Why The Word “Racism” Worsens Racism, And Why We Must Organize #ICantBreatheSA Demonstrations

We shall examine the issues behind the Eric Garner protest and then lay out a rationale for an international parallel to it. This is important because tensions in South Africa are so high that one unexplained move to combat racism could set off a flurry of misunderstandings.

The Killing Of Eric Garner

A YouTube video shows Daniel Pantaleo, a white member of the New York Police Department, choke a black unarmed Eric Garner to death. Garner’s dying words are, “I can’t breathe” and they have taken on a hashtag life of their own.

It is important to lay out whether and in what sense the Eric Garner homicide was an act of racism. It was, and it runs parallel to other racist actions by Daniel Pantaleo. But the way we discuss and describe racism in each incident of racism worsens the problem. Here’s why.

Calling Out Racism Is As Important As Calling Out False Reports Of Racism

When people cry “racism” in a situation that is not about racism, it aggravates tensions among race groups. The impression develops that the complaint of racism is being used to stifle other legitimate conversations. The word “racism” is abused so often that it eventually paralyses even people who are opposed to racism. Then, when real and spectacular instances of racism occur, the outrage falls on deaf ears.

We see this in the pattern of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s killings. The word has become so easy that it’s lost its shock value. It had the power to scandalize, offend and outrage; now it’s just another word. We see this in the recent spate of racist incidences mostly concentrated in Cape Town. People are numb.

This numbness is not to be mistaken for ignorance about history and prevailing structural disparities, nor is it to be mistaken for selective amnesia, or unawareness of one’s racial privilege, or a tenacious holding to one’s privilege, or the desire to avoid tough conversations on race. It’s just helpless paralysis, similar to the kind you feel when you hear (and are guilted) about 40 000 kids starving to death while you eat three square meals a day. You may be on the better side of that inequality but you’re helpless to do more about it. And for what you have done, you might not be thanked. After all, you were just pretending to care. And when you try to tell people on the other side of the inequality that they, too, must examine certain patterns in their lives so as to be empowered – that change for equality is a universal journey – it’s always seen as a discriminatory statement, never an observation of fact. So you are paralyzed even if you want to help.

And when someone is caught in a similar double-bind in the face of racism, that person’s paralysis too, can be perceived as racism.

So the charge of racism begins to snowball and may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resentment and helplessness build up as a result of, but also in response to, the chronic and cynical accusation of racism.

These feelings ricochet across over and over but no one ever has the last word or final solution. Legitimate social and historical matters inconveniently do show up. But we must know where reality ends, where perceptions begin, and which people have a vested interest in the rest of us not knowing the difference. Because the difference is the difference between gaining an ally of a different skin, and remaining polarized. Nobody who says he seriously wants to end racism can ignore this aspect of the discussion, and if he does, then he’s using the discussion for other ends. He’s doing politics by other means.

This is why it’s important to be as sensitive to false accusations of racism as it is to be sensitive to actual racism. It’s also important to clarify and elevate discourse around racism so that the word regains a shock value that is proportional to and appropriate for the situation at hand.

Racism Is A Composite Issue, Not Solitary Problem

It does not stand alone. Racism is reinforced and undergirded by varying striations of invisible, unexamined privilege (see Peggy McIntosh’s “invisible knapsack“).

I imagine Daniel Pantaleo was a “good citizen” who was “raised right” with all the “sound morals” expected of the boys and men of his background. I am stereotyping him as the kind who would “take America back” to “right” values; he was raised among those that mistake respectability for moral responsibility. Was he a racist? That is less relevant than asking whether he wasn’t privileged before he was prejudiced.

“Privilege” is the unexamined mindset that says, “I am entitled to such-and-such unquestioned rights because I am such-and-such a type of person”. “Prejudice” complements “privilege” by saying, “My unquestioned rights retain their value only if those who are not as I am, and therefore are not deserving of similar rights, are denied the experience of equality. For in the day that they and I experience equality, in that day I will cease to be the privileged that I am.”

