Frequently Asked Questions about Race and Prejudice
“People of color” is an umbrella term that encompasses all people who do not identify as white/Caucasian, including Black, Latinx, indigenous, and brown people, among others. The term exists as an acknowledgment of the shared experience of non-white people living under white supremacy and systemic racism.
However, the question of who gets to identify as “people of color” or even “white” is open to debate. For instance, according to the U.S. Census, Middle Easterners (such as Arabs and Persians) are white. A similar issue exists with Latinx identity. “Black” and “African-American” are sometimes (not always) interchangeable, although whether one can use the word “Black” or “African-American” for someone depends on various factors, such as the person’s country of origin and their own preferred identity.
While Africans and African-Americans are Black, not all Black people are African. Some Black people in the United States resist being identified as African-American because they see it as an “otherizing” of their Americanness, noting that white folks in America are not classified as “European-American” but only people of color are (such as Asian-American). Others, however, prefer being identified as African-American as a reclamation of their African heritage, since they were forcibly removed from their native Africa centuries ago and enslaved in the Americas.
So when referring to someone who is Black, it is better to identify them as Black or African-American. To be more careful, ask them which term they prefer. For people who are not Black or white, use the term “non-Black people of color” (people of color who are not Black, such as indigenous, Asian, Latinx, etc.).
Note that these terms work only in the context of the United States. Race works differently in other parts of the world, and someone who is a person of a color in the U.S. may be identified as white elsewhere.
Stereotypes can be harmful because they are a distortion of the truth and reality of the race of people they target. They are rooted in an assumption that all people who share that race have certain (negative) qualities, characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, etc. Usually, these assumptions are based on other people’s very limited experience (often from inaccurate and unreliable sources) with the racial group in question.
Racial stereotypes are another tool to portray racial-ethnic groups, and are often the first step towards dehumanizing a group of people and can lead to violence and genocide. Racial stereotypes are not innocent.
It is also necessary to add that positive stereotypes are also very harmful. Positive stereotypes are ideas and beliefs about a group of people that are generally considered favorable. These include the claim that Asians are good at math or that African-Americans are good at sports. They are harmful because not only do they generalize, but they also invalidate those who do not fit into these stereotypes.
Systemic racism means that racist ideas, practices, laws, etc. remain commonplace in the fabric of American society. Even if officially racism is illegal, there are ways that it persists because of its systemic nature. It appears in employment (who we are, who does the hiring, how people are hired, etc.), in housing (which neighborhoods will be housed by whom and which ones will have better schools and resources, etc.), incarceration (how crime is defined, which communities are surveilled and monitored more for which crimes, etc.), and so on.
Yes, America is founded on many great values, including equality and freedom for all. However, historically and up until present times, these ideals have not been available to everyone. For example, women have not always been considered equal to men in U.S. history, nor have white people to Black people, and so on.
White privilege refers to the idea that one benefits from being white, even if they do not see that benefit. It does not mean that white people do not struggle at all; neither does it mean that white people’s success is not earned — only that their race is not a factor in their struggles. Privilege comes in many different ways, such as class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. Often, the advantages that a person enjoys are unseen, and they expect them. One example of white privilege is the normalizing of whiteness and the “otherizing” of all other races/racial groups. Another example of white privilege is when white people speak about race, they are taken more seriously than people of color speaking on the same issue (read materials by non-white authors to learn more about white privilege).
Saying “I don’t see color” implies that one does not recognize racism or the lived experiences of people of color. While in theory, all humans are equal, and it’s great to believe that, too, the reality is that people do suffer because of how they are perceived by other people. If we “don’t see color,” then we also don’t see racism, and that means we may not engage in interrupting racism. We must all interrupt and challenge racism so that the principle of equality of all people can be put into practice. Perhaps what people really mean to say is that when they judge a person, they do not do so on the basis of their skin color, but look at their character, as Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged us to do.
Since the idea of “all lives matter” did not exist until the Black Lives Matter movement came about, it serves as a distraction from the anti-Black racism that Black Lives Matter calls attention to. It goes without saying that all lives matter — everyone is important, indeed. And Black Lives Matter does not mean that Black lives are more important than other lives. It instead is bringing attention to Black suffering, to the fact that Black lives are devalued in the United States, that Black people are more likely to be discriminated against and even killed in this country than any other group of people because of their skin color. “All lives matter” is therefore a racist response to an urgent call for action toward something that hopefully we can all agree is wrong — racism, including and specifically anti-Black racism in this case.
