On the Controversy Over A White Poet Submitting as “Yi-Fen Chou” and Being Chosen By Sherman Alexie for the Best American Poetry Anthology

As editor of the 2015 Best American Poetry, Sherman Alexie chose a poem written by what seemed to be a Chinese American poet named Yi-Fen Chou. But then Alexie found out the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was actually written by a white male, Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson reported that his poem had been rejected forty times under his own name and then nine times under the pseudonym before being accepted by the Prairie Schooner.

In a long and convoluted essay on the Best American Poetry Blog, Alexie said he was angered by Hudson’s “colonial theft” but ultimately decided to stay with his choice of Hudson’s poem for the anthology. Alexie explains his thought process in making his decision like this:

        “So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn’t been fooled by anything obvious. I’d been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you’ll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet’s Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I’d only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I’d never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its “Chinese-ness” because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don’t see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou’s public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I’d argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.

        Do you see what happened?

        I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

         ….Nepotism is as common as oxygen.

         But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the “maybe” and “yes” piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.

         I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.

         And, of course, I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: “Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?”

        Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.

        And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.

        But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn’t want to hear people say, “Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy.” I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.”

As Alexie predicted, he’s been criticized for rewarding a “poetry colonist” and for not rejecting what many call poetic “yellow face” (more on this in a note below).  At the same time, Alexie has been praised by some for being so honest about his own biases and for his “nuanced” response. Beyond this, some commentators and the news coverage seem to imply that the white poet couldn’t get his poem published as a white poet but that he could posing as an Asian/Asian American poet (Washington Post headline: A White Guy Named Michael Couldn’t Get His Poem Published. Then He Changed His Name to Yi-Fen Chou), i.e., Yes, Virginia, there is reverse racism in the poetry world. There’s so many things wrong with this implication but to get into it, I’d have to write an entire dissection of the ways race plays out in the literary world. So I’ll just stick to something more literary:

I don’t think Sherman Alexie should have published the poem once he found out the ruse. For one thing, I think it’s an ethical violation, and that could have been a reason not to include the poem.  Beyond this, Alexie could have made the case that the poem reads differently if you know it’s been written by a white male, rather than an Asian or an Asian American. Indeed, part of his initial take on the poem and what attracted him to it stems from his believing the poet to be Asian American: “When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.”

I think, though, that Alexie was so afraid of appearing to himself as fraudulent that he didn’t investigate his initial response to the poem—or perhaps he wasn’t able to articulate to himself how certain poems are actually read in part with a knowledge and a context provided by knowing who the author is.

This is a complicated literary issue, and given in part our generally limited understanding of the ways racial readings affect our understanding of poetry, it’s not that surprising that Alexie doesn’t trust his initial reading. He seems to believe, as some maintain, that the words should be judged only as they appear on the page and nothing else matters. But this is not actually the way we read and interpret poems. As with standup comics, the person delivering the words is part of the way we hear and interpret the words. Tig Notaro’s jokes about cancer are funny in part because we know she has had cancer. Similarly, if someone writes a poem about dying from cancer and they’re not dying from cancer, that’s a different poem than one from a person who is actually dying of cancer. That’s why so many poems on mortality by poets in old age mean something to us.

The same principle also applies at times in terms of race, but often in a more complicated way. When Patricia Smith writes a poem in the voice of a racist skinhead, we read that poem knowing the poet who wrote it is a black woman and that is part of the accomplishment of the poem–how she is able to enter the mind and feelings of someone who hates who she is. If the poem were by a white poet, we would generally assume it’s a persona poem but we wouldn’t read it as the poet having to travel as great a psychic distance to get to the space to write the poem since the white poet would not be the object of the skinhead’s hate. But if the poem were written by an actual racist skinhead, we would read the poem quite differently. The words would not be distanced as those of another person, as imagined; they would simply be meant to be taken literally.

With the poem in question in the BAP anthology, “The Bees…,” there’s a tone of complaint which to my mind reads differently if you know the author is a white male rather than an Asian or Asian American. If I read it as being written by an Asian or Asian American, that tone of complaint takes on a level of irony which is not there if I know the poem was written by a white male: “My life’s spent/ running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation/ until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions/ and dabs of misinformation in fractured, / not-quite-right English.” Among other things, my speaking English–that is from my body–is never received in the same way as the exact same words spoken by a white male (the white male never gets questions which imply that he is not American or that he comes from somewhere else). So when a white male poet writes “not-quite-right English” I read that differently than if an Asian/Asian American wrote those exact same words. If English is not the first language of the Asian or Asian American poet, the phrase refers in part to that; but even if English is the first language of the Asian American poet, the lines would refer to an uncertainty about the poet’s relationship to the language and the ways the poet’s English is received by others. If the poet is a white male, all the phrase means is that he’s fooling around with the language. There’s no racial/social meaning, no irony, and the language reads flatter, with less resonance. I think Alexie responded originally to the poem with this racial/social reading and perceived an irony in it as written by an Asian/Asian American, but couldn’t quite see how the poem was transformed once he knew the poet was a white male.

