The Construction of Race and How Racism is Maintained: A Conversation Facilitated by Linda Wiggins-Chavis

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On July 14th, BAPL began a series of workshops about race and racism facilitated by Linda Wiggins-Chavis. This series, called “Dialogues on Racial Justice: An Introductory Workshop Series on Issues of Systemic Racism in the United States,” continues the much needed work of grappling with racism in our communities in order to facilitate necessary institutional change. The first dialogue had over 40 community members registered, and addressed the concept of race in our culture, how the idea of race is socially constructed, and how racism is maintained. Linda Wiggins-Chavis, a theologian, writer, activist, and teacher, emphasized that while she would provide information from her research, she hoped that the workshop would be a true dialogue, and therefore encouraged honesty, vulnerability, and questions from participants. She structured the workshop to facilitate participation by alternating between discussing scholarship about racism, and asking the group—who were of all different ages and backgrounds—questions, which they answered first on their own and then discussed as a group.

As participants entered the zoom meeting, a slideshow of names of Black people that have been murdered because of police brutality contextualized the urgency of this anti-racist work and created a somber tone. Wiggins-Chavis began with the question: Why do you think studying race and racism is important? Participants answered by reflecting on how inequality hurts everyone, and others suggested that since racism is ingrained in all of our institutions and is integrated into everyone’s life, it matters to everyone. After these initial reflections, Wiggins-Chavis used quotations from books by Cornel West and Robin DiAngelo to illustrate why studying race and racism matters. First, she argued that racism creates trauma and thus deserves widespread attention. Second, she stated racism must be studied because it can only be recognized and stopped once those who are complicit understand it.

By referencing DiAngelo, Wiggins-Chavis was able to demonstrate that studying racism reveals the elements in American society that support the institutionalization of false racial hierarchies. These power dynamics cannot be addressed until white people reckon with the ways that they are complicit in racial hierarchies. DiAngelo cites silence, defensiveness, argumentation and pushback to be ways that white people react to discussions about racism; for DiAngelo, white people’s defensiveness allows racist policies and institutional systems to persist unchecked. For white participants, what this scholarship makes clear is how essential it is to have conversations about race, to accept the knowledge and experiences of Black people, and to be open to criticism rather than being defensive, in order to begin combating racism and oppression.

Powerpoint slide by Linda Wiggins-Chavis.

Like Cornel West indicates in the quotation from Wiggins-Chavis’ presentation above, racism only has a chance of being addressed in our society when its not only about Black people doing the anti-racist work, but when we see anti-racism as integral to addressing the flaws in all elements of our society. Through sharing scholarship and inviting personal discussion, Wiggins-Chavis was able to demonstrate that studying racism is essential because without knowledge and open conversations about how racism works, individuals can go on believing that racism is only hate speech and hate acts, and that they therefore are “not racist.” In fact, unless you are actively working against racist policies and systems, you are facilitating racism—simply by doing nothing. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the ways that racism manifests in institutions that people passively support.

Let’s Discuss: How Do We Define Race?

Many participants reflected that race in our society is tied to skin color, is construed as genetic, and is often conflated with ethnicity or cultural background. One participant argued that race is something that has been imagined, designed, and entrenched as an idea about the inherent distinction between peoples. Essentially, race is an idea that has been constructed as a tool used to divide and conquer, and sow divisions between people. Other participants noted that race is something people identify with. Even though race is socially constructed, the idea of race has real effects in the world.

Wiggins-Chavis, using theorists like Richard Delgado, Maurianne Adams, Ian Haney Lopez, and George Lipsitz, among others, emphasized three things about defining race. First, race is not actually biological as many believe it to be. Rather, it is a socially constructed concept. There is nothing essentially unifying about people with white skin, black skin, or any other skin color. Secondly, race is not a fixed or absolute category, but rather it has changed over time. In fact, there is well documented evidence of how groups of people like the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants in America were at first considered a separate race from white people, but over the course of the 20th century became integrated into what is now considered “white.” Evidently, if race changes like this, this is further proof that race is constructed and not actually a biological reality.

