“What are you?”
“I’m white.” (Okay.) “I’m black.” (Okay, but I’m wary.) “I’m Chinese-Vietnamese.” (Okay… let’s just check off Asian.) “My mom is white and my dad is Mexican. (Um… okay… “White, Hispanic.”) “My mom is part Indian, but her dad was black, and my dad’s parents were white American and Egyptian.” (Which stereotype can I use to define you?) “Mom’s white and dad is black.” (Who are you kidding? I can look at you and see that you are black.)
Welcome to our racialized society. But you don’t need a welcome, do you? There has never been a conscious moment in your life when you did not classify your fellow human beings on racial terms. You always knew who was white, who was black, and who fit into those other, somehow less important categorizations of humanity. And as much as you may want to deny it, you probably treated people in, at least subtly, different ways based on the characteristics you perceived in them due to the way they looked.
It is also generally accepted that racism was a means for those in power to oppress and control those who had different physical characteristics. Slavery, many agree, was a method for whites to control the means of production and, thus, wealth. The same could be said for the colonization and exploitation of other ethnic and racial groups. The dehumanization of other human begins based on their arbitrary racial classification was seen as enough justification for oppression. But what is the origin of the ideology that some human beings are superior to others based simply on such an ambiguous idea of “race?” The concept of race is a socio-politically constructed concept that is facing opposition and continuing to be a subject of discourse due to scientific research, intermarriage, and the burgeoning emphasis on class rather than race.
One of the questions that elicits strong opinions is whether or not it is possible for a minority group to practice racism. To examine this question, I, the author of this paper, am choosing to use the definition of racism put forth by Omi and Winant in their book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (1994). Racism, according to their study, is “those social projects which create or reproduce structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.” Here, we need to define both the concepts of “social project” and “essentialism.” From there, I propose to examine whether these definitions support or refute the claim that minorities cannot be racist.
The idea of a social project can be reduced to that of a racial project. Racial projects, or racial formation projects, according to Omi and Winant are “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.” In other words, they are concepts that attempt to explain the reasons for racial differences while also using those explanations to construct structural institutions. This is a very complex process that involves ever-shifting and evolving ideations of racial identity. With the white race being dominant, they are able to create the definitions that control and create systems of power. The question remains whether minority racial and ethnic groups can also create these projects and affect the institutions that may or may not contribute to racial discrimination.
Essentialism denies the differences within racial groups. As defined by Omi and Winant, it is a “belief in real, true human, essences, existing outside or impervious to social and historical context.” This could be easily compared to the biological theory of race, in which all people who share the physical features of a certain so-called race all share the same innate, inner characteristics. Essentialism is a key component of racism, as it prejudges individuals on a superficial level and automatically ascribes tendencies and behavior based on appearance. There is no doubt that people of all racial and ethnic groups have been socialized to make assumptions based on appearances, but is that universal essentialism enough to justify claims that minorities can be racist?
Another aspect of exploring the idea of whether minorities can be racist is the notion of hegemony.
Both racial projects and essentialism play important roles in creating and sustaining hegemony, which is the influence or control over another a group of people. There are two factors which allow hegemony to exist: coercion and consent. The first involves the use of force, while the second is the point at which the dominated group accepts, and even possibly agrees with, their subordinate status. Coercion is obvious in the colonization of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. What is more interesting is how the dominant white race was able to garner the consent of those that they oppressed. One major example of this is the slaves’ acceptance of Christianity. Another was the acceptance of the Native Americans into selling and trading with their colonizers. Eventually, these positions in life became established as the status quo. As Pem Davidson Buck states in Worked to the Bone (2001), “People allowed their sweat to flow up to enrich others.” One interesting aspect of coercion and consent, mentioned in Buck’s book, is the trading of alcohol by the Europeans to the Natives, in an attempt to get them addicted. This could be seen as a matter of consent that was hidden in the coercion of creating an addiction. Which aspects of hegemony can be further examined as reasons that minorities can or cannot be guilty of racism?
Before answering this question, it is important at this time to consider the views of other scholars such as Cornel West. West acknowledges that racism has taken form as a means for the dominant white class to control wealth through enslavement and exploitation, but he argues that other factors were at play first, allowing whites to view other races as subhuman. The scientific revolution, though ground-breaking in many positive ways, marked the moment when it became not only accepted, but also considered a great bastion of rationality (and thus, humanity) to classify human beings based on physical characteristics, which in turn were seen as a measure of innate qualities such as intelligence and civility.