We admire the work of the Institute for Dismantling Racism, but were taken aback by co-founder and executive director Willard Bass’ contention that hurling vitriolic words like “nigger” do not rise to the level of true racism – not the kind, at least, that the Institute is fighting.
The odd rationale came as a result of Bass’ involvement in trying to ease tensions between the Winston Lake Family YMCA and Kenneth Boston, a black former Winston Lake Y member who maintains that Y officials did little after a white member hurled the infamous n-word at him and his children. Bass told The Chronicle last week that the woman’s actions do not qualify as racism by the standards of IDR, whose motto is “If racism was constructed, it can be deconstructed.”
“Our definition of racism is racial prejudice plus the presence of power,” he said. “In this particular situation, the one individual did not have the power to change. Her action did not change anything, so in and of itself, we do not see it as an act of racism.”
We understand Bass’ contention; we just don’t agree with it.
IDR and similar organizations determined to end racism as we know it, believe that tackling institutional racism is the best route to take to reach that destination. They focus on hosting seminars and trainings for law enforcement officers, corporate leaders and other decision-makers whose racial attitudes could have debilitating – even deadly – consequences.
But these organizations should not miss the forest for the trees – or the trees for the forest, in this regard. Dismantling racism can truly only start at the grassroots, where it was born, where it is bred and spread like a malignant cancer. Folks like the woman at the Y may not have a place in a corporate boardroom – where they could use racism to keep people of color from being hired or advancing – but it doesn’t make their hate any less insidious.
From the time Africans arrived in this country, words have been used to belittle and subjugate. Like sticks and stones, words can hurt and bury themselves so deep into one’s psyche that they can do more damage than a bullet.
So should Kenneth Boston tell his teenaged kids that the woman’s words were insignificant because she doesn’t have the “power to change” anything in their lives? Perhaps, if he were a research wonk who relied on theories rather than commonsense. As a parent – and a child of the segregated South – Boston knows the words cut deep into his children and will have a lasting impact.
Hate can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. A hierarchy for racism is problematic because it diminishes – or all-out dismisses – one’s experience and the effects gleaned from it.