Yo: are we (still) racist?

Rachel Brahinskyby Rachel Brahinsky, UC Berkeley

When I teach classes about race and geography, I often use the civil rights movement to start a conversation about the ways in which racial politics and spatial practices intertwine. Sometimes I put up a photographic collage of boys sitting at a lunch counter, a woman taking her place at the front of the bus, and a youngster dipping his head forward to drink from a water fountain.

All are simultaneously mundane and radical activities, and no doubt my students have seen the images before. But they’ve rarely, if ever, I suspect, considered these classic images of struggle as also being images of space and place, of the way that ideas and ideologies become meaningful when carried through bodies and space. As George Lipsitz puts it: “Social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places” (2011: 5). Racism wasn’t created by segregation. But it was largely through spatial practices like segregation that racism was reinforced and propelled forward through American history. Conversely, it is through spatial acts like sit-ins – acts that enact a counter-ideology, that of equality, in places – that the archaic “death-dealing” (Gilmore 2002: 16) practices of racial segregation have been effectively challenged.

Racism reinforced and propelled, and also effectively challenged, on a moving bus: The bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosa_parks_bus.jpg#file)

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Sometimes when I borrow that quote from Gilmore, my students squirm in their seats. That’s fine – because the clarity of the phrase ‘death-dealing’ is part of its brilliance. Racism, as it plays out through segregation, is a determinative factor in levying what we often calmly call ‘life chances’. Where we live, where we work, and which public spaces we inhabit are key factors that guide whether we eat nutritious food, drink poison-free water, or whether we live in fear of the police (rather than living with their protection). So the enactment of racism through space is a key factor in whether we live, live well, or die young.

The deadly serious nature of racism’s effects in society is exhausting to face day-to-day. Lately there’s been an amazing flourishing of pop-cultural production focused on outing mundane everyday racism with humor, which has been a welcome relief to the overwhelming headlines giving national media platforms to the Gingrichian mentalities of the moment.

One of my favorites is yoisthisracist.com, where blogger Andrew Ti mocks overt and subtle racism with comedy and brilliance, using a renovation of the old ‘Dear Abby’ format. Readers send in questions, and Ti tears them apart, mocks them, and applauds them for their insights. The exchanges range from goofy to deadly serious, and Ti has a tendency to curse a lot and use text-isms like LOL to reach his audience – and the consistency of his critique is highly uneven (sometimes he’s just name-calling, but that usually seems to come after receiving a raft of nasty racist emails from readers; the blog is his outlet).

But there is a lot of brilliance in the blog, and it generally comes at moments when Ti uses the space to redirect a reader’s question from the micro-moments of interpersonal racism to the socio-structural factors that bracket those moments. Take this one from 19 January, where a reader (presumably white) asked: “Today I got called a cracker by a black guy, is that racist?”. The response, in typical Ti form, widens the lens to focus on big picture questions: “Yo, I mean, kind of. Did he also make you nine times more likely to go to prison at some point in your life? That would make it worse.”

On 20 January, there was this: “Yo, I just read about some white dude getting offended by ‘Portlandia’, calling it a ‘white subcultural equivalent of a minstrel show’.” The response, again, pointed readers to institutional racism, prompting us to ‘jump scales’ (Smith 1992) from interpersonal interactions to the structures that seep racism into our everyday lives: “Yo, if that guy feels that way about ‘Portlandia’, he is going to BUG OUT when he discovers Fox News.”

What political strategies might melt away some of the allure of the Fox minstrel show? Although black and brown communities have been hit the worst by the Great Recession, it’s worth noting that the geographies of American poverty are not mono-chromatic. The latest census showed us that half of Americans are now low income/poor, by government standards (which are limited of course – that’s a topic for another day). Half. Perhaps we need a movement of ‘the 50%’… In any case, this statistic suggests that there’s a clear argument for focusing on cross-race alliances in which racism and its relationship to economic inequality are on the table for deconstruction. We may need a little bit of humor to help move that project forward.


Gilmore R W (2002) Fatal couplings of power and difference: Notes on racism and geography. The Professional Geographer 54(1):15-24

Lipsitz G (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Smith N (1992) Contours of a spatialized politics: Homeless vehicles and the production of geographical scale. Social Text 33:54-81