelson Mandela held on to what would probably be justified prejudices?

    The struggle for freedom is not to replace the ruling set of prejudices with a new set of prejudices, to replace one oppressor by another. It is as much as for the soul of the oppressing racist as it is for the oppressed racist.

    1. I never said prejudice against whites or men or whatever is a good thing, so I don’t really know how to answer this. I said it is not the same because it isn’t backed up by institutions.

      1. Arun

        But if the effort to change the situation is merely to replace one racism with another, then all we have is a raw struggle for power, and objectively, it doesn’t matter who prevails.

  5. Arun

    On being “elitist” – suppose you have some knowledge of something. Say, music. Suppose you know music well enough to teach it. Teaching involves an unequal relationship between the teacher and the taught, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    The same goes with “elitism”. If elitism is a reflection of your having the right education and having gone to the right schools, of habitual wealth, of the right skin color, the right parents, the right religion or whatever, it is a rather useless and dangerous elitism. If elitism is based on your proven ability to actually do things, get things done, create, organize, diagnose and treat disease, etc. – real accomplishments – it is a justified elitism. The inequality inherent in this latter type of elitism is not to be feared. You can often help people by exercising your capabilities on their behalf. This may involve you telling people what to do and they having to listen to you. There is nothing wrong in that unequal relationship.

    1. Agree with you. But I was speaking more about how to approach the act of helping – without being condescending and elitist. I didn’t mean that anyone who can help shouldn’t help.

  6. rootedinbeing

    I have an example of how the personal becomes the institutional. In a predominantly white agency that works with predominantly marginalized people of color, not being culturally/globally competent turns ignorance into institutional discrimination. For example, at an agency I know of workers are having more and more clients who are undocumented. There is an avenue a worker can take while an undocumented client is in the system that can gain them citizenship. Problem is the majority of workers are white and from middle class backgrounds and do not choose to gain knowledge in this area because it is too much work, so their clients remain undocumented and absolutely languish in the foster care system. Anyways, this is how white privilege and personal views about immigration become structural racism on a large scale that further marginalizes those we claim to want to help.

    Is it invisible? Pretty much unless you work for the agency. Is it both personal and institutional? Oh hell yes.

    It is the everydayness of ignorance and discrimination from the dominant culture that is so damaging.

  7. Ahmed

    First concerning your point of what can be constituted as racism. If we set aside the problematic definition of race and if we assume to have a similar conception of what racism is, you can say that there are two types of racism to begin with. The unconscious bias which is a prejudgment roaming in our mind without being
    tangible for the first instance. This unconscious prejudgment passes to the conscious level ounce it has the required power structure and relations that allows its inacting without opposition. The ultimate power structure you can get to is an institution of power. Thus institutional racism thus can be defined as prejudgment being part of the consciousness of an institution. The difficulty of dealing with collective institutional consciousness is that it is distributed in nature and in order to see the structural underpinning one should look at the totality of the collective and not the individuals constituting this institution.

    Second, you are totally right when you said that in modern societies, extremist groups are highlighted as the exception or the marginal. This is totally right. New age racism is the fact by which liberalism has portrayed racism as an outcast. A
    scape goating mechanism is in play here where “those” racists are outcasted on the expense of the more pervasive structural racism. Here you should read about the Operation Gladio that was carried out by NATO stay behind organization (briefly NATO built secret structure within Europe to recruit fascist and right wingers to prevent communist take over) this is just one example of how racism runs deep within the structure of the Atlantic alliance. So you see here clearly the mechanism of racism passing from the conscious level to the collective consciousness. It is easy to pinpoint an individual rather than a collective as I mentioned to you beforehand. The collective consciousness through institutional power establish societal mechanisms of indoctrination that propagates subtle racist messages (that is undetectable by the liberal mechanism of tolerance) producing a narrative that , at first sight, appears benign but when structurally analyzed, the underlying racism unfolds. Here it is important to highlight the problematic role of language that structuralist like Jacques Derrida has pinpointed. The very language we are using is the product of a history of power. The histrocity of language has to be taken into consideration when looking at structural racism.

    Language is oppressive in itself but it is also emergent from human communication and cognition that built on predefined categories. There is here a vicious circle between linguistic racism and predefined racist categories. So to address the problem of structural racism one should analyze the language and the categories implied in it. By revolting against the language and fluidizing categories, one can destructuralize racism into a conscious process. A conscious process thus become more amenable to critical analysis on the reverse of structural racism . So the role of critical intellectual becomes then to being racism out of structure in the face of the consciousness to create a dialectical dilemma between what is there and what is claimed to be. A Hegelian dialect thus emerge that pinpoints into a problematic totality that then constitutes a precursor for a revolution. This is why I have a lot of respect and support the Black Panther Party because they realized that the problem is structural and to try to solve one should make an antagonistic confrontation with established norms. The book “Revolutionary Suicide” for Huey Newton (the founder of black panthers) is a personal anthology that tells you one message “Look here, racism is just structural, it is the everyday (mundane) person from doctor to professor to manager practice it”

    Then comes the concept of privilege which is the harshest struggle that everyone like us who is considered to be upper middle class educated face..It takes from me a lot of time to think about it. The easy thing to do is to dissociate your position in the society in terms of class and privilege & state your opinions and situations within an isolated bubble. Although it is important sometimes to dissociate from the society as one does not have to be tied too much to reality when it comes to abstract thinking but when it comes to bridge between the “elitist” academic abstract thinking and real politics, the challenge of the position emerges. First the advantage of the position of the bourgeoisie is that they have time to reflect and think upon their standing and the standing of the society even Karl Marx himself belonged to a bourgeoisie family. I think, to be realistic, one should use his or her status as bourgeoisie to the end by indulging in thinking but it requires the commitment to act against oneself as if you are driving the system to its self destruction. you cannot take an authentic antagonistic position due to your position of privilege e.g. presentation on anti capitalist struggles using MacBook. the issue is that we are deeply embedded in the system. The choice then is either to go out of the system which would mean living on an island or desert or find strategies of resistance that let the system acts against itself owing to its internal rotten logic. I believe in the latter choice that privilege can be used against itself.

    Another point relating relating to Grosfoguel concept of the coloniality of power which is the internalization of the power structure that was ounce imposed by the colonizer and also by established societal oppressive structures. This adds another dimension to the struggle as the privilege might not only be due to externalized factors but also due to internalization of being privileged as such. if you read “Revolutionary suicide” for Huey Newton, you will get this refreshing feeling for those who dared and left out all their privilege and decided to give up themselves totally for the revolution knowing a priori that a revolutionary is doomed from the moment he or she declared the revolution. The same holds true for Jacobinism during the french revolution, they give up their lives for the revolution. but these cases are considered to be the rare ones. I am not being romantic here but the issue of positioning keeps me anxious and it is problematic also for the queer rights movement in MENA

    It is also very important to highlight the intersectionality of many oppressors and factors make it very hard to move. It really reduces many times to “how much are you ready to give up ?” an example you see how marriage tam down people as a societal patriarchal mechanism to make you busy away from the power structure

    It is always for me amazing how much societal mechanisms are deployed to prevent revolt and recognition of structural racism or sexism etc.

    Thx for asking those questions. I think addressing them is the key beginning for emancipatory movement in MENA region which I am concerned with.

  8. Nancy

    Sara, I am using part of your essay for a paper in my sociology 100 class and was wondering if I can get the exact source of the Spivak quote you used.

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