The Function of Racism

June 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

“The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again why you are here. Somebody says you don’t have any language so you spend 20 years proving you do. Somebody says you don’t have any culture so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

The strategy is no different than bombing Cambodia to keep the Northern Vietnamese from making their big push. And since not history, not anthropology, not social sciences seem capable in a strong and consistent way to grapple with that problem, it may very well be left to the artists to do it.

For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease.

And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits.

And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.

Complete your work without worry. Do not be confused. Don’t waste your energy fighting the fever, you must only fight the disease. And I urge you to be careful, for there is a deadly prison. The prison that is erected when one spends their life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your culture, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore.

You don’t have to dwell on changing the minds of racists. Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there are no doors, and there are old, old men and old, old women who need to believe in their racism, and need you to focus all of your creative energy on them.

They thrive on the failures of those unlike them. They are in prisons of their own construction.

But you must know the truth. That you are free.”

From Toni Morrison’s speech at Portland State, 1975.

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