What this controversy points to is how still, within the poetry world, many do not understand the myriad ways we make meaning of and interpret a poem. In an essay of mine published in the anthology A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, I argue that often poems by poets of color must be read as racial allegories, though many readers, especially white readers, can miss this allegorical reading. In other words, poetry does not take place in a Platonic realm where there is no social context and where race and ethnicity don’t ever affect how we understand language. We often read through a racial lens–sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly–far more than most people, even poets (and sometimes especially poets), realize.

Endnote 1:  It turns out that Hudson’s act of “poetic colonialism” and “yellow face” has not only offended many in the poetry world.  He apparently took the name from a high school classmate, and she and her family are also angered by Hudson’s appropriation.  Yi-Fen’s sister, Ellen, views this as an act of misplaced racial resentment and insensitivity.  The New York Times article reads:

Now it turns out that pseudonym may have come from a real person.  The family of a woman named Yi-Fen Chou, who attended the same high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., as Mr. Hudson, has stepped forward, demanding that he immediately stop using it.

“I’m just aghast,”  Ellen Y. Chou, the sister of Yi-Fen Chou, said in an interview. Mr. Hudson’s use of the name, she added, showed a “lack of honesty” and “careless disregard for Chinese people and for Asians.”

…Ellen Chou said that Yi-Fen Chou, a nuclear engineer in Chicago who goes by a married name, did not want to be identified or interviewed. The family, she said, wanted Mr. Hudson to immediately stop using the name, which had a “unique spelling” and had been given to her sister by their paternal grandfather.

Ms. Chou questioned Mr. Hudson’s seeming assumption that Asian-Americans have an advantage.  “He seems to think we have it easy, but we don’t,” she said. “We all worked very hard to achieve our own success. I’m just appalled by his actions.””  http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/10/family-protests-white-poets-use-of-chinese-pen-name/?_r=0

I cannot help but wonder how much of Ellen Chou’s anger here has to do with how she, her sister and her family were regarded and treated as Chinese Americans in Fort Wayne, Indiana, particularly in high school.  Her remarks imply that Yi-Fen Chou and Hudson were never friends.  Did Ellen and Yi-Fen experience what many Asian American kids experience going to high schools where they are a small minority and are seen as foreigners and through the lens of Asian stereotypes?  My guess is that these are issues Hudson never considered; Yi-Fen Chou was just a name; there wasn’t a real person attached to it.  But then that’s the basis of colonialism, isn’t it?  “These people we are colonizing aren’t people like us.  We don’t have to pay attention to their rights or property, much less their feelings.  They are there for us to use.  That’s why they’re the colonized and we’re the colonizers.”  The tropes and practices of history continue on into the present.

Endnote 2:  More on the ways “my not-quite-right English” and the use of European references could be read differently if the poet were Asian American:  I’ve always been struck by this passage in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen, the Irish colonial, is talking with the English Dean of his school.  Stephen, who can be read as a Joyce’s fictional self, thinks: “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine.  How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine!  I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit.  His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.”  Another gloss on this point would be two quotations from James Baldwin.  The first is on Baldwin’s relationship to the American language:  “You see, whites want black artists to mostly deliver something as if it were the official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based.”  The second quotation is on Baldwin’s relationship to European culture: “I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.  And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude.  These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history….I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.”  Of course, all these references are Baldwin’s heritage in another sense; that is why he can write about them the way he does, in sentences that often echo the cadences of the King James Bible, which is not surprising from a man who grew up as a child preacher.

Both in the case of Stephen/Joyce and Baldwin, these quotations don’t stem from their lack of linguistic skills or familiarity with English, but in the ways the one, a colonial, and the other, a black man in a racist society, must contend with their marginalization and their relationship to the works and tools of the colonist, of the master.  The relationship I as an Asian American have to American English or to the European heritage of the culture is different from that of a white male like Hudson, but even in the world of poetry, many don’t actually understand the nature and complexity of this difference and its myriad causes.

