Social Justice Usage
Individual and institutional practices and policies based on the belief that a particular race is superior to others. This often results in depriving certain individuals and groups of civil liberties, rights, and other resources, hindering opportunities for social, educational, and political advancement. (The National Multicultural Institute)
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 101.
From a critical social justice perspective, the term racism refers to this system of collective social and institutional White power and privilege.
Racism: White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of people of Color. Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between Whites and people of Color.
New Discourses Commentary
Critical Social Justice thinks about racism in a systemic fashion (sometimes phrased “structural,” though this may not mean quite the same thing). Though the “system” in question remains somewhat ambiguous, roughly meaning “everything that happens,” Critical Social Justice Theory details many specific types of racism under this “systemic” umbrella, including active racism, passive racism, cultural racism, institutional racism, and aversive racism. It can even refer to the system of knowledge in place (see also, epistemic oppression), knowledge itself, or ways things are spoken about (discourses). This means that in Critical Social Justice, “racism” refers less to individual acts of racism and more to ways that the entire system (meaning everything to do with social organization) manifests in a way that privileges some races while disadvantaging others.
Under a systemic understanding of racism, individual acts of racism—as we usually understand the idea—can still be understood as racism. In fact, all are so long as they fit the “prejudice + power to implement the prejudice” model that relies upon a systemic understanding of power dynamics. That is, an act of racial prejudice can only be understood as “racism” under the Critical Social Justice rubric if it flows from a position of greater power to one of lesser power, i.e., from domination to oppression, as described by Theory. This understanding of racism ultimately comes from critical race Theory, in part including a racial re-theorizing of Foucault’s ideas about knowledge and power, which renders it at least partly postmodern in its orientation.
In practice, this means that white people can be racist against people of color, but the reverse is not possible (and racism from one person of color to another can be understood only intersectionally, perhaps by consulting the Matrix of Domination – see also, BIPOC, positionality, and strategic racism). Some sources, in fact, including Is Everyone Really Equal?, a book coauthored by Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility), explicitly indicate that racism is something that only white people do. Furthermore, any individual act of racism is to be considered intelligible only as a part of (and proof of) the system of racism that is Theorized to pervade society (see also, white supremacy).
Though Critical Social Justice will still understand racism in the usual ways (while seeing it as proof of a broader “system of racism”), it also considers the following to be examples or proofs of systemic racism in action:
- Evidence (or even claims) of any achievement gap between white people and (usually non-Asian) people of color (see also, model minority), especially black people (see also, anti-blackness and BIPOC). Under Theory, these gaps could only occur if there is a system of racism that causes them. Thus, even when no discrimination or anti-discriminatory policies (e.g., equity policies) are in place, the existence of any disparity in outcomes must still be the result of racism that is hidden mysteriously throughout the system (see also, health equity).
- The state in which no such achievement gap presently exists in any direction, although one against minoritized groups existed in the past. The lack of an achievement gap favoring minoritized groups here implies reparations have not been paid, usually through equity initiatives that would favor them. NB: This means of identifying the presence of systemic racism is applied when a claim about achievement gaps is shown not to apply or not to be relevant. That is, you will hear this appeal to history when no problem exists in the present.
- Supporting “ideologies” such as meritocracy, universalism, individualism, human nature, liberalism, the melting pot, and so on.
- Participation in “white culture,” which can include keeping to a schedule, working to achieve a meeting agenda, relying upon science, evidence, and reason (see also, master’s tools) over, say, emotion (see also, epistemic oppression and epistemic violence), speaking common-parlance English (see also, linguistic justice, cultural sensitivity, and cultural responsiveness), and many other things that are definitely best not racialized.
- Seeing race or not seeing race (see also, colorblind and racism-blind).
- Any racism that flows downward in the direction of power (e.g., white to brown to black) at all, specifically because a society that “allows” racism to occur in any form whatsoever must be systemically racist for that to be possible. (This understanding is rather chilling, isn’t it?)
