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The Daily Tar Heel

Living 15 Minutes Less Powerful

In all the conversations I had about it, I recognized a need for improvement. This week, I widen my angle.

Last Monday I made the assertion that discrimination is the personal act of treating someone differently and unfairly because of his or her race (or sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).

I also said racism only occurs when white people consciously or unconsciously discriminate against people of color. This is not because of some inherent difference between whites and people of color. It is because in our society white people have more power than people of color.

I am going to use this column to expand those statements.

First, it would be helpful to define, "people of color." Often when we talk about race in America, we tend to reduce the issue into one that incorporates only blacks and whites. But this ignores all the other nonwhite people who also experience discrimination because of their race. This discrimination is not experienced in exactly the same manner across races, though there are some important similarities. To talk about these similarities, it helps to use the term "people of color," which incorporates black people, Asian Americans, Native Americans and all other nonwhite groups.

Discrimination and prejudice are incredibly alarming. Nearly all of us agree that treating people unjustly because of their skin color is not only problematic but utterly wrong.

But racism involves more than just discrimination, and "racism" is not synonymous with "racial discrimination." Discrimination happens on more of an individual basis. Racism occurs on a systematic level and is based on power. It happens when a whole group of people has more power than another group. Because of this social, political, economic and interpersonal power, the dominant group can deprive subordinate groups of many essential rights and privileges, often unintentionally.

This systematic discrimination, or oppression, occurs on many levels. Often it involves the labor of one group going to benefit another group. It also limits access to the work force to the jobs with the least status and reward. It takes away many choices that are given to the dominant group. Worst of all, "-isms" are enforced by violence. Those in subordinate groups risk attacks because of their identity.

Systematic discrimination is also characterized by the double bind. This means that choices are often reduced to two options, both of which are equally undesirable. An often-cited double bind involves women's sexual choices. If women embrace their sexuality, they are whores, and if they hold back, they are frigid or prudish.

Because of all these reasons, whites have systematic power, or privilege, over all other races. If I, as a white person, never discriminate against a person of color, racism will still go on and I will definitely benefit from it.

Because of my white privilege, I might never intentionally or even consciously discriminate against people of color, yet unknowingly will I perpetuate the system. (I gave some specific examples of this last week.)

Maybe you are white and you're thinking of times when you have been discriminated against. Let's say you went into a restaurant that was run by people of color and you were humiliated and refused access to a table. This would definitely be unfortunate and unfair. But it would be discrimination -- not racism. Because whites hold the societal power, you could leave the restaurant and re-enter a world where you had power in almost every other aspect of your life. In going into that restaurant you give up 15 minutes of your privilege.

In order to understand racism and its systematic nature, it is essential to understand who has power over whom and that this power is enacted on more than an individual basis. Any discrimination is harmful and should not be tolerated, no matter whom it happens to, but systems of power are much more insidious than personal prejudice.

Many studies have shown that there is no biological component to race. This does not mean that we should ignore the very real problems that people face because of the color of their skin. At a speak-out on racism Wednesday night, Chimi Boyd, the assistant director of the Campus Y, articulated this very well.

She said, "When you look at me, I don't want you to ignore my race, or to see me as clear or something. I want you to see a black woman and understand what that means."

Whites in this society, whether they want to or not, have systematic privilege over people of color because they hold the power. Eliminating this white privilege is what we must strive for if we want a world where skin color does not matter.

Linda Chupkowski welcomes discussion on this issue. Her previous columns can be found online at E-mail her at

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