A person who is called racist will reflexively feel attacked. “Racist” is a very loaded word.
In North America and Europe’s increasingly diverse population composition, ‘racist’ these days seems to mean negative treatment or reaction to someone who is not from one’s identified racial grouping.
In the old days that was called racial discrimination or racial prejudice.
There is debate regarding the etymology of the term, despite the current connotation which allows for permutations such as ‘reverse racism”. The term is also conflated with antagonism against Diasporic Africans.
Fundamentally, ‘racism’ is a belief system that one racialized group is intrinsically superior to another. Those who subscribe to the belief and related practices are labeled racist.
Among Black people and White people there are distinct existential references to the term that are not surprisingly contrasting – as distinct as black and white, if you will.
So we can see that the term has come to mean different things to different people. One man’s racist is another man’s cultural defender.
When one of the defence attorneys for admitted killer George Zimmerman asked Rachel Jeantel to acknowledge as racist the slur murder victim Trayvon Martin used to describe the man following him on the night the unarmed teen was shot and killed, that attorney was relying on one particular interpretation of the term racist while Jeantel was relying on another.
Jeantel, 19, the last person to have a conversation with the unarmed teen – they were speaking by mobile phone – not long before Zimmerman shot and killed him, stated under questioning by Zimmerman’s defence attorney that Martin told her he was being followed by “a creepy ass cracka.” In an attempt to draw a characterization of Martin – since the murder victim was apparently on trial – the attorney then asked Jeantel if she thought the description was “racist”. He asked Jeantel the question repeatedly and each time, in her own way, she repeated that she did not think the expression was racist.
So many people had a good ol’ time making fun of how Jeantel presented herself during questioning, but when she correctly stated from a Black worldview that the term Martin used was not racist, there was little recognition of that.
Yet, when Zimmerman’s attorney attempted to use the term, elements of ‘reverse racism’ were in play to allow him to manipulate it.
Here were all the key components: A Black female in a courtroom reluctantly having to bear witness for a young Black male, now long dead. She is questioned by a White male in a position of authority, freely playing on a term linked to strong emotions of superiority and animosity.
In this situation – not lacking in irony – the lawyer asks this Black female if she felt her now deceased friend was using a term that would support her friend’s belief in whose racial superiority and whose racial animosity? His own? The person following him?
Jeantel was absolutely correct that Martin’s expression was not racist. The fact that the attorney was able to get away with such a line of questioning, however, is racist.
The fact that so few can see that, tells us that we are so deep into the miasma of discrimination by one group against another that we are inside-out about what racism actually is anymore.
Racial animosity and discrimination sadly can and do occur among persons and groups of persons of differing racial identifications. But racism as it functions presents in who holds positions of power, has the most wealth, makes the decisions on education focus, housing and employment levels; on how daily news reports are framed; on the balance of power in systemic discrimination and systemic privileging; who gets sent to prison; and who faces the death penalty – whether in an electric chair or on the streets of America as sanctioned by laws grounded in racism.
Toronto writer and columnist Pat Watson is the author of In Through A Coloured Lens, now available at Amazon.com