Many people / advocates / thinkers / scholars talk about and define racism as both ideology and power over. The key words here are ideology and power over. It is their thought that through unequal power relationships, racist ideology becomes structurally institutionalized into operational practices, written policies, and legislation such as hiring practices and the Indian Act. In this way racism has two main elements: first, it is ideology meaning mindful, and second, consists of unequal power relationships that seep into and shapes institutions. Of course I value this two part definition.
I think in our process of teaching other people, in particular white people, about the effects of racism that Indigenous people and people of colour face, an important element is missing in this definition. I also think that this missing element serves to prevent many people from understanding what racism is and means beyond just an awful feeling.
I think racism is felt first in the heart, which second becomes ideology, and third, unequal power relations that manifest into institutions and structures. It is in this way that I define racism as having three elements or parts: heart knowledge, ideology, and institutional power over individuals.
Many white people have a tendency to confuse an ‘emotional reaction to racism’ as reverse racism. This is not so, as emotional knowledge is not necessarily genuine ideology or for that matter institutional power over. An emotional reaction to racism is different than racism.
While people in the majority suddenly thrust into a context where they are the minority, may feel the reaction Indigenous people and people of colour express due to the racism that they face every day, the broader structural and institutional part of racism is missing. Said again, while they may feel the emotion of racism, they do not have to deal with the everyday consequences where ideology becomes structured within institutions. For the most part these people are able to navigate society, a society that was created by them and for them, in a barrier free way – that is if they encounter institutionalized structural oppression at all.
The same thing can be said about the feeling some people get when they hear or read the words “white people”. This feeling does not mean racist ideology or structural and institutional power over.
I am of the thought that this awful feeling is very much needed for people in the dominant culture to begin to understand what racism really is. And further, it is this uneasy and awful feeling that people should harness and become motivated to move forward in a way that is constructive in terms of ending racism as it is experienced by Indigenous people and all people of colour.
For example, many people don’t like the racism imposed on Indigenous people by nation states such a Canada. These same people also don’t like the reaction to racism that they feel from Indigenous people. This is understandable and they can, and many think must, do something about this. Instead of blaming a very legitimate reaction to racism on the victims or turning their backs on the people who have helped them learn an important element inherent in racism, (that being heart knowledge), they can begin to make some real noise about issues of racism as it has become manifested and institutionalized in the communities and countries where they reside. In doing this they will be concretely engaging in reverse racism activism best known as anti-racist work.
In sum I define racism as having three elements: heart knowledge, ideology, and institutional power over. When we fail to define racism as having these three elements we do ourselves a disservice. We need to value the heart knowledge that people in dominant society feel when they encounter a very legitimate reaction to racism, as well as point out that the other two elements – ideology and power over in the form of institutions – are missing, and so therefore it is not racism or for that matter reverse racism that they experience, rather it is emotional knowledge. Racism is heartfelt, mindful, and power over.
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Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada's Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at email@example.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.