In this post, I analyze and discuss the article, “Defining Racism: Can We Talk?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. She wrote the piece to establish an eye-opening take on the definitions of “prejudice” and “racism,” and also describe how both are being actively and passively used in society.
She includes details of her own past experiences, and the experiences of others, to make the argument that “racism” isn’t exactly what a lot of people think it is: simply a synonym of “prejudice.” She wrote the piece with the intention to open people’s minds about these definitions.
The main argument in the article is that racism is more complicated than most people think. Tatum describes racism as “a system of advantage based on race,” and argues that one does not have to be actively racist to benefit from racism. She describes an example of a white woman who does not make much money, thus affected by both sexism and classism, but still benefits from a “systematic racism” in the United States that provides more privilege and power to white people.
Tatum also includes the argument that her definition of racism can only apply to white people, because whites are the ones that benefit from systematic racism. She claims that the word “racist” should be reserved for whites, because people of color do not benefit from the system of race in our society. If a person of color expresses prejudice against another race, Tatum says that this means it is simply racial bigotry—not racism, since people of color are systematically at a disadvantage in society.
A difference between “active racism” and “passive racism” is also described in this article. Tatum states that active racism is made up of “blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination,” something like an Archie Bunker figure, and claims that this is how most people would define a “racist.” However, she claims there is another type of racism, passive racism, which is more subtle. Things like “laughing when a racist joke is told” and “avoiding difficult race-related issues” are included here. In order to be “actively antiracist,” one needs to personally take a stand when racist things are done, and actively try to create progressive change.
The article creates a meaningful discussion about what we, as a society, mean by words like “racism” and “prejudice,” and also offers refined definitions for each and a personal opinion about who can be racist and who can’t in our society. The article was effective in sparking better ways to talk about the topic.
With that said, I agree with what Tatum presents in the article. I believe that many of her points about “passive racism” are often overlooked in our society, and in some cases, simply assumed not to exist. For example, if white people do not take a stand and get involved for progressive change in racial issues, then how will we ever overcome them? Defeating racism is not just a goal for people of color; it should be a goal for everyone.
While it may seem scary or intimidating to stand up against racism and be “actively antiracist” as Tatum describes, I believe there is no other way to defeat racism in our society or at least help minimize it. If most white people continue to ignore the lasting effects of racism and pretend that there is no system of “white privilege” that remains in the U.S. and our society, then these things will last forever. One of the most interesting points that Tatum made was how a white person can freely do just about anything they like and not have to worry about that being labeled as a “white” thing by society or representing a “white” point of view, since they would likely be treated as more of an individual.
I was somewhat surprised by this article since it represents a view that I’ve held for a while, but one that is not publicly shared by many. As a society, we may believe that ignoring racism is the best way to deal with it, but I believe that’s not true. In order to defeat racism and not become passively racist, both white people and people of color need to actively stand up against racism when given the chance, instead of fading into the background and just hoping it will go away.