The subject of racism is a sensitive one. As a society, we tend to not only avoid speaking on it, but we also avoid acting on it. There are so many opinions and so much pain and anger surrounding it that it is just easier for us to ignore it. Even though it is convenient to ride the metaphorical moving sidewalk that is complacency, there are many writings that make racism and oppression more visible and easier to understand.
One of the most potent and digestible of these writings is Racial Formations by authors Michael Omi and Howard Winant. In their article, the two authors describe the concept of race and racism on both macro and micro scales, and they provide the social, historical, and scientific connotations of both of them. The themes that are present in the Racial Formations text I find are transcendental, and can be tied to other written articles regarding topics that fall under the umbrella of oppression and other forms of social inequality based on identity.
Race and racism is commonly defined by using historical and societal implications. Having an understanding of the past is critical in appreciating all identities and social complexes, and is especially important when understanding the oppressive dynamics between demographics. Predominantly, Racial Formations by Omi and Winant effectively describes the history of race and oppression with the use of real life historical examples.
One of their examples is of Susie Guillory Phipps, who sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records when they failed to allow her to change her racial classification from black to white. Phipps found herself engaged in a legal action that caused many people to question what race really is. Being the descendant of a black slave and an eighteenth-century white painter, Phipps was legally labeled black. When she called for her label to be changed, she was refused under a 1970 state law that stated that anyone with at least one-thirty-second “Negro blood” was considered black (Omi and Winant 11).
This sparked the questions: what makes a person black, and what really determines someone’s race? This case is referenced by Omi and Winant to emphasize the nuance that race isn’t real and is instead something constructed by a narrow-minded society unwilling to see everyone in the same light.
With Omi and Winant analyzing and invalidating the need for separate races, Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks effectively identifies the evolution of the term “white” and invalidates race even more. Brodkin addresses the fact that the original definition of “white” is vastly different from our current view of what defines being white. Originally, to be white was to be Anglo-Saxon, or part of the Nordic race which were considered to be the real Americans. However, Brodkin grew up under the impression that “jews were simply one of a kind of white folks and where ethnicity meant little more to my generation than food and family heritage” (Brodkin 27).
Brodkin had never viewed herself as anything other than white, because Jews were smart and successful, which are characteristics commonly associated with white people. The invalidity of race is a theme that is also addressed by Pem Davidson Buck in her text Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege, where she goes into great detail about the history and invention of race and, in turn, racism. Buck’s main thesis in Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege is that race was essentially invented early on in our history – around the sixteen-hundreds.
Buck states in her writing that before Bacon’s rebellion, a point in history where slaves of both African and European descent revolted their masters, oppression knew no race. She states, “African and European indentured slaves made love with each other, married each other, ran away with each other, lived as neighbors, liked or disliked each other according to individual personality” (Buck 21). Contrary to what we have learned slaves to be, slaves were of any race you could imagine. It wasn’t until the seventeen-hundreds that the first notions of race were born, and later evolved into the system of oppression that we know of today (Buck).
According to Buck, what really set racism into motion was the upper hand that the white elite already had, as the majority of slave and land owners were white (Buck). Because of instances like Bacon’s rebellion, white people indulged in “teach[ing] Whites the value of their whiteness” (Buck 21). At this time, the two “binary” races acted like oil and water – oil rose to the top, and water stayed down at the bottom. Thus, racism was born.
The reason why people of color were demonized and put to the bottom of society is because white people were threatened by their advocacy for basic human rights. This is the key to understanding why we have racism today, as there isn’t any biological or physiological characteristic that sets people of color apart from white people. One of society’s very first definitions of white was synonymous with intellect as explained by Buck.
Buck uses the term “psychological wage” to emphasize how desperate the white elite was to set people of color apart from them, and to give value to whites who were financially equal to people of color (Buck 24). The psychological wage was also used as leverage to oppress people of color by not allowing to learn to read or further their educations in any way past the basics they were taught in school.
One harrowing example of this is expressed by Richard Write in his autobiographical sketch entitled The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, where he accounts for a time where the only way that he could check out books from the public library was if he used the identification of a white man (Write 31). He explains, “No doubt if any of the white patrons had suspected that some of the volumes they enjoyed had been in the home of a Negro, they would not have tolerated it for an instant” (Write 31). His short stories and poems are imperative to our society’s formation and understanding of literature from the time period. I guess that’s what happens when people of color are given the resources to be literate.
In The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, Write discloses the physical and mental oppression on the grounds of racism that he was familiar with from a very young age, Write accounts his vivid experience of being at “war” with the elite white kids in his neighborhood. In an experience that he describes as being his “first lesson in how to live as a Negro”, as a child he was attacked by the neighborhood white kids, and they exchanged fire (Write 1). He accounts that he threw cinders or rocks, and on the opposing side, the white kids were throwing glass bottles. At the most, the damage caused by a cinder is a bruise. But glass bottles would cut, carve, and leave scars. This one simple detail in the story speaks volumes: the intention of the white kids was malevolent, and they meant to do real, possibly permanent harm.
The sooner we become aware of the system of oppression that we either benefit from, or suffer from, the sooner we can work on repairing a broken society based on invalid premises of good and bad. As sensitive it is to talk about, a key part of understanding racism and oppression is to critically address the history. It is crucial to learn about the things that used to happen to racial minorities, because those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it.
- Brodkin, Karen. “How Jews Became White Folks.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, by Paula S. Rothenberg and Soniya Munshi, 10th ed., Worth Publishers, 2016, pp. 27–37
- Buck, Pem Davidson. “Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: an Integrated Study, by Paula S. Rothenberg and Soniya Munshi, 10th ed., Worth Publishers, 2016, pp. 21–26.
- Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. “Racial Formations.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: an Integrated Study, by Paula S. Rothenberg and Soniya Munshi, 10th ed., Worth Publishers, 2016, pp. 11–20.
- Write, Richard. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Race, Class and Gender in the United States: an Integrated Study, by Paula S. Rothenberg and Kelly S. Mayhew, 9th ed., Worth Publishers, 2016, pp. 23-32.