Friday, December 06, 2013

Why the Term ‘Reverse Racism’ Should Be Scrapped

As of late, I’ve been stumbling across a landslide of links to articles and videos posted by friends about the concept of reverse racism, and how it doesn’t exist.

Reverse racism, in case you didn’t know, is when people of colour are accused of making generalized negative comments about the pigmentally challenged (my own PC term, feel free to appropriate it for your personal use if you wish to be sensitive around touchy white folks).

Now, the reason I am writing this on my blog instead of the comments thread on one of these linked pieces is that a white person popping up in such a racism discussion to do anything apart from virtually nod his head in agreement sets pulses all a-flutter.

So, if you have chanced upon this and don’t want to read an opinion that challenges this way of thinking, look away now.


The argument is that reverse racism cannot exist because racism only has power, only truly exists, in the context of hundreds of years of systemized oppression of black nations and peoples by white colonials, and the societal and global power imbalances this system of enslaving and marginalizing people of colour has created and perpetuated. White people can’t be targets for racism as they have the whole crushing mechanism of the system behind, granting them ‘white privilege’ and thus miraculous immunity.

So the first thing to say is this: I absolutely agree that reverse racism does not exist, but not for the reasons above. Reverse racism does not exist, because the dictionary definition of racism does not mention anything about the race or colour of the person being racist, or the race or colour of the victim, or, and this is very significant, the scale of the act.

Let’s look at that definition: 

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Let’s be clear: racism happens on an individual level, and can be carried out by a member or members of one race against another. It is not just from white to black; it isn’t even just between white and black. Take any nationality or race in the world and you will find levels of racism against ethnic minorities. Reverse racism does not exist. There is only racism.

My next problem with the way the debate is being framed is that racism in its simplest definition is being conflated with the institutionalized and systemized racism that has oppressed and marginalized millions of people, with the United States being the most obvious example.

Now, is institutional racism largely the preserve of white society? 


Have people of colour suffered, and do they continue to suffer, huge injustices thanks to white power structures? 


Can people of colour be racist towards white people? 

Of course they can.

Let me give you a few examples of how this plays out, one from an article I read, and one from my personal experience.

In this article, once again linked to on Facebook by a friend and held up as a reasoned and incisive argument, the author explains why white people can’t suffer racism:

“When I’m online talking to people and a PoC is sharing their experience with racism … Inevitably, here comes a white person either claiming that they have a similar experience because they grew up in an all black neighborhood and got chased on the way home from school a few times, or because their black friend tried to touch their straight hair one time without permission and OMG THAT IS SO RACIST and it is the exact same thing, or some other such bullshittery, and they expect that ignorance to be suffered in silence and with respect. If you are that kid who got chased after school, that’s horrible, and I feel bad for you. And if you are that person who had another person try to touch you without your permission, that was wrong of them, and I’m sorry that happened to you. But dudes, that shit is not racism.

The situations in which you, fellow white person, were involved were unfortunate and inappropriate, this is true. But to claim that these experiences were ‘reverse racism’ both diminishes and minimalizes the real and actual experiences of PoC who really do encounter racism. There is no system of oppression in America that actively works to oppress and subjugate white people. Sorry to break it to you, but your individual suffering is just that, individual. The individuals acting against you do not have the institutionalized power to actively oppress you in every facet of your life, nor would their racism be upheld and supported by government, media, and legislation if they did. Because you’re white.

Reverse racism isn’t real because we live in a culture that supports and enforces whiteness as the norm and PoC as other … When a white person starts talking about reverse racism, what they’re really doing is derailing a conversation to make it about them. Their white privilege leads them to believe that what they say both matters and needs to be heard and is important and the conversation should stop to focus on their perceived ills. You know what? When somebody is talking about racism they have experienced, that conversation is not all about you, nor should you expect it to be, so stop with the derailing and just listen and learn.”

And, just for the hell of it, here’s another example of the argument in a skit by comedian Aamer Rahman.

Now, the first thing to note is that the above blog post explains why I am writing this in my own blog instead of joining in with a discussion. My ‘white privilege’ means that if I try to make any point at all about racism in such a forum, I will be shouted down.