Endnote 3:  I know of at least two Asian American poets who have been asked by audience members to read their poem in its “original language.”

On Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter

Here’s one answer to people who respond to Black Lives Matter with the inane “All Lives Matter”:

Given America’s history, there is no reason to believe that when white people say “All lives” or “All people” in terms of rights or justice or privilege, such expressions include black people (or POC or Native Americans). When the founding fathers wrote “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, we know that did not include black people–or obviously women. And when white women did get to vote, that did not include black women or black men. Similarly, given the state of our justice system and its myriad practices of racial bias, America does not truly want equal rights and justice for black people; otherwise we would have equal rights and justice for black people. “All Americans” should have the right to a fair trial, but that is not the case in the current justice system (nor was it the case when my parents–who were citizens–and my grandparents–who were forbidden by racist laws from becoming citizens–were imprisoned for their race and ethnicity in World War II).  Unarmed black Americans are twice as likely to be shot by police than unarmed white Americans.  If all lives did matter, this would not be the case.

So when white people say “all,” is it any wonder we think: “You mean just yourselves, not us.” As the old black saying goes, We don’t believe what you say because we see what you do.

Do I Belong Here? (Reflections of a Third Generation Asian American)

Years, from now, for many, this summer will be remembered as “The Summer of Ferguson.” I write and consult about the issues of race, and so I’ve paid close attention to the news and what’s been written about Ferguson. Partly, I’m trying to see what Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown and the furor around it tells me about the current state of race relations in America.

Beyond that, my own awakening to my ethnic and racial identity as an Asian American in part came about due to my reading of black and African American writers and thinkers. And so, reading the commentary on Ferguson by African American writers, I find myself trying to understand not just their perspective as African Americans, but also what their perspective tells me about my identity as an Asian American.

A few weeks ago, I came across this passage in Jelani Cobb’s article on the New Yorker website, “Between the World & Ferguson”:

“Linda Chavez wondered on Fox News whether “the ‘unarmed teen’ mantra” really fit Brown, who was six feet four and nearly three hundred pounds and had been caught on video shoplifting—and, it perhaps bears repeating, was a teen, and was unarmed. Chavez was roundly criticized, but she was really only guilty of saying aloud what many others have thought. Whatever happened or did not happen between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson on a winding side street, in the middle of the afternoon, in a non-descript outpost on the edge of a midsized city, whatever we imagine we know of the teen-ager, the salient fact is that he did not live long enough to cultivate his own answers.

I spent eight days in Ferguson, and in that time I developed a kind of between-the-world-and-Ferguson view of the events surrounding Brown’s death. I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more dangerous than the perception that one is a danger. I’m embarrassed to recall that my adolescent love of words doubled as a strategy to assuage those fears; it was both a pitiable desire for acceptance and a practical necessity for survival.  I know, to this day, the element of inadvertent intimidation that colors the most innocuous interactions, particularly with white people. There are protocols for this. I sometimes let slip that I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of reassurance: there is no danger here. And the result is civil small talk and feeble smiles and a sense of having compromised. Other times, in an elevator or crossing a darkened parking lot, when I am six feet away but the world remains between us, I remain silent and simply let whatever miasma of stereotype or fear might be there fill the void.

Fuck you, I think. If I don’t get to feel safe here, why should you?”

What Jelani Cobb explores are the various situations where he as a black man has to maneuver through the racial stereotypes and prejudices of America. In so many ways, he’s far more consciously aware of those stereotypes and prejudices than the whites whose fears and terrors he must try to disarm in order to go about his day-to-day existence in this society. Cobb is aware that if he moves the wrong way or says the wrong thing—or even if he does nothing—there is a chance that alarms might sound, and when those alarms sound, they may take the form of a white person looking away or stepping aside or they may take more dangerous, even life threatening, forms–as this summer of Ferguson has made so readily apparent.

Many Asian Americans who grow up working class and in urban areas have experienced treatment by the police similar to the experiences of African Americans. They know what it’s like to be racially profiled, whether on the streets or in shopping malls or clubs, to be seen as criminals or thugs, threatening, dangerous. In certain neighborhoods in the Twin Cities where I live, that is the experience of many young Asian Americans, including my son.

Still racial profiling by the police is not something I grew up with. I am a third generation Japanese American from the Chicago suburbs. Growing up, I was constantly trying to fit into the white Jewish suburban world around me, and the messages I received there can be summed up in a single phrase–“You don’t belong here.”

