“When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist,” Mr. Giuliani said in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” – NYTimes.com
A lot of people conceive of racism as prejudice based on skin color. By this definition, black people in America can be racist towards white people. I think black people can sometimes be prejudiced, angry and/or unfair but they cannot, by my definition of the word, be racist. The word racism, to me, refers to the persisting disadvantages of being a person of color in this country. So no matter a black person’s actions or attitude, discrimination against white people (Americans) is not equivalent to discrimination against black people because black people are oppressed in this country whereas white people are privileged. The oppression is currently in a lingering socio-economic form, as well as culturally ingrained bias which makes us fear young black men in hoodies consciously and unconsciously. I also believe the popularity of light-skinned black actors and musicians such as Will Smith and Halle Berry is evidence of America’s racism. Racism is not just hatred. To fear a black stranger is racist. But how can a human being be blamed for feeling fear?
Let’s think about the word “racist.” It’s a powerful word that invokes blame. As black people in America have struggled to lift themselves out of oppression, the word “racist” has come to help them with its righteous power to blame and shame the oppressor. It’s important to me not to take any of that power away from black people. I believe using the word to refer to cases where white Americans are being discriminated against is a big mistake. Discrimination against white people in America happens, but it is not a cultural problem that I care about. Discrimination against black people on the other hand is a problem I do want to talk about, and I want to use the word “racist” to talk about it because of its power to grab your attention and make you take the conversation seriously. When we hear the word “racist” in America, we come to the edge of actually feeling something about the injustice. By logically reasoning our way to the thought that “black people can also be racist” I believe we subconsciously seek refuge from the real feelings the word threatens to bring up. By bringing ourselves back from the brink of real feelings, I believe we support white America and the status quo more than black Americans. So in the end, I believe there is a “racist way” to use the word “racist”—that is, a way of defining the word which silently supports black oppression—and there is a way of using the word that is in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters.
TL;DR: Don’t call black people racist.
Now for cultural appropriation. The issue with cultural appropriation is oppression. White people still have many advantages in this country like richer parents and an easier time getting hired and an easier time not getting shot by police. When, in addition to this, the white person is also free to enjoy and participate fully in whatever style of music and dress black people have adopted, it’s easy for a black person to take it as a slap in the face and feel angry. While it saddens me to see that, I would not blame any black person for reacting this way. Consider the prevalent myth that beautiful art rises out of the ashes of suffering. Blues music originating from slaves in the south, a songwriter inspired by deep heartbreak, hip hop culture (DJing, breakdancing, rapping, graffiti and fashion) emerging from impoverished black urban communities—these are examples. If beauty in art and culture comes from suffering, then truly it is a slap in the face for the oppressor or privileged person to adopt the sweet cultural fruit while society collectively ignores the bitter soil of injustice from which it came. Whether or not this origin-of-beauty myth is true, I believe the correct response to a black person who feels anger about cultural appropriation is empathy. The politics of forgiveness dictate that it is always the abused who has the opportunity to love and forgive, at precisely the moment when s/he would be justified in feeling anger and hatred. So white Americans cannot simply assume they are invited to participate in hip hop, etc., let alone invited to commercialize and profit from it. There is both love (in imitation qua flattery) and further injustice involved in cultural appropriation, and therefore anger is warranted. But what if the angry person is being a bully? Now we’re onto violence vs. non-violence and that is another matter. Buddha, Gandhi and MLK certainly had a beautiful way of doing things, but I don’t think the Allied Forces in WWII or the Black Panthers were entirely off base either. For the answer to the violence quandary, which is spiritual in nature, I defer to my guru, Meher Baba. http://discoursesbymeherbaba.org/v1-100.php
TL;DR #2: The correct response to someone claiming cultural appropriation is empathy. (Empathy means “I hear you.” Sympathy means “I feel sorry for you.” Saying “I hear you” is different than saying “O.K.” which implies agreement as well as acceptance.)
TL;DR # 3: By letting “racist” be a word that includes in its definition discrimination against white people, we are putting discrimination against blacks—a real problem—on the same level as a mostly theoretical and mostly irrelevant problem (in America), and thus subtly diminishing the importance of black issues, lessening the impact of the word, and making ourselves care less about it. The prevailing definition of “racist” neuters and dilutes the word. By conceiving of racism as a double-edged sword, we dull the only relevant edge of that sword, reducing its power to cut into society and make people think and feel. And who does that benefit? Who does it serve? Not black people.
TL;DR #4: Racism is not just prejudice. The idea that “black people can be racist, too” ignores the significance of racism as a denotation of institutionalized injustice, and disarms its specific power to point that out.