- Not positively liking “non-white cultures,” especially “black culture” (see also, blackness), or any particular aspects of these (see also, cultural racism and new racism), or liking them while white (see also, cultural appropriation).
- The existence of words that can be understood as implying or connoting racism (even if they do not in reality, either because usage evolved or because it never did). For example, the term “master bedroom/bathroom” is sometimes given as “proof” of systemic racism, alleging that it is what slaveholding houses called the room for the master, though this is not true (the term first arose in a catalog in the 1920s). This type of “systemic racism” is fundamentally postmodern in that it derives from Jacques Derrida’s claim that the history of a word leaves a “trace” of its former meaning in present discourses (apparently even if that “history” is an anachronistic fabrication).
- Disagreeing with critical race Theory, especially (but not limited to) while being white. Disagreement with Theory about race is nearly always taken to be proof of upholding systemic racism. The underlying belief is that Theory is the only authentic voice speaking out about the “realities“ of racism and fighting it, and thus disagreement with this voice upholds racism and is thus part of the system of racism (see also, white fragility, white talk, colortalk, and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback).
- Not believing Theory, critical race Theory, or critical whiteness studies or their claims, especially while white (see also, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, white ignorance, and willful ignorance, and also, white innocence, white comfort, and white equilibrium).
- Crying while white, especially if female, double-especially after being accused of being a racist under this systemic definition (see, white woman’s tears).
These features and the others mentioned here are often described within Critical Social Justice Theory and activism as the “realities” of (systemic) racism. What is meant by “realities” here often has very little to do with reality, as it refers not to objective reality but to the “lived experience” of subjective realities as politicized and interpreted through Theory. This view proceeds from an overwhelmingly postmodern (specifically Foucauldian) point of view that to discuss ideas in terms of their relationship to objective reality misses the point that they’re inherently political.
Of note, from the examples of the Critical Social Justice literature (provided above and below), it is made extremely clear that unless one is actively antiracist (specifically as understood in the Critical Social Justice sense), then one is racist by virtue of “supporting” the racist system. This type of “racism” is to be understood in the sense of participating in, or colluding with, the extant system of racial domination (see also, complicity, white complicity, racial contract, racial stress, and white solidarity). That is, one either accepts the Theory of Critical Social Justice and acts upon it, or one is racist and/or supporting “systemic racism.” There is no neutrality. Theory holds racism and the need for antiracism to be present in all social interactions (especially cross-racial ones) and, in fact, sees it as fundamentally constitutive of the existing social order.
Many sources in the Critical Social Justice literature indicate that systemic racism is also to be understood in terms of “historically accumulated” privilege. This is a view that the “system” was built by white people to benefit white people (which has been true, at times) and so it cannot get away from that relationship with racial power dynamics by any means other than completely dismantling it and starting over (which is radical and unlikely to be true – see also, revolution). Thus, a system having been racist at some point in its past, especially at its founding, means that it is systemically racist forever (see also, 1619 Project and genealogy). Again, this is mostly a postmodern view, deriving both from Foucauldian Theory about epistemes and Derridean Theory about the “traces” of words (here, applied to systems, read as texts).
The Social Justice view is that the existing social systems and structures have grown up under a social order that privileges certain races over others, and there is no way the influence of that bias could not have manifested in significant ways (see also, structuralism and poststructuralism). These ways (and no other possibilities) are then blamed for the totality of achievement gaps and other sociocultural disparities and named “racism” (see also, institutional racism, anti-blackness, and cultural racism). While there is a kernel of validity in these claims, the totality of the Theory is very unlikely to be right. In fact, it seems to get the matter exactly backwards.
A key point to register here is that, while the usual definition of racism is partially recognized within Critical Social Justice, under its purview, “racism” means something different, or at least something more—and more vague. Racism has been re-defined as a system. It’s not an action or a disposition. It’s a mysterious system that is immanent (ubiquitous, ordinary, permanent, but just beneath the surface – see also, mask). Further, being racist is a property sometimes explicitly connected to white people (see also, whiteness) and, in some renderings, one that white people cannot possibly escape. Even being actively antiracist begins with recognizing and engaging one’s own inherent complicity in racist systems, following Theorists Robin DiAngelo and Barbara Applebaum, for instance. For DiAngelo, the goal isn’t to cease being racist, which is impossible; it is to “be less white.”