That phrase is something I share with all Asian Americans, no matter where we grow up or what our class background is.

For me, this phrase has been expressed many different ways: “You’re not an American.” “You’re not white or Jewish.” “You’re not part of our community.” “You’re strange, foreign.” “You look funny.” “You look like the enemy in films about World War II, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam.” “You’re not a potential romantic or sexual partner, not someone I would ever think of dating, much less marrying.” “You speak English well—for an immigrant, for someone who wasn’t born here.” “You’re not athletic.” “You must eat funny food at home, things real Americans don’t eat.” “You don’t know anything about American culture.” “You know kung-fu.” “You know about samurai and the yakuza.” “You know all about ancient Asian culture.” “Your sister must be hot.” “You’re sexist.” “You’re not a leader.” “You’re a nerd, quiet, socially awkward, bumbling.” “You’re a joke, easy to make fun of.” “You’re stealing our auto industry, you’re stealing our country.” “You’re sneaky, inscrutable, you can’t be trusted.” “You are some other Asian I know.” “You all look alike.” “How can you see out of your eyes?” “You can never be President, a lead actor, a rock and roll singer, a country western singer, an R&B singer, head of an American corporation, a real American writer, a Minnesota writer, and any other number of other occupations.” “You’re a cook or an engineer or scientist.” “You can’t be from Minnesota.”

All of which could be summed up in the response, “What the hell are you doing here?”

In Jelani Cobb’s depiction of what it is like to live in America as a black man who is constantly perceived as a danger and a threat, he goes over the various ways he tries to defuse or counter that image. And he describes how, as he makes his way through this impossible disarming of suspicion, he feels humiliated, compromised, as if he is giving up something of himself, even perhaps something of his soul.

My situation is not that of a large black man who is perceived as a danger, a threat. Instead, the hurdle I face is that I am a perpetual outsider. I may or may not be perceived as dangerous, but over and over, daily, I am told: “You don’t belong here.”

To choose one of many examples: I golf, and on the golf course I am constantly meeting strangers. Almost immediately I will be constantly asked by white strangers where am I from, or, as one middle-aged white man from South Minneapolis, put it last week, “What nationality are you?”

“What nationality are you?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “Well, I’m Irish-German. But you know what I mean.”

Of course I knew what he meant.

And so here I went into my prepared statement, “My grandparents came from Japan in 1905.”

Why do I say this particular phrase? Although I doubt this gentlemen perceived all I intended in this phrase, here’s what it means: It was my grandparents who came from Japan and thus, are Japanese. My parents were born in America, so they were American citizens.

Of course my parents were imprisoned at the ages of 11 and 15 in World War II because all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were perceived as a military threat. My parents’ being American citizens did not prevent them from having the writ of habeus corpus suspended and their right to a trial denied. But I don’t necessarily expect my white interlocutors to be aware of this.

At any rate, I also usually add to inquiries about where I’m from, “I didn’t grow up speaking any Japanese or knowing much about Japanese culture.” Meaning: “I am two generations removed from Japan. I was born here. I’m an American. That’s my nationality.”

When I was younger I wore my ignorance of Japanese and Japanese culture as a badge; I thought it made me an American.

I don’t feel that way now. Now I regret not having learned Japanese or about Japanese culture.

At the same time, though, I do realize that any evidence of my speaking Japanese or knowing Japanese culture makes me not an American; instead it becomes further evidence that I’m not from here. And I know, in many ways, I will never be from here, even though my family has lived here in America for over a century. My face tells a different story, and nothing I can do can stop that narrative and all that comes with it.

But I try, I try. Consciously, unconsciously. On the golf course, I’ll start talking about the merits of the Vikings quarterbacks, the veteran Matt Cassell, Teddy Bridgewater the rookie, the disaster of Christian Ponder. Because if I can show I know the intricate details of the Viking quarterback controversies, I’ll prove that I really do know something about American culture, that I’m not a recent immigrant. That will prove I’m an okay guy.

In doing this, I don’t consciously question the logic behind my actions. That is, why would my status be worse if I were a recent immigrant? Is that devaluation in the head of the white people I meet? Or is it my head? Or both?

But in defense of myself, part of me just wants to convey who I am, who exactly I am. Because I actually like football and do know about the Vikings quarterbacks. Because I am a third generation American. But of course there’s more to it than that. I want to be seen for whom I am, who I actually am. I want to be seen without the scrim of stereotypes and prejudices that keep white Americans and even other Americans of color from seeing who I am, seeing my particularity, my individual history. Indeed, that’s why I’ve written and published two memoirs, one novel, four books of poetry and one book of literary criticism, four plays and dozens of essays. I want to articulate who I am, who my family is, who Japanese Americans are, our history, our community.

