This is the fourth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. See more about the series or ask your own question here.
“I get that white people can’t be victims of racial prejudice in the US. I get the definition of ‘racism = prejudice+power.’ How do you explain that to a working class white person in an instance where a person of color clearly has institutional power the working class white person does not (For example a Principal and a young student, a cop, etc). My go to approach has been to basically say ‘they weren’t being racist, they were being an asshole,’ but I don’t know how effective that is.”
I’ve written about explaining the “prejudice + power” definition of racism in the past, here. That post didn’t address class imbalances specifically, but it’s useful background.
In short, I personally don’t think it’s necessary to insist on the “prejudice + power” definition in all contexts. The “prejudice on the basis of race” definition of racism is a legitimate one. It’s been around a long time, and insisting that it’s wrong will often get you a dictionary shoved in your face.
What I suggested saying in that other post was that the activist/scholarly definition of racism exists because it serves a purpose — that prejudice which has the weight of history and power behind it operates differently than prejudice which doesn’t. If you don’t want to use the term “racism” to refer to prejudice backed by that kind of power that’s fine, but the distinction remains an important one.
Okay. So that’s where I’m coming from generally on this. On to your specific question.
To my mind, the scenario you describe highlights a real weakness in the “prejudice + power” shorthand. It’s meant to reference the kind of hegemonic power I talked about above, but the word “power” on its own doesn’t really convey that. As a result, it’s not at all unreasonable for a white person confronted by it to point out that (1) sometimes people of color have power over white people, and that (2) it’s pretty weird and gross not to acknowledge that fact.
But if “power” as a word choice is maybe unfortunate in this context, the dynamic it’s trying to highlight is real. I’m not sure this analogy would work for everyone, but it might be useful to suggest that existing in society is like being in a boat on a river. Even when you’re just sitting there not doing anything, you’re being carried along by the current.
For four centuries in this country — since long before this country even was a country — anti-black racism has been part of the current that carried everyone along. It was part of the way that people — white and black — understood the world. And it wasn’t just a matter of ideas. It was built into the structure of the society legally, economically, politically. In every way. And though I’ve been using the past tense here, neither those structural inequalities nor the ideology of racism have disappeared. They remain, and they remain profoundly important.
Anti-black racism is part of the current we’re carried by, and that current is the difference between racism and prejudice. A white person who is prejudiced against black people is rowing with the current of the river, and even a white person who isn’t prejudiced against black people is traveling downstream just by sitting there in the boat.
Now, yes, there are circumstances in which anti-white prejudice is backed up by institutional power or locally prevailing attitudes. (There are eddies in a river that will carry you upstream sometimes too.) But the overwhelming truth in this country is that engaging in anti-white prejudice is rowing upstream. It’s not impossible to row upstream, and it’s not at all impossible for a white person to be harmed by racial prejudice. We do an injustice to the truth and to real people’s lived experience when we deny that, or dismiss it. On an individual level, a white person’s experience of racial prejudice can be devastating, and legitimately so.
But the river is the river.