The comment thread on Edward Bland’s The Cry of Jazz was more contentious than I thought it would be, since several commenters basically called this early black nationalist a racist and even compared him (shockingly unfairly) to Leni Riefenstahl. When I read this Sara Luckey piece (published several months ago) on the myth of reverse racism, I immediately thought of that thread and the need for a lot of white people to learn more about the relationship between racism and power:
Racism exists when prejudice+power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread media bias that contribute to the oppression of the rights and liberties of a group of people. Racism is systemic, institutional, and far reaching. It is the prevalence of racism within social structures and institutional norms, along with implicit and explicit enforcement by members of a group, that allows racism to run rampant and unchecked. America is a country seeped in white privilege, and our social structure is built on colonization and forced slave labor that then turned into further systemic and ongoing oppression of PoC. We have a culture that presents whiteness as the norm and all else as ‘other’ or different. White is presented as the beauty ideal, the main face in the media (unless we’re talking about criminals, then PoC get unfairly misrepresented), the standard, the regular. It’s a structural problem that affects the perceptions of jurors in criminal cases, admissions to colleges, funding for public schools, welfare and food stamp programs, the redrawing of district lines that affect where we vote, who we see represented on T.V. and how, what schools people have access to, what neighborhoods people live in, an individual’s shopping experience, access to goods and services; it’s extensive and a part of the fabric that let’s whiteness remain dominant in American culture.
Not only was Edward Bland and other black nationalists not racist toward white people, they were responding directly to the racism they felt everyday, racism that white people in the United States simply cannot understand. It’s not racist for him say that white people suck at playing jazz, even if you completely disagree with the point, precisely because not only is Bland not saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to play jazz but because there is no power structure behind the statement. Black nationalism was a response to systemic racism. The Tea Partiers today who are claiming they experience racism because they hear Spanish at their favorite buffet restaurant/are forced to admit that black people can vote/whatever completely misunderstand what racism even is. Unfortunately, so do too many white liberals.
More from Luckey:
The situations in which you, fellow white person, were involved were unfortunate and inappropriate, this is true. But to claim that these experiences were ‘reverse racism’ both diminishes and minimalizes the real and actual experiences of PoC who really do encounter racism. There is no system of oppression in America that actively works to oppress and subjugate white people. Sorry to break it to you, but your individual suffering is just that, individual. The individuals acting against you do not have the institutionalized power to actively oppress you in every facet of your life, nor would their racism be upheld and supported by government, media, and legislation if they did. Because you’re white.
Reverse racism isn’t real because we live in a culture that supports and enforces whiteness as the norm and PoC as other. If you experience discrimination, prejudice, or bigotry, it’s valid to be upset about it and want to talk about it. It is not valid to claim that it is reverse racism, and certainly not valid to claim that it is racism on par with anything like the institutionalized racism that PoC will come into contact with. When a white person starts talking about reverse racism, what they’re really doing is derailing a conversation to make it about them. Their white privilege leads them to believe that what they say both matters and needs to be heard and is important and the conversation should stop to focus on their perceived ills. You know what? When somebody is talking about racism they have experienced, that conversation is not all about you, nor should you expect it to be, so stop with the derailing and just listen and learn.
When white people complain about experiencing reverse racism, what they’re really complaining about is losing out on or being denied their already existing privileges. And while it may feel bad to realize your privilege is crumbling and the things you’ve taken for granted can be taken away from you, it is unfair, untrue, and disingenuous to call that experience reverse racism.
People need to take the relationship between race and power seriously before taking about racism.
….Based on this comment thread, let me just say how hard it is being white when a few people of color might not like you because of the hundreds of years of systemic racism placed upon their people that you benefit from everyday. I guess we whites will just have to console ourselves knowing that we hold almost every position of power and authority in this nation’s political, economic, and judicial system, that prison sentences for whites are far less than for people of color, that whites have higher income and lower unemployment rates, etc., etc. But hey, that jazz guy in 1959 said that white people can’t understand the music and some people today demand you take history and power seriously before talking about racism, so let’s all call the whaaaambulance!