And like Jelani Cobb, my relationship to language is also connected to the stereotypes and prejudices around me. When I was younger, my mother often complained that I talked like a jock, and cited the way I sprinkled the phrase “you know” over and over in my speech. For me, as a teenager, talking like a jock was a way of throwing off the role of foreigner, immigrant, someone who wasn’t born here and didn’t belong.

And yet, now that I no longer speak like a jock, I also know that resorting to the talk of a jock is a way to put white people I meet at ease. And at times, what I’m trying to make safe is not just my body, but also my intelligence and the way it is associated with my body and the stereotypes it invokes.

For in certain situations, I know the more articulate and learned I appear—that if I actually let loose at full throttle my intellect and learning—the more I run the risk of being perceived as a threat because of my Asian-looking face and body. I have to pick and choose when I let my intelligence and learning show and to what degree. Because in certain situations where a white writer or intellectual would be met with respect and admiration for their intellect and learning, my intellect and learning can, in an instance, become perceived as uppity, arrogant, showing off. And if that happens, the foreignness that is my face, my body, can then be turned into that of the outsider, the inscrutable threat, the one who wants to take something from white America. Just as, whenever America’s relationship to countries in Asia takes a turn for the worse, Asian Americans can feel the shadow of that worsening falling inevitably upon us.

If our situation as Asian Americans is, in various ways, different from that African Americans, we are both dealing with the stereotypes and prejudices that surround us and affect our interactions with American society. We want to belong, to have our place at the table. But we move, as Jelani Cobb and other Africans, between masks and scrims that are placed upon us, that keep others from seeing who we actually are. And we know we must, in order to succeed in this society, maneuver and navigate around and through these masks and scrims which, no matter how hard we work, how talented we are, never quite leave us.

This is not to say that we as Asian Americans cannot succeed. We do. We work hard. We try to get along. We try to bring our talents to the table. But we also know that our hard work and our talents in some instances will not be easily recognized. And we know in other instances our hard work and talents may be perceived as threats.

How we as Asian Americans deal with all this is individual and various. There are many strategies, many ways of owning who we are, of recognizing the racism that exists in the society around us.

So what exactly am I saying here? First, I’m saying that the experiences and culture of African Americans can be useful for us as Asian Americans in our understanding of who we are and our place in America. This runs against a certain tendency in the Asian American community to distance ourselves from the African American community. It runs against the ways many whites picture us as the “model minority” who are quiet, study hard, and don’t make waves, so that we become a tool with which to bludgeon and chastise those black people who, in the white gaze, are perceived as angry and dangerous and uneducated.

Second, I’m saying that we Asian Americans do face racism, do face stereotypes and prejudices, and that this has an effect on our psyches, on the ways we articulate our identities, and on the ways we make our way through American society. And I’m suggesting that it’s better to be consciously aware of both racism and its effects upon us than to go around in denial.

Third, I’m suggesting that the effects of race upon Asian Americans involves the subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible ways we adjust to the way we’re perceived by the white mainstream. Yes, there are large historical and political issues such as the internment camps or the Asian Exclusion laws or events like Vincent Chin or the Minneapolis police shooting of the unarmed Fong Lee or the Hmong hunter Chai Vang who got into a confrontation with white hunters in Wisconsin and shot and killed several people.   Such events and issues galvanize the perceptions of and reactions to our communities. Then too there are the even more systemic issues such as the achievement gaps or poverty that certain portions of our community suffer from. But there are also the ways we as individuals are constantly dealing with and battling with a portion of the American society and psyche that still says, “You don’t belong here. You’re not wanted. You are perpetually foreign. This country will never be your home.”

Finally, I’m not saying we cannot overcome these forces raised against us. But our ability to overcome these forces will be severely hampered if we don’t recognize them. As James Baldwin, the great African American writer, wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

A New Definition of Racism

In Anna Deveare Smith’s multi-character play, Fires in the Mirror, which explores the racial tensions between Jews and blacks in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Smith impersonates a linguist she has interviewed. The linguist states that when it comes to the issues of race, we have “lousy language.” By this he means that our language does not sufficiently describe or convey the complexities of the ways race affects our individual lives and the society we live in. Our language concerning race is crude, undeveloped, inadequate.

