Resisting Systemic Racism: From Two Immigrants

From our quotidian experiences as contemporary nonwhite immigrants and our gaze as sociologists, we recognize a certain ‘structuration’ of resistance, or ‘recurrent practices’ deployed at different times and in different places to challenge racist frames or systemic racism in our daily interactive spaces. We figured this to be so because we have engaged in such practices ourselves as contemporary immigrants. We wonder about the ways in which new immigrants of color perform race, and the alternate frames of reference used in race narratives. We pose several questions about these practices.

This essay represents our way of having a broad conversation about the contexts of our racial lives in the United States. As members of contemporary minority groups who have settled in this great land of immigrants, we would like this conversation to be about expressive control or a structure of resistance to racial thinking, if you will.

It is also a conversation about how we stage ourselves when it is difficult to transcend the context of race in America. Here, the context of race refers to the fact that we are socialized, and therefore are likely to be unwilling (unless we try hard), and unable to see and experience the world around us without engaging in racial thinking. This fact bestows the idea of race with currency and value in our lives, and as such, it can be used by anyone in their daily interpretations of the world around them. “Race” can actually “explain” everything for us; it can also be used to accommodate our self-serving beliefs, to avoid the challenges presented by detail, creative, and exhausting thinking, or to simply make sense of our lives and everyday events. The college basketball viewer who wonders why aren’t there more daddies in the close up image of “black players’ families” during games can use “race” as an explanatory factor. Why so few “black daddies” in the “picture”? The same thinking orients the puzzled viewer who sees himself or herself paralyzed by images of violence in Africa and the Middle East; the parent who wonders about why we have problems with poverty, health care, illegal immigration, and crime. Or the fan who listens to sport broadcaster’s comments on the superiority of the quarterback position or white basketball players’ alleged troubles in the jumping department; the federal government employee who believes earnestly that the reason she has not been promoted is because of her color not her productivity; the police officer who is perplexed by the high black homicide rates; the “educated black man” who believes the cops who stopped him for apparently no reason were being racist; the moviegoer that proficiently understands and relates to movie narratives that are color coded. Race is real and makes our world go round.

So we are unable to see things other than in racial terms and we use shorthand for understanding our social environment; we talk about the ‘other’ races because there are canned explanations for anything we don’t understand about them. Among blacks, this shorthand is employed to understand the ‘other’ blacks – immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. It is the same shorthand derived from the emphasis on shades of complexion we use among ourselves to negotiate relationships and situate ourselves within our communities. We are unable to see that people can be mulitiracial, biracial, or bi-ethnic or simply more invested in other identities. So a biracial person of black and white parentage is compelled to choose to become black, or ‘other’ but they cannot be white.

This discourse of ‘otherness’ between the so-called ‘races’ (mainly white versus non-white or black) and within the black minority group frames our experiences as white and non-white Americans everywhere in America and in the most mundane public settings, be it the classroom, the restaurant, the airport, the hospital. Have you ever stopped to think about the functions of race narratives in your life as an American? Have you wondered about what these race narratives produce in your everyday interactions? Have you thought about the consequences of this constant, persistent, unyielding racial gaze?

If this is the American problem, the “racial stalemate” mentioned by Barack Obama, it is also a vexing problem. For American blacks, there is a certain collective thinking that as upper and middle-class blacks, our individual and familial successes are incomplete because we are unable to transform the racial stasis. Lewis Gordon remarks that as contemporary individuals and families from black Africa and the Caribbean, we may succeed as immigrants but fail collectively as blacks in America in our inability in real and visible ways to alter racial inequality in income, or the persistent ideas about racial inferiority, or practices that condone and reinforce racial typing based on phenotype and/or genotype, or to even lift those among us, about a third of us, who do not have any wealth whatsoever in this great land of opportunity. This is a materialist viewpoint.

Structuration of Resistance
From our existential and quotidian experiences as contemporary nonwhite immigrants and our gaze as sociologists, we recognize a certain ‘structuration’ of resistance, or ‘recurrent practices’ deployed at different times and in different places to challenge racist frames or the system of racism as articulated by Joe Feagin in our daily interactive spaces. We figured this to be so because we have engaged in such practices ourselves as contemporary immigrants. We wanted to render a steadier gaze of the resistance to the hydra birthed by race including racists, racism and racialized social systems in which everyone is given a racial status which, in turn, influences everyone’s social, cultural, economic, and political experiences.

