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Unpacking Systemic Racism


Updated: Nov 18, 2020

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Unpacking Systemic Racism
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How does one define someone who assumes an identity different from yours—this could be in terms of race, caste, class, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and most importantly culture? One would usually call them the Other—other nations, other cultures, other genders, and the list goes on, as long as the power structures live on.

The term ‘othering’  was coined by Gayatri Spivak for the process through which imperial discourse creates its ‘others’ as subjects to be mastered upon by the colonial ruler.[1] How would the process of ‘othering’ then be understood and translated in everyday discourse? To put it simply, it is when one identifies themselves as the normative and accepted way of being—race, gender, religion, caste, class, ethnicity, thereby labelling those falling outside that normative description as the other. Thereby, also implying that the other is secondary to themselves, simultaneously labelling themselves as the master in subtle to the most apparent ways. ‘Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group.[2] Rosa Parks

‘”Are you going to stand up?” the driver demanded. Rosa Parks looked straight at him and said: “No.” Flustered, and not quite sure what to do, Blake retorted, “Well, I’m going to have you arrested.” And Parks, still sitting next to the window, replied softly, “You may do that.”’[3]

In 1955, a high school student in Montgomery—Claudette Colvin  was asked to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus to which she refused saying that it was her constitutional right to be seated. As a consequence, she was removed from the bus and arrested. Colvin and Rosa Parks along with other protestors sparked a yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system.[4]

Rosa Parks was often subject to racial discrimination and violence, which then led her to become active in the civil rights movement from a young age. ‘By the time Parks boarded the bus in 1955, she was an established organizer and leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. On December 1, 1955, another Montgomery resident and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery. ‘Instead of going to the back of the bus, which was designated for African Americans, she sat in the front. When the bus started to fill up with white passengers, the bus driver asked Parks to move. She refused. Her resistance set in motion one of the largest social movements in history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.’ She not only actively resisted by refusing to give up her seat on the bus, but she also helped organize and plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This resulted in her being jailed for refusing to give up her seat and she lost her job for participating in the boycott. Her active resistance and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott led to the integration of public transportation in Montgomery.[5]

‘Although the movement is best known for catapulting the career of a young reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott was largely planned and executed by African American women. The Women’s Political Council (WPC) was an organization of black women active in anti-segregation activities and politics.’[6]

Further learning 

What do conventional sources not say when they narrate the story of Rosa Parks’ life and times? Let’s watch this to further explore those silences. The White Man’s Burden[7] -Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White Man’s burden— Send forth the best ye breed— Go send your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need To wait in heavy harness On fluttered folk and wild— Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child Take up the White Man’s burden In patience to abide To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride; By open speech and simple An hundred times made plain To seek another’s profit And work another’s gain Take up the White Man’s burden— And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better The hate of those ye guard— The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah slowly) to the light: “Why brought ye us from bondage, “Our loved Egyptian night?” Take up the White Man’s burden- Have done with childish days- The lightly proffered laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise. Comes now, to search your manhood Through all the thankless years, Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers! What is the white man’s burden?

The white man’s burden as a phrase originates in the above poetry by the British writer Rudyard Kipling as his call towards inspiring the sustenance and thriving of American imperialism, therefore to take up the ‘burden’ of empire as had Britain and other European nations. It was first published in February 1899, coinciding with the start of the Philippine American war and the US Senate ratification placing Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and Philippines under American control.[8]

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the white man’s burden as the alleged duty of the white peoples to manage the affairs of the less developed nonwhite peoples.[9]  This phrase has come under huge criticism worldwide, particularly so with the rise of postcolonial studies, given the distinctively strong racial undertones that it professes and propagates as it hands the task of ‘civilising’ the rest of the world into the hands of the colonisers. Thus, also advocating colonialism in the strongest ways. If one were to read that, it implies that it is only the white colonisers who are civilised and capable of bringing any sense of civilisation upon the rest of the world of colour that lacks any sense of being or civilisation as they would like to call it, for which the whites have to continue to rule over them. The attempt here was also to instil a sense of gratefulness among the colonised people towards their rulers for imposing their ways of life on to them in the garb of their civilising mission. However, a little into the pages of history and one would know that the colonial project was nothing but extreme exploitation of the colonized—primarily the people of colour by the white colonizer.

Activity 1:

The critique of Rudyard Kipling and his poetry has seen a long list including writers, academics, students, activists. Now, let’s read this:

‘Manchester University students paint over Rudyard Kipling mural.’                                  ( Suggested questions for discussion:

  • What in Kipling’s writing do you think encouraged the kind of protests that it did?

  • Is there something inherently problematic with what he is proposing?

  • What is the role of propagandist literature in the process of empire building?

  • Do you find any resonance with the literature produced during nation building for a country like India?

What is Race?

Race is a term for the classification of human beings into physically, biologically and genetically distinct groups. The notion of race assumes, firstly, that humanity is divided into unchanging natural types, recognizable by physical features that are transmitted ‘through the blood’ and permit distinctions to be made between ‘pure’ and ‘mixed’ races. Furthermore, the term implies that the mental and moral behaviour of human beings, as well as individual personality, ideas and capacities, can be related to racial origin, and that knowledge of that origin provides a satisfactory account of the behaviour.’[10]

The concept of race becomes particularly relevant and critical in studying the emergence, rise and thriving of colonialism that had far reaching implications in establishing the rhetoric of the need for the colonial power to rule over the subject people in order to civilise them. ‘By translating the fact of colonial oppression into a justifying theory, however spurious, European race thinking initiated a hierarchy of human variation that has been difficult to dislodge. […] Racism can be defined as: a way of thinking that considers a group’s unchangeable physical characteristics to be linked in a direct, causal way to psychological or intellectual characteristics, and which on this basis distinguishes between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ racial groups.’[11]

Drawing from the colonial discourse around race, it has become one of the sharpest markers of difference which has translated into a systemic sociopolitical process of discrimination, perpetuating white supremacy in the most subtle to the most apparent forms. While the physical markers of colonialism may have long ended, it is its psychological implications that have sustained, even adapted itself and are now thriving to navigate and expand the newer version of Western hegemonic discourse.

Let’s watch this: The Merriam Webster dictionary at present defines racism as:[12]

1 a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2a a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles b a political or social system founded on racism 3 racial prejudice or discrimination

Following the killing of George Floyd which has sparked massive anti racist protests across the UK and the campaign by a twenty two year old graduate student Kennedy Mitchum, the editors of the Merriam Webster dictionary have agreed to revise the existing definition of racism.

Activity 2:

In the light of the above discussion, let’s think about this. Q1] Do you think there is a need to revise this existing definition of racism? Why? Q2] If you were to write a revised definition for racism, how would that read? Q3] What would you think is missing from this definition? Do you think that missing element has any significant role in how the term is understood or misunderstood? Download the module here.

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