One of the ways in which our language fails when it comes to race is in our definition of racism. Here is a definition from Dictionary.com:

  1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
  1. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
  1. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

From Merriam-Webster:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2: racial prejudice or discrimination

Both first definitions start with the idea of belief in racial superiority of one race over another race. That is, there is an emphasis on conscious belief.

For a large number of contemporary Americans, the historical context for the definition of racism is the battle of the Civil Rights movement to dismantle the practices of the Jim Crow South: Alabama Governor George Wallace declaring “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever;” Bull Connor unleashing dogs and police brutality upon the Freedom Riders; Ku Klux Klan rallies where crowds of white hooded figures surround a burning cross. It’s obvious that all of these figures believed in the superiority of the white race over the black race, consciously and actively discriminated against blacks, acted with prejudice and pursued policies of discrimination with fervency and often great hatred. In many ways our society’s image of a racist and racism is still frozen within that historical period of change in the Deep South.

When people argue that we are in a post-racial society or that society is relatively free now of racism, in their minds they are stating an obvious truth: Legal segregation of schools and other public institutions has been dismantled. Large scale Ku Klux Klan rallies no longer occur. The Voting Rights Act was passed (though of course recently dismantled by the Supreme Court). In short, the post-racial proponents are saying the Jim Crow South no longer exists, which is obviously true. At the same time, whether consciously or unconsciously, such people generally tend to limit their image of racism and racists to Mississippi or Alabama in 1930 or 1940 or 1955. That is, there’s a profound desire to keep the definitions attached to that era. Such people tend to feel far more uncomfortable with extending the definition of racists and racism back to the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. At the same time, by constricting their images of examples of racism to the Jim Crow South, these same people avoid contemplating whether racists or racism exists in America in 2015.

Beyond the particular historical period image attached to racists and racism, our definitions of these terms still rely on a foundation based on conscious belief. Racism is based upon a conscious belief by an individual in the inherent superiority of one race over another.

Such a definition, I would argue, is far too simplistic and limited. It does not explain the way racism works in America today.


Over the last twenty to twenty five years, writers and scholars in a number of fields have presented evidence of racial inequities in all areas of society—economics, employment, housing, the justice system, education, cultural representation, etc. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have provided evidence that racial disparities continue to exist and are, in some ways, equal to or even worse than in the Jim Crow South. Statistics and other evidence of these disparities are readily available in books, magazines, newspapers and on the web.

In my talks on race, when I provide PowerPoint examples of these disparities in various sectors, the accumulation of these racial inequities stuns certain members of the audience. The question arises: How can such inequities exist if racists and racism are things of the past?

Part of this seeming contradiction is, I answer, semantics. Our previous definition of racists and racism focused on a conscious belief in racial hierarchy or supremacy, on a conscious animus, on conscious avowals of racial prejudice or acts of racial discrimination or hate. But no one in 2015 America openly and publicly espouses such beliefs. The definition focuses on a type of racist and racism that no longer exists with the prevalence it did in the past.

Using the old definitions of racist and racism, those who argue that racism is a thing of the past use the following logic:

1) Racism occurs when someone discriminates or acts with prejudice and antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

2) Therefore, racial bias can only be proved if someone openly admits they are a racist and have acted in a racially biased way.

3) Since such admissions do not occur, racism does not exist.

What many people do not realize is that, as Michelle Alexander points out, in the Whren case, the Supreme Court used this same logic. Lawyers for Whren presented the Court with statistics showing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty by the state of Georgia. The Court ruled that such disparities did not sufficiently prove the existence of discrimination. Only an open admission of racial discrimination would be adequate to prove such discrimination was being practiced. In other words, only if the judges or prosecuting attorneys for the state of Georgia publicly stated or were recorded in private saying that they actively discriminated against black defendants in the application of the death penalty could those defendants prove that they had been racially discriminated against–a nearly impossible standard.*


To say that people today do not publicly declare their racial prejudice or publicly admit to acts of discrimination does not mean that no one in America holds racist beliefs or practices conscious discrimination. In most surveys, roughly one quarter of whites espouse beliefs that most would call racist; in various surveys, around one quarter say things like they would object to having a black family move next door or a black person marrying someone in their family. That means there are more than sixty million whites who hold such beliefs. That is hardly a small number. Many of this sixty million might express these beliefs—that is, conscious prejudice–in an anonymous survey but would not do so openly and in public. Then too, given the taboo against openly expressing racist beliefs, some whites might very well not admit to holding racists beliefs in a survey even though they actually do and might express such beliefs with those they believe are like-minded. The roughly one quarter or sixty million might very well be larger.