Finally, Wiggins-Chavis emphasized that race, even though it is a made-up idea, creates a social reality for certain groups of people. In other words, despite the fact that among people who identify as Black there is more variety than there is similarity, racist ideologies about Black people impact their lives as they experience discrimination in a variety of institutions. Those with power have constructed systems and policies to treat everyone who is Black in this essentializing way, reducing them to their race and erasing their individuality. Just because race is constructed, does not mean that racialized oppression does not have very damaging effects.

Let’s Discuss: What is Racism and White Supremacy?

Powerpoint Slide by Linda Wiggins-Chavis.

The above slide from Wiggins-Chavis’ presentation illustrates the range of scholarship that she drew on in order to offer a nuanced discussion of race and racism. From these starting definitions of race, participants were able to piece together the nuances of what constitutes racism and white supremacy. While it was easy to point to the KKK as a symbol of white supremacy and racism, the group quickly realized that there are many more subtle forms of racism and white supremacy. The very belief that race is biological—and therefore that divisions in society along racialized lines are deserved or natural—is racism and white supremacy. It is not racial differences that have resulted in inequality in our society, but targeted policies and cultural beliefs that disenfranchise Black people and retain power for white people.

Other participants spoke about racism from their personal experience of it. One participant shared that racism feels like no matter what they do, they will never be good enough. White supremacy, for this participant, is about an imbalance of power. The participant argued that living as a Black person or a person of color in this country is to live with the sense that there is always the threat of being killed, silenced, or starved through some systemically racist institution or another, unless you complied to what white groups and culture hold as normal or beneficial to society. Notably, those who spoke from personal experience of racism both described racist verbal and physical assaults by white individuals, but also the ways that institutions—like schools, public housing, and medical providers—give more access to white people and create barriers for people of color. Racism, for these participants, was the full force of policies and personal attitudes that threaten the well-being and livelihood of specific people because of their race.

Using the example of the racist incident in Central Park perpetrated by Amy Cooper, one participant defined white supremacy as the ability to weaponize a system for your own advantage and the disadvantage of others. Finally, another participant articulated the ways that white supremacy can manifest when whiteness is construed as the norm to which all things are compared. Ubiquitous practices, such as having the majority of the books students read in schools be about and by white people, indicates that stories about white people are more important to learning. With Wiggins-Chavis’s expert analysis and synthesis of these ideas, the group came to the understanding that racism is undergirded by white supremacy, or the erroneous idea that whiteness is superior to Blackness. The implementation of this idea into policies and institutional structures results in racism and inequality.

Let’s Discuss: How is Racism Maintained? 

The group as a whole was incredibly open and thoughtful during the conversation, and because there was so much participation, the group did not get to fully delve into the many ways that racism is systematically maintained. However, Wiggins-Chavis was able to demonstrate that racism is maintained by constantly being reinvented into policies, narratives, and institutional structures that reduce the power of Black people and other people of color, and uphold the power of white people in this country. Some of the pernicious and continuing examples are listed in this slide from her presentation:

Powerpoint slide by Linda Wiggins-Chavis.

It is important to note that many of these policies that support racism and oppression do so by masquerading as other issues. For example, the war on drugs has masqueraded as a question of safety or order in our societies, when it is a tool to criminalize and jail Black and brown people. In a similar vein, food insecurity is construed as a problem of class and poverty, but in fact race and class intersect. One study has shown that the rates of food insecurity for non-white households is twice that of white households. Effectively, what this slide shows is the myriad ways that racism manifests in our society, and is hidden by our refusal to acknowledge the implications of racism in all of our institutions. Wiggins-Chavis expanded upon the historical development of these systemic evolutions of racism and white supremacy in her subsequent workshop called “400 Years of Oppression: Systemic Oppressions in America from Slavery in 1619 to Police Brutality in 2020.”

Finally, Wiggins-Chavis asked participants to reflect on the ways that they each, personally, are complicit in these forms of racism. Rather than simply allowing participants to write off their own complicity by arguing that individuals had not participated directly in any of these activities, Wiggins-Chavis challenged participants to consider how even just passively allowing these policies and structures to be the status quo is in fact part of maintaining racism and oppression.

At the close of the workshop, several participants voiced deep appreciation for Wiggins-Chavis and her perceptive and insightful facilitation, and relayed that they had learned much in a short time. The next workshops are on August 11th and August 25th, and the opportunities for grappling with racism continue. With Wiggins-Chavis’s leadership, the next conversation promises to be as fruitful, moving, and informative as this first workshop.

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