The Critical Importance of Naming 21st Century Racism

by Agunda Okeyo 

I am a huge admirer of Robert F. Kennedy. In learning American history as a youth, I was struck my RFK’s profound humanist transformation from a righteously conservative politician (dare I say, racist) to a truly revolutionary equal-rights activist. Undoubtedly the death of his brother and the racial complexity of the time motivated this change--and likely cost him his life. In an unprecedented visit to apartheid South Africa in 1966 he said the following to a rapt audience at the University of Cape Town, South Africa:
I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
His introductory words were met with uproarious applause for their witty misdirection and candor. However, as I consider the recent assassination of nine black churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church in Charlotte, NC, within a climate of nationwide racist incidents, I am at a loss for eloquent oratory.

Before the advent and widespread use of cell phone cameras, many white Americans would say racism is not longer a major issue. Even still, some European Americans and others who adopt a supremacist mentality still believe the innumerable incidents of racist violence and inequality in America are not systemic. On the day to day, most black people are not called an epithet or violently attacked, often a quiet hand pushes us into uncomfortable or dangerous situations before the guns are drawn. One of the best descriptions of this quiet hand of “post-racial” America is colorblind ideology introduced by Duke University sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Colorblind ideology or colorblind racism is an reaction to progress in civil rights, backlash to desegregation, insufficient systemic change and the advent so-called “political correctness.” Essentially, by saying things like “I don’t see color” or “slavery is a problem of the past” or “this is an isolated incident” we allow ourselves to ignore ongoing structural racism; from public slights to the nation’s wildly overgrown prison system.

Furthermore, the relationship between sexism and colorblind racism is perfect illustration of our cultural climate—a nation at war with women and black people. In 2014 professor Kimberlé Crenshaw of Columbia University and her associates, Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda, published a study detailing the racism experienced by black girls in schools called "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected." In her research Crenshaw reveals that girls of color, and especially black girls, are subject to discipline that is harsher and more frequent than that of their white peers. Indeed black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, exposing a racial disparity in punishment greater for girls than for boys. Surprised?

The adverse and violent treatment of black women and girls is hardly addressed on the national stage because the trials of men and boys generally get the most attention. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve pitched to liberal white media about black women and girls to no avail, while blood-soaked stories about black men and boys have a better chance of publication. In March this year, Crenshaw, a vocal anti-racist scholar and feminist, launched a week-long discussion series during the UN's International Decade for People of African Descent called #HerDreamDeferred. The series focused on issues facing black women and girls as single mothers, low-wage workers, professionals, and students in a “colorblind” America. Unsurprisingly, Crenshaw conducts her research in “information deserts” with scant resources about the socio-economic determinants of life for black women and girls.

The violent murder of nine innocents in Charlotte by supremacist terrorist Dylan Roof further illustrates how race and gender relate to one another. Roof claimed the victims’ lives because he felt black men ‘rape our women’ and yet six of the nine victims were women. As much of a tragedy as it is to lose all these community members and leaders in South Carolina, black women bear a significant burden in its aftermath while white and black men dominate the discussion. The fanaticism of white supremacy and its obsession with black masculinity plays itself out in the destruction of black women’s lives, whether as ignored victims of racism in schools, as the wives, sisters and mothers of slain men and boys or victims of terrorism themselves. I imagine this is what makes the case of alleged suicide victim Sandra Bland in Texas so upsetting. How can a woman on her way to a job interview end up in a county jail to turn up dead three days later? Her death, currently under federal and state investigation, elicits a familiar fear within the black community and certainly among black women where black women’s bodies bare an oft ignored burden of racist violence.

America is founded on perpetuating a racial gulf between “whiteness” and “blackness.” This serves to exalt the fading white majority and propagate the need to “become white,” as most European, some Asian and Latino and even a few black citizens have done. Probably the hardest thing to convey to a “colorblind” racist is that they are indeed racist and that almost every system that we rely on in this country is biased in favor of whiteness over blackness—from hospitals to schools, from corporate America to non-profits/NGOs, from daycare to after school programs and so on. In the 21st century we live with a racism that hides in plain sight:

As a black woman, I experience racism at least once a day in moments described as “micro-aggressions:” when I pick up coffee on the way to work, attend a play, shop for at a flea market, drink a pint at a bar, or go to the doctor. I have always known race to be a cultural construct which manifests as discriminatory practice. Yet, the full extent of the emotional hurt from the ongoing experience of racism is hard to understand if you haven’t lived with it. Furthermore, it is very rare these days to have someone call you a racial epithet. What is common is to experience racial bias veiled in the manner I outlined above—systemic, insidious, debatable and deeply hurtful. Then there are the murders and physical violations that bring it all home. The greatest antidote to prejudice in all forms is to name it, as the feminist campaign “Name It, Change It” demands. Therefore, I am naming the U.S. as a racist society. Thus, we must continue to interrogate the law and the supremacist ideologies that bred murderers like Dylan Roof and caused the “mysterious” death of Sandra Bland.

Photo: Rena Schild / Shutterstock

Agunda Okeye is a New York City based Kenyan American writer. She was raised between New York and Nairobi, Kenya. She writes about politics, culture, and film from a black African woman's perspective. Her work has been published by Salon, The Daily Beast, Indiewire, and Women's Media Center. She is also a producer of a monthly all-black women's comedy show at Gotham Comedy Club, one of New York's top comedy clubs. Follow her on Twitter @AgundaOkeyo.

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