The structuration of resistance we talk about is the antithesis to the main and interactive effects of racism in our lives that distorts our everyday interactions and social and political dialogue. Racism and its racialized system of unequal treatment have created and create psychological pain; stealing happiness, self-esteem, well-being, and fulfillment from nonwhites. Racism and the racialized system that justifies unequal treatment create poverty, social distance, and resentment in this great experiment in democracy in America. Racism becomes not only embedded in our way of seeing, being, and living but also in the fabric of our institutions and in the form of systems of behavior that are somehow justified. Racism produces “unearned privileges” and “unearned power” for those who benefit and have benefited from the systematic discrimination of others. We do not know if Obama is the fulfillment of the promise of the coming of the great one who transcends race in America.

Black immigrants have transplanted their racial knowledge to their new American society as they interact with the American system of racial classification. New black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have experienced different racisms (and tribalisms), and know a different language of race and a different language of color. They tend to embrace the aspirations of social mobility embedded in the American dream, which they often see as independent from objective conditions of racism and therefore highly realizable. The realities of racism, their identity, and their position in the new society are not always seen as belonging to the same continuum.

But does this mean that these new blacks may be more able to develop a certain “structuration” of resistance in everyday life, and are able to situate themselves in a more advantageous position in the realm of distribution of power and resources in our society vis a vis native blacks?

A recent college graduate of Haitian background told us in conversation that he did not fear the fact that he will soon be working at an all white engineering firm in an almost all white state. He said, “I know how to be cool, I know how to be relaxed among white people, and I am not really a black man.” He talked as if he could manipulate his identity in front of white people, as if he could move from black to nonblack with some easiness. More importantly, he talks as if he knew what to do in order to deflect whites’ racist attitudes. This show of racial learning by this Haitian immigrant is certainly not unique to recently arrived immigrant blacks. In fact, this is the kind of racial learning that many native blacks have attained and implemented for hundreds of years as protective mechanisms. What is remarkable here is that the attitude of this Haitian immigrant suggests the centrality of “deblackening” along with the maneuvering of racial identity as a mere “relational” tool. This example alone does not constitute enough evidence for the claims we are making here. However, it raises questions about strategies or structuring that immigrant blacks use to resist white racism and the consequences of these strategies or structuration. We wonder about the ways in which new immigrants identify differences and sameness with other groups, particularly poor native blacks, and the kind of political cooperation or competition that stems from these struggles.

Performing Race
In many respects, the structure of resistance to systemic racism and resistance to the racialized system in America is substantively a black issue and a generational black one at that. Blacks have to be able to objectify what it is that we are doing when we are engaged in that mode of resistance. But this turns the narratives of blacks in America into mainly (and merely) race narratives and allows our quotidian existential experiences to be colored by our racial status. It cannot be otherwise if you live in an environment where you are ascribed a racial status, with all the psychological and sociological pain (and the relative benefits) it may bring.

In reaction to our exasperation at the American racialized system, a family member of one of us remarked that: “Well, if you don’t like it here, go back to Africa!” The black twenty-somethings and perhaps thirty-somethings swept up by Obama’s campaign of change have distinct and different racial narratives, and perhaps for them, a structuration of resistance might take a dissimilar manner from what older blacks may deploy, or it might not exist at all. If this structuration of resistance doesn’t exist, is it possible at all to be an adult black in America and not to have experienced or encountered racism or the racialized society at all? Yes, there could be. Of course there’s always that possibility if one lives in an ethnic enclave with limited exposure to the dominant group. If you are biracial black person then your existential experiences could be qualitatively different as well. If there’s any continuity between the generations regardless of complexion, it must be that we all share the ascribed racial status in America and must overcome the pathos of being unable or unwilling to see things other than in racial terms.

Does this suggest that as blacks we are constantly performing race – in one way or another we daily have to overcome our racial status, the master status? Is it the case that we perform race differently when whites are around versus when we are among our own? Or, if we are black immigrants, we perform race differently when we are among immigrants like us, versus when we among native black Americans? And do biracial blacks perform their racial status differently? How can a non-black or non-minority white person possibly comprehend this racial manner? Are individual blacks – contemporary native black Americans, African and Caribbean immigrants – in their presentation of self in everyday life, able to exercise some power over how they are defined by the powerful majority groups? Do they challenge what they perceive as prejudicial behavior or utterance in public and private interactions when they encounter it as individuals? And if so, how do they do this, in precisely what ways? And, in what ways are social class, gender, age, and nationality relevant to these practices?

More questions come to mind. Do contemporary native black Americans challenge and resist the racist frame differently from contemporary immigrant blacks? What are the similarities and differences? And for that matter, who among these groups resists? Do those who recognize the workings of systemic racism challenge it in everyday life, when they encounter it? When do they decide to challenge it and when do they decide not to? Or, can we avoid dealing with it completely, by limiting our interactions with the majority groups – choosing, as it were, not to cultivate relationships or be guarded in our interactions with them; fronting, so to speak? How does the structure of resistance or challenge we are trying to conceptualize here lead us ultimately to that community of citizens who are colorblind? We don’t really know.