At the same time, social scientists and social psychologists have demonstrated that people can act with unconscious, or what is called implicit, racial bias. In one test, designed by Harvard psychologists, people were asked to associate positive adjectives with white faces and black faces. The majority of whites and also a significant portion of blacks were slower to attach positive adjectives with the black faces.* In another test, people were shown images of a white person and a black person; one of the people had a gun on their person. Whites were quicker at identifying when the black person had a gun; they also unequally attributed the black person as having a gun even when the black person held no gun on their person.* Similar studies have measured people’s reactions to resumes or e-mails with white sounding names as opposed to black and ethnic names. The same resume was more likely to win a higher approval or call back if the person’s name sounded white rather than black or ethnic.* Professors were more likely to answer the same e-mail requesting an appointment from a student with a white sounding name than a black or ethnic name (also males were responded to more frequently than females).*

Now given the liberal inclination of most colleges, no one would argue that all these college professors profess openly racist beliefs. And indeed, all these studies made this point: Their subjects could very well consciously profess to believe in racial equality and still act with an unconscious or implicit racial bias.

Picture a million encounters where an unconscious or implicit racial bias influences how an employer reads a resume or the police officer sees someone that officer deems suspicious even while that employer or police officer would never express a conscious racist belief or bias—that is a significant way racism works now in this country.


This brings us to the third way racism works in this country–systemically or structurally. The system of racism in this country involves both the accumulated actions of individuals and the practices and structures of the society. Thus, a clearer and more precise accounting of racism in this country would involve the following components:

  1. Conscious or explicit individual racial bias.
  1. Unconscious or implicit individual racial bias.
  1. Structural components

The structural components—which go beyond the acts of any one individual–can be broken down like this:

  1. Accumulated effect of acts of conscious/explicit and unconscious/implicit bias –e.g., Shootings of people of color by police versus shootings of whites. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession though whites use marijuana at the same rate blacks do. Limb amputations are 4.7 times as likely among black patients than white patients


  1. Allocation of resources – e.g., The imbalance between the resources going to white suburban schools and urban schools with a majority of students of color would be an example of this. The comparison between the amount of research dollars allocated to sickle cell anemia, a disease affecting mostly blacks as opposed to cystic fibrosis, a similar disease affecting whites.


  1. Policies/practices/rules which enable racism and racial inequities to be practiced or their effects increased—e.g., Stop and frisk policies. The lack of a special prosecutor to prosecute charges against the police. The way the Supreme Court ruled in the Wren case: Absent any explicit avowal of discrimination racial disparities in the application of the death penalty are not sufficient to prove bias. Voter I.D. laws.


  1. Beliefs/Concepts/Systems of thought which allow racial inequities to be created and maintained, which denigrate and demean people of color or promote white supremacy—e.g., The banning of ethnic studies in the Arizona school system. The dismantling of AP history in Oklahoma because the exam “overemphasizes” unsettling aspects of American history such as slavery, the genocide practiced upon Native Americans. Subjective standards in fields such as the arts or in hiring practices. Racial stereotypes. The belief that racism is over. The belief that one should and does not see race.

My breakdown here obviously simplifies a complex web of personal actions and societal practices which create and enable the racism and racial inequities that exist in our society. But I believe it provides a better and more complete picture of how racism works in 2015 America, as opposed to the old definitions which describe the racism of the Jim Crow South. Of course, the Jim Crow South could be analyzed also within this framework, but because the racism of the Jim Crow South was much more overt and publicly avowed, its workings were not hidden in the ways racism in 2015 American are sometimes—sometimes—hidden.

Another advantage of this breakdown: To dismantle racism today, we need different approaches depending upon the component of racism we are trying to attack. The strategy one might use to try to change a person who has a conscious or explicit racial bias would most likely be different than addressing the ways a person with unconscious or implicit racial bias needs to change. With the third component above, we are working more with laws and government policies, and so the battle here is on the political front. Further breakdown within categories may also be useful. It would probably be slightly easier to address the affects of implicit racial bias in the medical system than in the justice system. Certainly addressing the former involves fewer ideological or political battles such as one waged between recently between New York’s police union and Mayer de Blasio.