“Racism,” then, is a Trojan-Horse term because it is a powerfully morally salient term—one of the most morally salient in contemporary society—and yet it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. It is very different to be associated with some vague system of power than it is to intentionally engage in bigoted attitudes and actions against someone based upon facts about their racial, ethnic, or national origin. The Critical Social Justice meaning of “racism,” and what mandates follow from it, are thus able to be institutionalized in many cases because people are allowed to believe that “racism” means the common-parlance definition and, perhaps, something a bit more complicated to do with “systems of racism.” This is to all appearances a deliberate trick being played by advocates of Critical Social Justice on a good-intentioned populace, given the phrasing “systems of racism” (when racism is defined to mean a system in the first place).
1619 Project; Active ignorance; Anti-blackness; Antiracism; Authentic; Aversive racism; Bias; BIPOC; Blackness; Colortalk; Complicity; Critical; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural appropriation; Cultural racism; Cultural responsiveness; Cultural sensitivity; Derridean; Discourse; Dismantle; Dominance; Engagement; Episteme; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Foucauldian; Genealogy; Health equity; Human nature; Individualism; Institutional racism; Intersectionality; Liberalism; Linguistic justice; Lived experience; Mask; Master’s tools; Matrix of Domination; Melting pot; Meritocracy; Model minority; New racism; Objectivity; Oppression; People of color; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Postmodern; Poststructuralism; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback; Race; Racial contract; Racial stress; Racialize; Radical; Realities; Reality; Revolution; Science; Sexism (systemic); Social Justice; Strategic racism; Structural; Structuralism; System, the; Systemic power; Text; Theory; Truth; Universalism; Voice; White; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White Fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White silence; White solidarity; White supremacy; White talk; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance
(As endorsed by Dismantling Racism Training) A system of advantage based on race. A system of oppression based on race. A way of organizing society based on dominance and subordination based on race. Penetrates every aspect of personal, cultural, and institutional life. Includes prejudice against people of color, as well as exclusion, discrimination against, suspicion of, and fear and hate of people of color. Racism = Prejudice + the POWER to implement that prejudice. (Exchange Project of the Peace & Development Fund)
Structural Racism: The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege. This dominant consensus on race is the frame that shapes our attitudes and judgments about social issues. It has come about as a result of the way that historically accumulated white privilege, national values and contemporary culture have interacted so as to preserve the gaps between White Americans and Americans of color.
Source: Bunyasi, Tehama Lopez, and Candis Watts Smith. Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter. New York University Press, 2019, p. 15.
Typically, when people think of racism, they think of Jim Crow, lynchings, police with dogs, the N-word, and other overt behaviors and attitudes. That is an accurate description of a type of racism, but racism also exists in other, more covert and enduring forms, which we call structural racism. Structural racism refers to the fact that political, economic, social, and even psychological benefits are disproportionately provided to some racial groups while disadvantages are doled out to other racial groups in a systematic way. In the United States, this has resulted in white Americans having greater political, economic, social, and psychological benefits, on average, while people of color have more political, economic, social, and psychological disadvantages, on average. Nobody needs to do anything with bad intentions for structural racism to persist, but people across racial groups can intentionally or unintentionally assist in perpetuating racial inequalities. The thing about structural racism is that it is embedded in our everyday affairs, making it difficult to see if you do not know what you’re looking for.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 161.
For active racism, your examples might include telling or encouraging racist jokes, excluding or discriminating against people of Color in the workplace, racial profiling, and accusing people of Color of ‘playing the race card’ when they try to bring up racism.
For passive racism, your examples might include silence, ignoring incidents and dynamics that you notice, the inequitable funding of schools, lack of interest in learning more about racism, having few if any cross-racial relationships, and not getting involved in any antiracist efforts or in continuing education.
Revision date: 5/31/20