Power and Racism
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
I wanted to write about the intrinsic link between power and racism, ahead of my book review of Ijeoma’s Oluo book “Mediocre”. As I have delved deeper into understanding racism, looking at its origins, and how it is upheld, I cannot escape how power is influential to both. Chattel slavery for instance, the buying and selling of slaves by someone who has complete ownership of them, existed because the powerful wanted to maintain and improve their wealth. Indeed, slave owners would have even justified the abuse of black lives because they thought of themselves as superior.
The coalescence of slavery and colonialism gave rise to the nature of capitalism, which then culminated in the white supremacist system that still reigns. Exploitation, and the need for more wealth and power, self-perpetuates. With more power comes more wealth comes more exploitation comes more power etc. If we are to change the impact that power has on the global community, power, and how we define it, how we sustain it, and how we revere it, all has to change.
As Ijeoma Oluo writes in her first book, So You Want to Talk About Race,
“Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race when those views are reinforced by systems of power”. It is the “power” bit that she stresses.
She points out that:
“When we look at racism simply as any racial prejudice we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter fighting only the systems of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself.”
In short, “We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change”.
Lots of other people have been writing this and, as I say, the more I read, the more I realise that this truth is inescapable. To remove inequality, we need equality, and this can’t happen whilst some people, institutions and nations hold large amounts of power over others.
Just to add an extra element of panic, I have just done some PREVENT training (anti-terrorist training legally required to be undertaken by educators), and have seen a whole host of new right-wing organisations who I hadn’t ever heard of, who have a pervasive, well-networked, dangerous, scary white supremacist/ white nationalist/ anti-feminist message. It seems clear to me that they feel threatened by diminishing power and control as impact as diversity and inclusion improve. This is something that antiracists need to be cautious of but, importantly, it also highlights how dangerous it can be to aspire to power. When young, impressionable, vulnerable people fixate on power and influence, and do not achieve it, they can become angry, desperate and open to extremist thought. Power is problematic.
Antiracism, the fight to actively combat racism, is not antiracism if you are not active. And you are not active unless you are challenging systems of power and oppression. Tokenistic gestures are not enough. A nice little graphic explaining what microaggressions isn’t really going to tip the balance in favour of equality, however good your intentions. After being inspired by Emma Dabiri’s brilliant book What White People Can Do Next I wrote on Instagram that “If you care about racism, you should care about all inequality and we should not just be fighting singular actions that discriminate against some, but the systems that discriminate against all. That means dismantling white supremacy, the patriarchy, capitalism and environmental exploitation.” Easier said than done, obviously. But, as a start, we should be treating all systems of oppression for what they are: drivers for inequality. The more power and wealth someone or something has, the less someone else has. Whilst there are billionaires, there will always be poor people being exploited. We must stop giving those with power more power. We must stop giving those with wealth, more wealth. Instead we need to redistribute our resources that everyone has a born right to. Challenge the system. Perhaps if we all do, it’ll start to break.
We should also challenge any nationalistic thoughts we hold. In the words of George Orwell, taken from his Notes on Nationalism from 1945, “Patriotism is of its nature defensive. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power… Although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world”. We don’t have to think of nationalism exclusively as the passionate, aggressive love of one’s country of birth but, actually, any institution. Football is an easy example but political party, sports club, even activist circles, could be guilty of developing nationalist tendencies. If equality is our aim, whilst challenging power should factor into the equation, selfishness, boastfulness and self-righteousness, needs to be taken out of it.
I listened to a Green Dreamer podcast featuring Dr Alexis Shotwell on how to embrace complicity and take responsibility. It was such an illuminating talk but one idea that came out of it, which I particularly liked was this idea of prefiguration: we start to build the world that we want in our current practices. If, for example, we want a world where people treat each other with respect, then we start doing it now.
I also loved another quote from the podcast which I thought could resonate with lots of people who often feel flustered or overwhelmed by the changes they’re implementing:
“We don’t have to do everything. We just need lots of people to be working on the thing that they are connected to for a long time with steadiness and joy. And that’s better than a few people working on a lot of things with guilt, franticness and desperation."
Whatever it is, we have to do something good. Something selfless. And we have to maintain it, without attacking those who try but sometimes get it wrong. We need to do something good together. Something genuinely for the benefit of others. Our world can literally not handle inaction any more. Earth demands it.