On Race – Personal & Structural

As a political/social commentator on Bermudian issues, I don’t think I can help but have an articulated position on the issue of race. Race remains one of the fundamental aspects of Bermudian society, let alone politics. There are few issues which are as controversial or fundamental in understanding Bermudian politics and society. I find though that there are some clear misunderstandings (and resulting miscommunications) that arise in such discussions, and, as such, I am going to do my best to outline my own perceptions and understandings of the racial dynamics in Bermuda. I hope to rewrite this post itself as a header which will be easily referred to by all readers of this blog for the sake of clarity in future discussions on the race issue.

I think it is important to stress here that I am hardly an ‘expert’ on the race issue. It is not a topic I have studied in depth or claim any particular expertise in. I have only thought on the topic in as much as it has been necessary to develop an understanding of Bermudian dynamics, and I fully expect that some of my terminologies or perceptions may be questioned by those more dedicated to studying race, in particular students of sociology or African studies. The terms are my own and represent my best attempts to articulate my thoughts on the issues.

Racism – Personal or Structural

This is perhaps the key to many of the misunderstandings and miscommunications that haunt discussions of race and racism in Bermuda. It is thus key to discuss the differences between these two different forms of racism.

In short, ‘personal racism’ is where an individual is discrimated against by others solely on the basis of their perceived race. This can take many particular forms, but also has two key general forms, that of overt and covert.

Overt Personal Racism is the form that is almost universally accepted as racism. This is when one race actively dehumanises another race by way of racial slurs (“niggers” etc.), racial stereotyping (Blacks are emotional/stupid/violent/loud, etc.) or denial of service (“Whites only”, etc.). Covert Personal Racism is less obvious (thus the use of the word ‘covert’, indicating hidden) and involves much of the same, but the racist is often aware of the social unacceptability of these views, or is not even aware of their racism (I don’t go to Black areas because I don’t feel safe; I don’t like their smell; Blacks don’t seem to vote on policy; White flight from previously ‘White’ spaces, be they sports (football/cricket) neighbourhoods (not as prevalent here?) or social spaces (various restaurants/clubs)).

All in all I think there are very few people in Bermuda who I would call racist in terms of overt personal racism. There may be a handful, particularly in the very old generations, but they are effectively irrelevant. I do think there are quite a few who I would classify as racist in the covert personal racism sense.

Structural Racism however involves socio-economic inequalities between racial groups, as well as, arguably, social trends (such as the often discussed issue of Whites voting as a monolithic racial bloc). Like personal racism this can take both overt and covert forms.

Overt Structural Racism involves the active use of State or other Institutional power (i.e. bank loans/mortgages) to either prevent the accumulation of wealth or power by one race to the benefit of another – both slavery and segregation fall under this term. Covert Structural Racism involves there being no active State or Institutional power doing the above, but the inequalities which were created by previous Overt Structural Racism are not addressed and are thus both maintained or entrenched through a combination of inertia and inattention.

Segregation (overt structural racism) ended here in the 1970s. However, no action was taken by the Government or various institutions to actively dismantle the legacies of this system, in terms of socio-economic inequalities. This remains the case today; our society remains racist in the sense of covert structural racism.

It is rather cumbersome in discussions to use the various formulae noted above, and in general it is hoped that people are aware, by the context of the discussion in question, which form of racism is being discussed. This ‘hope’ seems rather delirous in practice though, and it is the ambiguity of using the blanket term ‘racism’ that seems to lead to any number of misunderstandings. While there is added complexity to the issue in that there are many who would dispute the existence of either covert personal or structural racism as valid, I feel it is important to at least have that discussion.

In my experience the biggest confusion in Bermudian discourse on race issues is the confusion between overt racism (both personal and structural) and covert structural racism (the issue of covert personal racism is largely ignored).

For the most part, those various ‘anti-racist’ activists or speakers in Bermuda (this covers a large number of people, from public figures like Rolfe Commissiong and Dr. Eva Hodgson, to lesser personalities such as myself), when articulating their anti-racism are expressing their critique and frustration with ongoing covert structural racism.

Most of the resulting controversies from such articulations comes from what appears to be overwhelmingly Whites (but increasingly also younger generations of middle-class Blacks) who think of racism only in the sense of overt personal and structural racism. The argument amongst these groups generally goes that segregation ended over forty years ago plus variations of ‘I have Black friends’, as well as various exhortations of ‘I don’t know anyone who is racist (in the personal sense) but I would criticise anyone who is…’. In this way thise groups claim to be anti-racist themselves, and criticise the others (complaining of covert structural racism) of instead being the racists and inciting racial division.

In one sense these people are, genuinely, anti-racist, but only in the overt sense. In as much as they dismiss (or don’t understand) covert structural racism, and thus join in the criticism or work of dismantling covert structural racism, they are, however racist. They are racist because they are either not aware of (and thus working to end) covert structural racism, or they benefit from the status quo and fear the consequences of dismantling covert structural racism. As such they either passively or actively support covert structural racism.

There then comes the question of how does one actively dismantle covert structural racism, and whether the use of what may be criticised as overt structural racism (in terms of affirmative action or reparations, in various forms) can be justified as a means to that end (hence the calls of reverse racism). This is an issue I’ll attempt to address in a separate post though. To cover it in this post also would make this abnormally long, and the issue itself is complicated. For this post alone I will just say that a precursor (and ongoing aspect of actions) to tackle covert structural racism is the need to first understand what it is and to get a critical number of citizens in society to acknowledge it’s existence.

I welcome feedback on the above with the hope of further clarifying these issues.


4 thoughts on “On Race – Personal & Structural

  1. Pingback: Bermuda: Race, Politics & Society · Global Voices

  2. Jonathan,
    Can you clarify covert racism? If I avoid St. Monica’s Rd., Rangers or Woody’s because I don’t feel safe am I covertly racist?

  3. Tips – I wouldn’t think so, unless your mindset is “black folk hang there, therefore I must avoid it”.

    If your mindset is “fights may break out there, some gang activity may happen there” instead then that’s got nothing to do with the race of anyone.

    Something ‘covert’ in my eyes would be something like say you hire 20 students for some kind of restaurant training or something, and the black people were placed in the back rooms while the white people were placed up front in more visible, higher profile areas.

  4. Pingback: Racism – Personal and Structural… Yet Again… « "Catch a fire"

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