The Racism Matrix

March 30, 2011

This particular post was supposed to be Flying Whale’s task, but unfortunately I need it to exist now, so that someone else can use it now.

But before we get to the racism matrix, we need to talk briefly about structure and agency.  Structure and agency are just fancy sociologist words to describe the fact that people make choices in their lives (agency), but that those choices are constrained by the rules and systems that govern society (structure).

The most helpful metaphor for this that I know is that society is like a river, flowing downstream.  Individuals are like a swimmer in that river.  They can choose to swim with the current or against the current, but ultimately, their movement is within the context of the current’s flow.

Enter the racism matrix:

Racist Anti-racist

Pretty straight-forward.  Two columns by two rows.  And so we begin trying to fill it in.

What’s active and racist?  Being a member of the KKK.  Calling someone a racist slur.  Refusing to hire someone because of their race.

What’s passive and racist?  Letting an employee at a car dealership serve you first, even though an African American was in line before you.     Being a member of an association that doesn’t allow membership for people of color.  Staying silent when a friend tells a racist joke.

Then what’s actively anti-racist?  Participating in the Civil Rights Movement.  Signing a petition that demands an investigation when a white police officer kills a person of color under suspicious circumstances.  Supporting affirmative action for people of color.

Which leaves the passively anti-racist cell.

The point of the Racism Matrix is that the passive anti-racism cell doesn’t exist, that it’s impossible to be passively anti-racist.  Which is to say, in a racist society, being passive and doing nothing will support the momentum of the status quo and will therefore have a racist effect.

Think back to the swimmer and the river.  You can swim with the current (active racism) or you can swim against the current (active anti-racism).  But if you just float on your back, you’re going to be pulled along with the current (passive racism).

There’s no way to float against the current.

At a conceptual level, this means that one of the ways in which structure intervenes into our lives is that it removes one of our cells of action (or inaction, as the case may be).  But as a teaching tool, the Racism Matrix says this: if you don’t like a system you see playing out in your society, you have to DO something to counter it.  Otherwise, you are supporting it.



  1. Yeah, I fell down on the job here. Nicely done. I’ve never heard the stream metaphor before. Immediate quibble: that metaphor precludes any possibility of structural change. I’m almost that cynical, but not quite.

  2. Oh, I should say that aside from that, the metaphor seems to work remarkably well at least at first glance. Cool.

  3. Also (I’m singlehandedly inflating our comment stats), fun factoid: I learned about the Racism Matrix at a teach-in during the first, and as far as I know, only summit of the short-lived student organization STARC (Student Alliance to Reform Corporations), in 1999, just before a bunch of folks jetted off to Seattle for the WTO protests.

    STARC even still has this awesome blast-from-the-past 90s-style website!

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