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R's of American Racism:
Representation, Rejection, and Realization
Racism is a system of meaning that promotes and legitimated the domination of one racially defined group over another. Racism assigns values to both real and imagined cultural and physical differences, benefitting the dominant party and making negative claims about the subordinate, so that this dominance may be justified ideologically. The seeming illogical or even counterproductive nature of racism may be explained in that it comes in the wake of more concrete oppression. (Shohat & Stam, 1995) Through the last five or six centuries, and possibly earlier if one includes the history of the Crusades and anti-Semitism, light skinned Europeans have had a history of oppressing other nations and ethnicities through conquest, colonization, and enslavement. As the thin justification of religious zealotry wore increasingly thin through the ages, the justification of inferior race was no doubt especially important. So, the theory holds, light skinned Europeans who had previously been divided by tribal nationalities and seemingly disparate ethnicities increasingly came together under a single banner of "whiteness." This process was especially noticeable in America, where the polarity of "white" and "black" had unusually powerful legal ramifications. Racist ideology and imagery has historically (and contemporaneously) been used to legitimate such injustice in the United States by creating representational images of each racial underclass as somehow deserving of its lower status, placing the blame for injustice on the victim while theoretically rejecting the very category of race, and subsequently realizing these negative stereotype-prophecies through the maintenance of social division of economic and political power and domination.
To understand the reality of racism in America today, one must first understand the precarious position of the so-called "white man."
To perhaps even a greater degree than the other races and ethnicities to be considered, the whiteness which is defended by ideological racism is a construct. According to many writers, such as Jan Nederween Piererse (1992) & David Roedigger (1994, 1998), whiteness was cobbled together out of the disparate pieces of European ethnicity, and does not have its own independent identity. Whiteness is a "melting pot" of various cultures which have become formless and without personal definition. This leads to vicious hatred of other races who retain any sort of racial memory and identity. So black writers and others on the cutting edge of racial understanding speak of whiteness as something which must be eradicated, not as a racial identity or as a matter of eugenics, but as something which is neither an identity nor a genome but a construct defined entirely in its relationship to an imagined assortment of dark-skinned others, and this relationship is one of dominance and cruelty. "Whiteness describes...not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn't and on whom one can hold back." (Roediger, 1994, 13)
That whiteness is not so much a skin color as it as a status of privilege is made evident in the way in which blackness (as the binary opposite of whiteness) and its attendant stereotypes have traditionally been assigned to any party to which the dominant "white" class is finding itself in opposition. So, for example, it has been said with a straight face by very traditional writers that "The poor are the negroes of Europe," (Chamfort, in Nederween Piererse, 1992, 212) and again that "the british upper classes also regarded their own working class as almost a race apart, and claimed that they had darker skin and hair than themselves." (215, Nederween, 1992) In the same way that Africans were consistently referred to with denigrating stereotypes concerning their physical resemblance to apes, Irish people during the height of British imperialism towards Ireland were said to have an ape-like figure and to resemble gorillas. This sort of class prejudice leads to the existence of racial epithets and stereotyping aimed at lower class white people. They maybe referred to as rednecks or crackers or other such dismissive titles with even more social acceptance than other races may be dismissed openly as gooks or niggers. The idea of "white niggers" shows that race and class collide to a great degree. Similarly, women have been at various times compared in terms of temperament, intelligence, and sexuality to nonwhite races (and nonwhite races to women as well!), as well as having their accoutrements (such as dressing in feathers and beads) compared to those of "savages." For in the end the privileged "white man" is precisely that, both privileged in class birth and wealth and exclusively male.
So one might dismiss race as a being a mere construct or speak of the way in which whiteness is a class rather than genetic issue, but this would not be entirely accurate. It remains true that while the actual visible aspects of race and skin-color do not in themselves define "whiteness" and "blackness," racism and prejudice is nonetheless represented to the common mind by these things. In some sense poor or ethnic whites may become "black" and truly wealthy minorities raised among the upper class may become somehow endowed with "whiteness" of a sort. However, the representations which define the black and the white are still drawn in terms of color, and to ignore these representations is to ignore the core of the power struggle and the engrained racism in America. So from this point when speaking of whiteness, it should be assumed to be a reference to the dominant existence of the more powerful white male and those that identify themselves as part of that dominance. This white culture is defined as being a sort of invisible standard by which other work ethics, family values, sexuality, and so forth may all be defined as more or less. Each other culture is interpreted in the media in relationship to that invisible standard.
Other cultures and races are given symbolic representations -- stories, myths, and stereotypes -- which are repeated throughout the media and the common mind until they may even be believed by the minority group themselves. These representations provide a way for the treatment of the minority group to be rationalized. For example, African-Americans are frequently stereotyped as having poor family values and uncontrolled sexuality, which allows for the rationalization of denying support for African-American children whose parents are seen as irresponsible. In a related example, Native Americans were believed to be barbarous and have no sense of value for their land, so that it might be rationalized that they were herded into reservations where they could be Christianized. These symbolic representations also serve to maintain economic, social, and political power and domination through creating a subtle system by which individuals of a race may be denied "white" privileges not on the basis of their race but on the basis of supposed character flaws (which are assumed by virtue of that race). This may take on particularly systematic qualities. This is referred to in literature as a "possessive investment in whiteness." (Lipsitz, 1998) For example, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) has been known throughout its history to deny loans in areas populated largely by black people by saying that it does not finance in high-risk areas or in bad neighborhoods, though the "risk" and "quality" of the neighborhood is determined by appraisers often based solely on racial makeup. This funnels money away from black potential homeowners into the pockets of white buyers. Even positive stereotypes, such as those concerning Asian-Americans and their academic and economic abilities, can be used as a justification for systematic prejudice, such as that which fails to recognize the serious needs in many parts of the Asian immigrant community which is obscured by the success of those who immigrated straight into the middle class. ("Model Minority...")
Each of these stereotypes which feeds the institutionalization of prejudice is perpetuated not just by hand-me-down racism of the antebellum variety, but in the far more sinister realm of popular and even supposedly liberal and sympathetic media such as films and popular culture entertainment. "Cinema...became the epistemological mediator between the cultural space of the Western spectator and that of the cultures represented on the screen, linking separate spaces and figurally separate temporalities in a single moment of exposure." (Shohat & Stam, 1995) So it is no accident that many writers in discussing the realities of racism must also deal with the representation in media which is at least theoretically concerned with a rejection of the excesses of racism.
Each race has its own story of media ignorance and intolerance, yet certainly the way in which the narratives of the Native American "Indians" has been systematically ignored or falsely romanticized stands among the worst example. According to the predominant media image which has been presented since the coming of Columbus, the indigenous Americans are consistently an almost reflexive and unthinking people who were willing to, metaphorically or really speaking, sell their birthright for a mess of porridge. Shohat and Stam (1995) speak extensively of the…[continue]
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