Tag Archives: Anti-racism

Definitions of Race Matter

The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) has the best definition of ‘race”. Period. Dot. Came across it again today while doing my homework assignment (See prior post.). See it below from a document titled “Structural Racism” written by Keith Lawrence and Terry Kehler for the 2004 Race and Policy Conference.

RACE: A specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) which assigns human worth and social status using ‘white’ as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power. (Ronald Chisom and Michael Washington, Undoing Racism: A Philosophy of International Social Change. People’s Institute Press. People’s Institutefor Survival and Beyond. 1444 North Johnson Street. New Orleans, Louisiana, 70116.1997. Second Edition. p. 30—31.)

This definition could be more specific in terms of what economic class of whites created the concept, but it is still the best out there for at least two reasons: (1) It’s clear in racial terms about who created the term. Dr. Joe Feagin, a sociologist of Texas A & M University, author of The White Racial Frame,  points out that when history is written on the racism experienced by African Americans it tells us the object of the sentence (African Americans) but not the subject (white people). For example, we might read something like “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were often denied the right to vote”. Feagin might rewrite the sentence to say “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were denied the right to vote by a variety of white institutions.”

Secondly, it tells us the purpose of the term of “race”. We are not learning about “race” as a naturally occurring, politically neutral concept, but rather its being exposed as an ongoing shaper of our reality that penalizes and benefits. This definition then plays an active part in the undoing of racism, which of course is the goal of the People’s Institute. The Institute has done training for Grantmakers in the Arts, of which I am a board member, and it’s been the most impactful professional development of my time in this field.

Accountability, Gatekeeping & Racism

Through work this past year with Grantmakers in the Arts on racial equity, I had the opportunity to take a couple of two-day anti-racism workshops with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), specifically their workshop “Understanding and Undoing Racism/Community Organizing”.  This workshop breaks down the relationship between race, power and poverty and has me thinking about the Hill District differently and, hopefully, more clearly. PISAB’s training begins with the idea that “racism is the glue that holds class oppression together” and goes on to define “race” as a socially constructed concept designed to place “white people” at the top of the racial pyramid and racism as “race prejudice + power” and the process that keeps this racial pyramid standing so visibly. To be clear, I am not qualified to give a PISAB training, (one would need to go to them for that) but I wanted to share my sense of how they define these key terms before going on to talk about two other concepts: accountability and gatekeeping.

PISAB’s focus is on structural racism i.e. the way public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work together to build and maintain societal benefits for being white and penalties for not being white (this is not PISAB’s definition, but an amalgamation of a couple definitions). According to this analysis, critical to holding the structure of racism in place are the “gatekeepers” whose job it is to work for the institutions that get their resources at least in part because of the poverty of ALANA  (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) communities.  As I understand it, the issue is not simply that there are gatekeepers, this is part and parcel of the system, but that they are not accountable to the community members whose poverty makes the employment of the gatekeepers possible. Institutions regularly named include, schools, government, police, non profit industrial complex (social service, community development, funders, politicians, etc). PISAB asks gatekeepers to think hard about how they could make their work more accountable  to these communities. It’s ideas around accountability in the Hill District that I will dedicate the next couple of entries.