Race is the labyrinth of despair – it is where the American Empire hides the bodies from which it literally and figuratively has extracted its entire existence into being. Race is a construct for punishment and power.
For much of America, race no longer exists, and so the labyrinth has become invisible. Gone are the days that it needed the pretext of race to justify slavery and Jim Crow. Instead, the absence of race is itself racist seduction, a fantasy through which white America discharges itself of its inherited privilege. Unaware and immune to the past and present atrocities, most people can continue about their business as if race doesn’t matter.
For racialized Americans the corridors of race are real and familiar. We can retrace the steps and speak of them. Make no mistake – the labyrinth is not a comfortable place; it is a place where one is apart from oneself. It is an identity burdened on us: Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, Arab, etc. All the while, America continues along, seduced by the myth of a post-racial society. This is precisely why we must maintain and increase the level of dialogue on the subject of race, no matter how much the rest of America tries to stifle the conversation.
The only way forward is backward; we must make America face the labyrinth.
If you’ve managed to miss the last 500 years of history, racism of the white supremacy variety exists and it has devastating, shattering, and demoralizing consequences for racialized communities. The modern concept of race is indeed an American one, born of slavery and colonization. The implications of race in the structures of our society are very real; they were explicit in the foundation of this country, they are the language of the operating system and so they are observable in the output. We can discuss racial inequality in tangible and empirical language. I won’t waste time arguing or proving the point. Here are a few reputable studies that do the job: on job market discrimination, on targeting Blacks in the “War on Drugs”, on educational inequality, on racism and healthcare.
So why the denial? Aside from the obvious answer, “white America benefits from it,” the most significant power in the arsenal of white privilege is the ability to evade race itself, to be an individual. It isn’t that white America doesn’t know that race exists, of course it does, primarily through Black history month, music videos, and small subsets of friends and coworkers. But white America has the special privilege of being optimistic about race. White privilege doesn’t immunize people from difficult lives: they can be poor, exploited, abused, or murdered — any number of difficulties can befall them. But race and its immense burden eludes them. White America sees the footage of the Civil Rights Movement, the legislation of the 1960s, the establishment of affirmative action, the rise of successful people of color, they misinterpret these to mean the end of racism. These convictions contribute to their sanguinity on issues of race.
Those who do not believe in the oppressive force of race in society are likely to dismiss personal anecdotes of racial disadvantage as anomalous. Too often, we hear this dismissal in the form of the refrain “but things are getting better” or the vexed “I didn’t have it easy!” In an economic system that fosters extreme income inequality, it is difficult for working-class white people to accept that there are structures in place from which they exclusively benefit. This notion often makes them outright resentful.
Shifting public perception and social norms have left less room for openly vitriolic hate speech. Today, most decent people (many of whom may be racist and not know it) awkwardly avoid racist language, replacing epithets with euphemisms, genuinely believing that racism is no longer a major issue. What they do not see is that racism is embedded in the political, economic, judicial and social structures of American society. It cannot be totally undone by changes of heart; understanding and tolerance can go but so far. Even the most well-meaning anti-racist, if he or she denies this reality, paralyzes any opportunity for change.
The problem of racism is both structural and cultural. The solution will be both. Racism must be confronted with relentless fervor. White America has only been asked to do that a number of times in its history, usually in the aftermath of historic turning points such as the 13th Amendment, the Watts Riots, and Ferguson to name a few, but never perpetually.
So we must continue to bring race to the fore. If it makes white people uncomfortable, so be it. Racialized people unfortunately understand this discomfort all too well. We must diagnose, expose, and unravel racism in all the structures of society. We must bring America down the labyrinth, to face the beast.
Alexandros Orphanides is a New York City-based teacher, writer, and poet of Honduran and Cypriot descent. He holds a Master of Science in Education from Brooklyn College and is completing a Master of Arts in Political Science from the City University of New York Graduate Center. In addition to teaching high school history, he writes about political, cultural and social issues. More of his work can be found on his blog: SubversiveSentences.com