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No matter what people tell you, it’s just not a thing.
The state of race relations in the U.S., a country where people seem to be under the mistaken belief that we are “post-racial,” is dire. This week saw a young, unarmed black man killed by the NYPD in a stairwell, and a refusal to indict from a Ferguson grand jury. Responses to these events from those concerned about systemic discrimination against people of color also saw the revival of a familiar battle cry among my fellow honkies: “Reverse racism!”
Accusations of “reverse racism” are dragged out in many cases when people of color and nonwhite people speak out, sometimes passionately, about racial issues. In Texas, for example, a teacher was recently forced out of her job after a profanity-laced tweet from her private account, in which she referred to white people as “crackers.” Make no mistake: The district’s pressure wasn’t about the use of some four letter words. It was about “crackers,” and the belief that some people think it’s a racial slur. Yes, really. Recently, in another example, the “tanning tax” was called “racist against white people.”
#Breaking: Reverse racism doesn’t exist. Here’s why.
1) Racism = privilege + power
In order to be racist, you need to possess two traits. The first is privilege: A structural, institutional, and social advantage. White people occupy positions of racial privilege, even when they are disadvantaged in other ways. White women, for example, consistently make more than black women, because they benefit from racial attitudes. Furthermore, you also have to have power: the ability, backed up by society, to be a strong social influencer, with greater leeway when it comes to what you do, where, and how.
For instance, white people benefit from privilege and power when they aren’t arrested for drug crimes at disproportionate rates, while black people experience racism when they’re arrested, and sentenced, for the same crimes. This reflects a racialized power imbalance in the justice system. It’s about the privilege and power of white offenders (less likely to be racially profiled, more likely to have strong legal representation, more likely to be able to talk police officers out of an arrest) and the lack of social status for black offenders.
People of color talking about white people don’t occupy positions of privilege or power. Therefore, they cannot be racist. Racism is structural, not personal.
2) Anger is a legitimate response to oppression.
When “reverse racism” is flung around, it’s often in response to angry language, to protests, to fights for equality. People of color have been pushing back on privilege and power for a long time. Many of them are understandably pretty tired of it. Unsurprisingly, some aren’t interested in moderating their tone for a white audience. That means that sometimes they use strong language, out of frustration, rage, or to make a heavy impact on observers. Still not reverse racism.
More importantly, insisting that people of color need to be nice about the way they talk about racism is, in fact, racist: It suggests that, for example, “angry black women” don’t merit social attention, because they’re being unreasonable.
3) Attempts to rectify systemic injustices are not examples of reverse racism.
One of the most common pieces of evidence used as “proof” of reverse racism is that of affirmative action and minority admissions at colleges, universities, and some companies. The argument goes that people of color are stealing positions and jobs away from better or equally qualified white people.
This is not the case. The problem is that generations of injustice have resulted in underrepresentation of people of color in these settings, and the goal of affirmative action and related initiatives is to ensure that they aren’t harmed by racial bias in admissions and hiring decisions. People of color aren’t admitted or hired “over white people.” They’re considered equally, with an eye to the fact that subconscious bias may be influencing decisions made by people in power, who are, you guessed it, often white.
“White folks will tell me time and time again that Affirmative Action is ‘unfair,’” writes Jamie Utt, a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator, “because it discriminates against White people. What the term ‘fair’ assumes here, though, is that we live in a society where there’s an equal playing field for all students, regardless of race or wealth.” Addressing these injustices is intended to give people of color more opportunities, and to ensure that future generations won’t face the same imbalances current generations do.
4) Having spaces set aside for people of color is not racist.
Whites are often resentful of clubs, organizations, and groups focused on people of a specific race, with membership closed to people who are not members of that racial community. The claim goes that such groups segregate and discriminate; after all, if members of those minorities cared so much about racism, they’d open their membership to all, right?
Josh Odam writes in the Daily Collegian, “One of my favorite examples of such a mentality is this: It’s unfair that black students have a Black Student Union when white students do not. To put it simply, the University of Massachusetts is a White Student Union.”
But it’s about more than that. It’s not just that every public space is open to white people, but that white people have an expectation that every private space should be open to them, too. Some conversations and community events need to take place behind closed doors. People of color may need to have sensitive conversations about discrimination, racism, and their lived experiences that are difficult to have when they are surrounded by white observers or people who talk over them. Such spaces provide a medium for doing so, just as members of the LGBTQ community use retreat spaces, and women join women-only organizations and groups for mutual support.
5) White people are not oppressed.
The history of the oppression of people of color by the West, and, by extension, white people, spans centuries. Africans were enslaved and brought to the New World, where European colonialists stole land from Indigenous people. Colonies across the Global South brought untold wealth into the coffers of Europe, with the low, low cost of suffering for native populations.
Today, we’re still living with the legacies of colonialism: In the United States, the black community is dealing with the aftermath of slavery and the poverty and systemic prejudice it left behind. In many African nations, the collapse of former colonies left governments in shambles and unable to support themselves. In Australia, indigenous people struggle with a high poverty rate and low access to health care.
White people, in contrast with people of color, do not experience systemic discrimination that makes it difficult to find and hold jobs, access housing, get health care, receive a fair treatment in the justice system, and more. When it comes to social disparities, they’re the ones consuming and receiving the bulk of the resources; in just one example, black women in the U.S. are more likely to die from breast cancer due to delayed diagnosis. That’s the result of racism within the medical system.
Despite the belief stated by some white people that they are more oppressed than people of color, their claims don’t bear out when looking at social metrics like statistical representation in the justice system, poverty, educational achievement, and unemployment rates.
6) Prejudice and racism are not the same thing.
Some people of color may view whites prejudicially; no wonder, given the interactions of racism in society. Anyone can believe in stereotypes or hold ideas about members of other groups that are not entirely accurate.
However, being, and behaving, prejudicially isn’t the same thing as racism, especially when such prejudice punches up, not down. As Justin Simien of Dear White People puts it, “Prejudice and racism are different. A joke about white people dancing has no impact on the lives of average white people, whereas jokes about black people and reinforcing stereotypes about black people do have an impact on the lives of everyday black people.”
7) Hard truths aren’t racist—they’re just hard to hear.
Making a racist statement is a manifestation of racist culture; being “mean” isn’t. For whites, it can be difficult to be confronted with the reality of racism, and with comments from people of color about how privilege and power operate. It’s tempting to take such comments personally and to insist that people of color are being “mean,” which is often a hop, skip, and a jump away from an accusation of reverse racism.
In this case, the goal is often to invalidate the points made. If someone is being racist, surely her comments can be dismissed instead of taken seriously. Thus, a white person uncomfortable with a racialized conversation may claim that it’s reverse racist in order to escape the conversation, or escape her own role in racist power dynamics.
On the Internet, where such conversations fly by at lightning speed and often get heated, accusations of reverse racism often come in hot and heavy. It’s worth taking a moment to back up and hit those commenters with a healthy dose of truth serum.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.