White people can’t cry racism, you see, because those who came before us sinned heavily and because other white people are racist. So, because I am white, nobody can be racist against me and I have no right to complain about racism. 

Do you notice the generalization being made? A generalization that is based on the colour of my skin and nothing else? Where I am being held accountable for power structures and white oppression I neither approve of nor play any role in?

Secondly, in this piece, which is pretty typical of the argument, you can see exactly the conflation of racism and institutionalized racism. 

Now, here’s the thing. White privilege does exist in many countries and, as a white male, I benefit from it. I have never experienced any discrimination or obstacles based on the colour of my skin, and the fact that anybody does is shameful and something that should be consigned to history as quickly as possible. But white privilege does not exclude me from conversations on racism, nor does it prevent other people being racist towards me.

I was in a bar in Nairobi a few months back, waiting for some friends, and fell into conversation with a couple of Kenyan gentlemen enjoying a Tusker at the next table. We chatted for a few minutes, and then the following snippet occurred:

Him: ‘Can I ask you a question?’
Me: ‘Sure.’
Him: ‘Are you racist?’
Me: ‘Why are you even asking that?’
Him: ‘Because all you white people are racist.’

Now, as then, I make no comment. Because I’m pretty sure I don’t have to.

I’ve had many such discussions in Kenya. Dozens of times somebody has started a sentence with, ‘You white people …’

And you know what? While this may not be damaging to me, while there may not be an entire racist power structure behind people saying such things, while the people who say these things aren’t (for the most part) saying them to be rude or offensive or oppressive, these remarks are racist because they are making negative generalizations about a person based on their race. It’s really that simple. 

I would like two very simple changes to occur in this debate. I would like people to stop using the term ‘reverse racism’. I would like people to stop conflating the word ‘racism’ with the term ‘institutionalized racism’, and accept that racism can and does occur in all directions. Neither of those changes “diminishes and minimalizes the real and actual experiences of PoC who really do encounter racism’. They simple start framing the debate in the correct terms.

Now, why does this matter?

It matters because racism, in every form and at every scale and in every colour permutation you can imagine, is pure ignorance and should not be tolerated.

It matters because saying that people of a certain colour cannot be victims of racism is racist, and to deny that is wilfully twisting words to suit your flawed argument.

It matters because it gives certain individuals carte-blanche to say and do whatever they like about somebody who happens to be a member of a majority group, because after all they aren’t being racist.

It matters because it breeds a culture in which racist statements and behaviour are acceptable, and if left unchecked this culture will grow and create more division, resentment and bitterness. 

See that kid who was chased because he was white? How exactly do you think that experience is going to help in ending racism? Do you not think that his young mind might be shaped by this experience and, living in a society where there are already many negative stereotypes about black youth, he might become somebody who believes these stereotypes and becomes part of the racist power structure? Is this the kind of thing you really want to enable by refusing to accept that racism cuts both ways, instead of educating youth of all races on the importance of not discriminating?

It matters because, while institutionalized racism is a massive problem, racism itself happens at the individual level and it is only by changing individual mind sets that racism can be addressed. The United States has all the legislation in the world to promote equality, but African Americans still find themselves getting a raw deal. That is down to a great many individuals—the people who make up these institutions. Every single person on this planet has to take individual responsibility for their own behaviour, and allowing certain groups to say whatever they like about others undermines that.

Finally, on a personal note, I give everybody the courtesy of judging them on who they are, what they say and what they do—not on the colour of their skin (or gender, religion or sexual orientation). If you don’t do the same, then you’re a racist. And I don’t want to know you.


Mwangi Ichung'wa said...

You white people...
That's actually it, depending on your bias, it could go either way. Hehehehehe.

Mwangi Ichung'wa said...

You white people...
That's the end of that, depending on context.

Dave Beynon said...

Proud of you, Michael - you didn't play the ginger card once.

James O'Neill said...

Just remember, white is a colour too.

James O'Neill said...

Just remember, white is a colour too.