Similarly, by understanding and seeing the differences in these components, we can not only fine tune our strategies and approaches, we can also be more realistic in our expectations. In trying to transform the New York City police department, we should understand that changing the hearts and minds of individual police officers—some with conscious racial bias and some with unconscious racial bias—will be very difficult and will take some time. But ending the stop and frisk policy, as de Blasio recently demonstrated, was relatively easy to accomplish. More importantly, it gave the police considerably fewer opportunities to act with either conscious or unconscious racial bias. In Ferguson, the fines levied by the police and the justice system made up a considerable portion of the city budget and there was a constant call to increase that revenue. Devising other ways of gathering municipal revenue and reducing the expectations of revenue from the police and the justice system would most likely reduce racially biased interactions on the part of the police, even if the hearts and minds of the police remain unchanged.

Seeing these four components together makes it easier to connect them and to speak of the ways they work together. Obviously, there are certain beliefs which foster and enable and reinforce both explicit and implicit bias. At the same time, the work to dismantle these beliefs and belief systems is, on one level, impersonal; we are in the realm of arguing about ideas. And yet, since individuals hold these beliefs and some of these individuals tend to equate these beliefs with who they are and their place in the world, we must understand that we are working both on the level of intellectual debate and on the level of getting past people’s psychological defense mechanisms. This doesn’t mean that editorials or academic arguments aren’t useful. But when we are dealing with specific individuals or in group discussions, we may need to approach this problem in a way that works in both realms—the realm of ideas and the realm of personal psychology.


Overall, I think it’s far more useful to define racism in a way which has less emphasis on conscious personal belief and on individual thought or action. Our definition and our approach should always start with a systemic context. Thus, here would be a new definition of racism:

  1. Racism is a system through which the power and resources of a society are distributed unequally and undemocratically by race. This system functions in all areas of society—politics, economics, the judicial system, the education system, culture, social relations, religion, etc.
  1. Actions and beliefs which support the status quo workings of this system are racist.
  1. Racism can be supported both by individuals with conscious or explicit racial bias or by individuals with unconscious or implicit racial bias. Conscious and openly expressed views of racial supremacy need not be present for a person to act in a racially biased manner and thus, contribute to racial inequities.

Unlike the old standard definitions of racism, which are based on and associated more with the Jim Crow South, this revised definition more adequately expresses the ways racism works in contemporary America.

A corollary to this revised definition is a revised set of criteria for assessing the presence of racism. Given the fact that few Americans now openly or publicly express beliefs in racial supremacy, the absence of such statements should no longer be sufficient proof that racism is not present in an institution or a specific activity or area of society. Instead, far greater weight should be given to statistics that indicate discernable racial inequities or disparities. We should start with the statistical evidence of inequality and then begin to trace and discern the various ways such inequality is achieved—through individuals with explicit or implicit bias, through allocations of resources, through rules and practices, through specific beliefs or ideas. Declarations of good intentions, whether in the past or projecting toward the future, are not enough, and indeed may simply be a way of camouflaging or covering over the problem. To address and correct racial inequities, concrete actions towards addressing all the four components of racism must be proposed and enacted.


William Gibson, the novelist who is credited with founding cyberpunk, has said, “The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In 2015 America, in the battle towards racial equity, our understanding of the problems we face and how to analyze and address them are, in many ways, much more sophisticated than they were a quarter century ago. Whether in social psychology, political science, economics, law, history, or culture, our abilities and tools are more precise, more complex. Then too, in part because of computer advances, the statistics concerning racial inequities cover a broad range of areas and are more readily available. Knowledge about how we talk about and understand racism is more readily available. Word just gets out faster. Terms like microagression and implicit bias are becoming common usage. And, among other factors, the changing demographics of the country make it clear that the issues of race are not going away; they are instead pressing upon us with a renewed urgency as our nation becomes more increasingly diverse and as we approach the time—around 2040—when we will no longer have a white majority.

I have no doubt we’ll need a new and more complex model of addressing and understanding racism than the one I’ve provided in this essay. But I hope my breakdown is a start. At the very least, it demonstrates that our old definitions of racism are too simple and are inadequate. We need to think beyond the level of individuals—whether in terms of what they believe or how they act. We need to be better at seeing how race works beneath a societal surface where no one will admit to holding racist beliefs or acting with racial bias. We need to think systemically. Only if we adequately describe the problem will we ever have a chance of solving it.

* What may not be clear here is that if the Court required that each defendant openly acknowledge their crime—that is, admit that they consciously intended to commit the crime–almost no defendants would ever be convicted.

* https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

* http://www.unc.edu/~bkpayne/publications/Payne 06.pdf

* http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/KellyRoedderRacialCognitionEthicsFinal2008.pdf

* http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2063742