This phrase “Black-on-Black crime” is seldom used outside of the context of Black Lives Matter, which makes it suspicious and means it is not well-intentioned. It refers to the idea that there is rampant crime within Black communities and that those crimes are ignored while crimes committed by the police (e.g., police violence against Black people) are emphasized more. However, these two issues — violence committed by civilians versus violence committed by the state (e.g., police) — are not the same and should not be treated the same way. The implication in this statement is that when a Black person is killed by another Black person, that is just as important as when a Black person is killed by the police. It assumes there is a disproportionate amount of crime committed by Black people against other Black people.
But actually, this is a very offensive phrase for several reasons. It deviates from the actual issue at hand, as it is often used to derail conversations on violence against Black people. It is also racist because it demeans Black people with the assumption that they are more criminally inclined than others. Finally, it is misleading: research shows that people are more likely to commit crimes against people of their own communities than outside; people tend to commit crimes in their own communities, in proximity to where they live, no matter what race they belong to. For example, white people are mainly killed by other white people. Since there is no conversation on white-on-white crimes when they are common too, highlighting Black-on-Black crimes is racist and ill-intentioned.
Still, Black Lives Matter activists do, in fact, not only talk about intra-communal violence but also work to eradicate it. Both Black Lives Matter as well as Black leaders, activists, and scholars have always worked to reduce crime within their communities, but their efforts have gone ignored. In fact, Black people themselves care more about violence committed in their communities than non-Black people do.
This phrase “Black-on-Black crime” also has a violent and racist history: it has been held against Black communities to defund access and resources and increase funding in police departments, leading to higher surveilling of Black communities, which further leads to the criminalization of acts done by Black people. One last point to note here is that the word “crime” is defined very loosely for Black communities such that Black people are penalized more, and more harshly, for the same crimes committed by white people in America.
A person who is not-racist is simply that — not racist. Claiming to not be racist isn’t helpful and is often meaningless; even white supremacists often don’t think of themselves as racist and insist they are not. Simply being not-racist is not enough; we must also be anti-racist. This means we must interrupt racism — be involved actively in stopping it. It is this action that makes the anti-racist person different from the not-racist person. This action can come in the form of calling out racism (e.g., racist jokes or racist stereotypes), supporting policies for racial equity, and so on.
It can be hard to point out to someone that they are being racist. It’s important to be gentle, so embarrassing them or calling them out publicly, or calling them racist, may not be an effective approach. Most people recognize racism is wrong, but they tend to get defensive when called out for their bigotry.
Some helpful tips are to:
Ask them to clarify or explain their position or statement. (This is also helpful when a racist joke is made in your presence). They just might catch themselves and see the problem. If they don’t, have a specific point to show them that it is problematic and why.
Ask them how they might respond if someone else was saying that about them, or what they would do if they were in the place of the group they are being racist toward.
Listen to them, don’t be aggressive, and do not interrupt. This will make them unwilling to listen, and conversations are difficult to have if someone is not listening.
Don’t lose hope! We have plenty of reasons to keep faith in ourselves and others around us! There is a lot one can do to be an ally and be anti-racist instead of simply being non-racist.
Read more about racism in the United States, preferably materials written by people of color, especially Black authors and scholars. These include books such as “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Tatum; “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo; and “When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. You can Google lists of more books to read by non-white authors.
Follow people of color on social media and pay attention to what they are saying. Trust them and respect their voices. It’s OK if they are saying different things; in fact, that’s necessary because all people of color are not the same, and they do not have identical experiences nor do they process or respond to their experiences with white supremacy the same way.
When given an opportunity to speak for people of color or on behalf of them, do not take that opportunity; instead, pass the mic and give that opportunity to a person of color who can speak for themself. Let go of the idea that one must give a voice to someone else — because all people have a voice, but not all people have a platform. To be a good ally, create platforms.
If one is called out for being racist or holding racist opinions, it’s important not to get defensive and/or demand a detailed explanation. Instead, acknowledge and admit the wrong done, apologize for the harm done, and commit to learning and growing. It’s OK to admit when one is being racist. We live in a white supremacy, and racism is all around us; many of us have internalized racist beliefs and attitudes, and sometimes, these are subconscious acts. It’s also important not to put a person of color through the burden of explaining things that can be researched and learned individually. The library is always an excellent place to start.
Talk about race and racism with friends, family members, children, coworkers, and others — in the absence of people of color. Interrupt racist behavior when you see it, whether it is a racist attack on a person of color or someone telling a racist joke.
If eligible to vote, vote for people who promote justice and compassion for all, not for those who deny the existence of racism.
“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo
“When Police Kill” by Franklin E. Zimring
“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson
“Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment” by Angela J. Davis
“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson
“Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi
“How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi
“How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and a Fight for the Neighborhood” by Peter Moskowitz
“Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor” by Layla F. Saad