As new immigrants of color, we are often compelled to look at this constant, persistent, unyielding racial gaze from the prism of our previous racial and ethnic experiences. For instance, we have imagined biracial black presidential candidate Barack Obama running his campaign in Latin American where in many cases individuals of mixed ancestry have had a privileged status as compared to non-mixed Indians or blacks. A place where, as Peter Wade says, “the maximization of (racial) ambiguity and racial “accommodation” contrast with our rigid system of racial classification”. In Latin America, Obama would probably have attained “the mulatto escape hatch,” avoiding blackness and consequently escaping one-dimensional racial framing.

This is not to deny the existence of systemic racism in Latin-America, specifically the hierarchical distinctions between the undesirable Indian and desirable mestizo and between undesirable black and desirable mulatto [all vis a vis the dominant white], but rather to emphasize the historical continuity with slavery that is expressed in our constant policing of the categories “black” and “white” in America, a control that positions whiteness [and whitening] in the realm of the unattainable for multiracial individuals. In the land of the free, this rigidity denies freedom to those who actively and consciously want to embrace another identity or reject a particular imposed identity. For many, Barack Obama will be the black President regardless of his biracial and multicultural background. Racial accommodation and racial ambiguity are almost absent from our racial experiences and from our language of race, and therefore and most important, the multiple identities we use to define ourselves and many of us embody are rendered inconsequential in everyday life as we interact with others in our racialized world.

Alternative Frames
In the context of systemic racism, an escape from racist labels is an important strategy for those suffering from the constraints imposed by stereotyping and imposed negative identities. But the chances that one’s strategies of resistance produce any significant results are almost minimal if our racial environment remains so closed to racial manipulation by individuals. The logic of the rigid gaze would suggest, for example, that Obama cannot escape the label of blackness. His attempts at “racial ambiguity” or at least “deblackening” in the eyes of some may be counterproductive because in the end he will become a “tragic mulatto,” unaccepted by whites and rejected by blacks. What are the psycho-social outcomes for those blacks, multiracial, or biracial individuals who contextually and interactively pursue a hybrid or more ambiguous racial identity?

As new immigrants of color we experience the above mentioned gaze and logic in a somewhat distinct way. Or at least we look at this phenomenon with a particular set of questions in mind. We assume contemporary black immigrants have a particular standpoint for experiencing and resisting racism in post-Civil Rights America. But, when, and to what extent, are we situational or episodic members of the black race, in the eyes of whites? We believe that for many immigrant blacks from the Caribbean and Africa, there is another frame of reference that stands in juxtaposition to the white racial frame. African immigrants maintain their ethnic languages, Caribbean immigrants still speak creole or patios; their ethno-consciousness is heightened when they confront the racist frame. African immigrants become more ethnic – more Yoruba, more Asante, more Galla, more Ewe – by performing their ethnicity in ways to make themselves distinct. There is psychological surety in Pan-African ideas and thinking, Africana philosophy, Afro-centrism, and ethnic-consciousness. These are powerful ideas meant to be antithetical to white hegemony. And while these ideas may be seen as reactionary and defined by the white racist thesis; they provide an opposing frame to racial thinking.

Indeed, all blacks share a rich frame of reference in Africana thinking and ideas about black consciousness. We know that many native blacks have historically and strategically embraced these ideas. The exploration of this “sharing” and its consequences is important, particularly when thinking about the demographic transitions in the world, the stasis of white hegemony, globalization and migration. To be sure, the impact of this heritage of black consciousness thinking may be mixed; the arguments of ‘blackness’ or at the extreme a certain ‘negritude,’ may be contrived reactions to racial thinking. Without the thesis of white supremacy, black consciousness thinking may not exist. At the same time, Yoku Shaw-Taylor has argued that the expressive ideas of a certain cultural philosophy of Africa or Africanness become our standpoint, however ambivalent we feel about it, when we are engaged in identity politics in places where white hegemony is present and visible.
The distinct existential experiences of immigrant black groups may serve as a powerful frame of reference since many come from contexts where whites are not dominant and the idea of race is relatively weak or at least different. But racial thinking can and does alter the existential identities of immigrant blacks. Let’s not forget that these immigrants come from very unequal and stratified societies and that racial politics have gone global. What the unique existential experiences of immigrant blacks create, is probably a particular standpoint or gaze which may serve as source for the formation of unique identity politics and social movements. We do not know how extensively and significantly, if at all, this antithetical thinking has impacted the superstructure of racial framing. But we strongly believe that, in time, these experiences, along with the language and emotions that help us construct them, can help create everyday life opportunities that would allow us to challenge and alter racialized experiences in America.

~ Ana S.Q. Liberato,
University of Kentucky


Yoku Shaw-Taylor,
National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago


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