Correctly or not, privilege sees human rights as a zero-sum game where we can’t all have access to the same spaces and liberties because there’s only so much power and specialness to go around. Few people are evil or ignorant enough to wilfully hold on to prejudice; rather, prejudice attaches itself to privilege whether they know it or not. That’s why many either don’t know or won’t admit that they’re racist even if they are. Whatever sob story Pantaleo told the jury, this is the reason he got away with his crime; he can convincingly plead ignorance of racist impulses because he didn’t have to be prejudiced to kill Garner. He just had to be privileged. For the jury to admit that the technicalities of the law that absolve him are against the spirit of the law that condemns him, they have to admit that they, too, live in privilege.

And they wouldn’t admit that.

Now take this above formula and substitute anything. “I deserve to be in a position of exclusive power because I am Zulu”; “I deserve to be in a position where I can abuse the system because I come from a group that was previously disadvantaged”. Drop anything in. Black. White. Straight. Gay. Christian. Muslim. Male. Female. It’s the labels we carry that not only help us understand ourselves but also aid our quest in making the world about ourselves.

This is why I am worried about the monolithically black-and-white nature of the protests occurring in America. The killers in each of the protested instances were men. Where are the feminist offshoots of these protests? Eric Garner was not just a black man who was killed by a white man; rather, according to our formula, he was a person seen as deserving less privilege, killed by a person who felt he deserved more privilege. If we take the formula away and look at the killing strictly in terms of race and not the deeper issue, then we have no perspective from which we can condemn the jury that preferred to believe Pantaleo’s sob story.

Where are the queer theorists to question the socio-sexual oligarchies resonant beneath these killings? If we just confront the issue of zebra-stripe racism without a thoroughgoing investigation of the tribalistic mindsets and inequalities beneath that issue, it will deflect, firstly, into racism against other minorities (Latin, Asian, and Indian), and then later the same privilege-prejudice cycle will emerge again as other issues. Eventually it will re-sprout as white-on-black racism as it so often does in the States. That nation will be back to where it is now and where it was 50 years ago. It’s a cycle because all they ever focus on is “racism” and not the dynamics beneath it. Curing racism doesn’t cure racism: it boomerangs it.

The Word “Racism” Eclipses The Issues Undergirding The Composite Reality Of Racism

Racism exists atop undue feelings of privilege, entitlement and superiority. Superiority necessitates that there be an inferior, and privilege, that there be prejudice. A boundary between “us” and “them” must be marked out.

To his killer, Garner’s body was as accessible as a rape victim’s body appears to a rapist. By its nature, privilege is threatened by the autonomy of bodies that are not like itself, and seeks to demonstrate power over them in order that the boundary between the privileged and the prejudiced may be conserved.

So there are multiple interlocking and mutually reinforcing levels of privilege that Garner’s killer(s) may have been operating from. There may be white privilege, male privilege, and straight privilege involved. It’s important to add these privilege vectors up because it takes that many to make someone believe he has a right to manhandle someone else; put these privileges in uniform and the persons who embody them will think they’re God with the lives of others.

Without passing over multiple experiences, stories and persons, I propose that we need to use this clearly documented killing, and the inexplicable legal conclusion reached by the jury, to expose privilege first and denounce prejudice with it. This is the most vivid, most accessible and most intelligible case scenario of these dynamics there is right now; in crucial ways, its elements are easier to process than those of even local injustices.

I propose that each of us needs to say that under interconnected systems of oppression and suppression – under the sometimes literal weight of a person who cannot see how his privilege burdens those he holds in prejudice – I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe when the system is against me but denies that it is against me. I can’t breathe when the system reasons and legitimizes any and every form of violence and prejudice.

We can arrange a peaceful march from Durban City Hall to the Embassy Building (a block away) to tell them #ICantBreathe. Similar protests can be arranged in any city and in any country. We can write letter to the American Embassy. Garner’s killing justifies an international outcry and it may pull us together in a conversation that will help people understand injustices they currently don’t. In turn, we’ll hopefully be galvanized to also start constructive conversations about privilege back home.

As I write this, it is the Anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing. In 11 days, it will be our Day of Reconciliation. We must have started doing something by then.

I call upon NGOs, churches, activists and citizens of every colour, creed or confession to gather together to give a voice to the voiceless and the breath of life to those who cannot breathe. As we flesh out how and why Eric Garner got killed, we will also develop a simple, understandable framework for understanding and confronting other injustices back here.

Please feel free to forward feedback, advice and comments, thanks.



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