Reverse Racism: A Crisis of Definitions

After last week’s relatively innocuous post, I feel like it’s time for something a little deeper. There’s only so much we can get out of an exploration of celebrity culture, after all, and I’m itching to take on a big topic. Today, we’re going to be talking about the concept of “reverse racism.”

Okay, yeah, that’s definitely a big enough topic. It’s certainly big enough to cause a bit of controversy at the very least. So before I jump into the analysis proper, I’d like to offer a short preface. While I accept that the subject I’m about to discuss may be disputatious, my earnest intention is to start a thoughtful conversation, not to offend anyone. Furthermore, as you will see, I do not pretend to offer the only perspective on this matter, nor the best one. Still, I believe that my perspective may be valuable and, despite not being a person of colour, I believe that it can still be considered largely valid.

As always, I welcome any criticism or disagreement as long as it doesn’t delve into outright aggression or hostility. If you wish to discuss this topic with me in a private forum, I invite you to send me an email at mitchell.s.gunn@gmail.com.

Alright, now that I’ve covered my bases, let’s begin.

Racism is bad.

I think it’s good to start with a very basic assertion like that, because nobody is going to disagree with that statement — or at least nobody whose opinion I care about. While a handful of people still question whether or not racism still exists in our society (seriously?), the only people who would likely contend that racism is a good thing are, y’know, probably racist. Now that we’ve established a point of more or less universal agreement, we can extrapolate and hone in on the places where perspectives differ.

[Side note: this is a really effective technique for resolving disagreements or arguments. Start from common ground and explore how the shared foundations have led two or more rational people in different directions. Explaining the reasoning behind your views will generally make it easier for others to put themselves in your shoes.]

I believe that everyone would also agree that racism can take many forms, both overt and implicit, institutional and individual. Racism is everything from the use of an ethnic slur to the disproportionate incarceration of people of colour in the US (Appendix Table 3 in linked source).

But here’s a question: can people of colour be racist?

You may have an immediate opinion, or you may not be sure. If you fall into the latter camp, take some time to think the question through and come up with an answer that you agree with. Your answer doesn’t have to be a simple “yes” or “no,” because as I’ll soon demonstrate, the question isn’t that simple either.

Thoughts on the matter vary dramatically based on who you talk to. A movie exploring race relations at a prestigious university rather matter-of-factly says no, while a university-sponsored museum shining a spotlight on the historic and ongoing racism in America has a more nuanced answer. Both of these sources seem to be well-intentioned, rational, and have likely given the issue a lot of thought, so why don’t they reach the exact same conclusion? And why do so many people in general have different opinions on this matter?

Put simply, we all define racism in different ways. That museum article I just mentioned really emphasizes this point, and it’s a fascinating read. In fact, the only reason I’m posting something of my own instead of just linking to their article is because I want to take a slightly different angle, focusing a bit more on the underlying perspectives that shape these different views.

First of all, let’s do what anybody should do when they’re trying to decide what a word means: look it up in the dictionary. Even there, we see a few different definitions. The first one could be summarized as racial prejudice with a bit of a eugenics influence, the second is referring to systemic or institutional racism, and the third simply denotes racially-motivated hatred.

One key distinction to be made here is how the first and third definitions focus primarily on the individual scale and tend to be the more overt manifestations of racism. The second definition exists on the larger institutional scale and tends to be less explicit. It is my belief that almost every disagreement over the nature and existence of racism as a whole or in a specific form stems from differing levels of emphasis on each of these definitions.

For instance, we can revisit the answer given in the trailer for Dear White People: “racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race.” Clearly, this is focusing in on the second definition, highlighting the systematic oppression faced by people of colour (specifically, African-Americans) in the United States and beyond.

Quick interjection: I’m referring primarily to the United States because there’s a lot more readily available documentation for these issues in the US. Institutional racism certainly exists in Canada and other countries, but I only have so much time for research.

There’s certainly a huge amount of evidence demonstrating this sort of institutional racism; here’s a quick summary of the basic statistics. It isn’t as bad as the outright oppression and degradation historically levied against people of colour in centuries past, and there are initiatives like affirmative action that try to counter institutional racism, but it still exists, and it’s still terrible.

The pithy slogan often used for this definition is “Racism equals prejudice plus power,” which is fitting in this case. When a powerful institution or individual (e.g. the government, legal system, and education system) is tainted with prejudice against a particular minority, it’s a recipe for institutional racism. From this assessment, people of colour cannot be racist because they do not hold sufficient institutional power in our society.

I tend to refer to this as the “sociopolitical perspective,” since I’ve most commonly encountered it among those studying sociology or political science. This makes sense, of course, since these fields are largely dedicated to analyzing the behaviour and function of institutions on a large scale. It’s an entirely valid perspective, but I get concerned with the number of people who vocally assert that it’s the only valid perspective and tell anyone who holds a different opinion to “educate themselves.”

These conversations take place at a post-secondary educational institution, wherein students gain knowledge and ability in all manner of academic disciplines. Institutions like this are built on the belief and principle that each and every field of study has value and any reasonable perspective is worth exploring. To summarily dismiss someone and their ideas purely because they are not in line with your own and are derived from a different educational background is to spit on the foundation of organized academia altogether.

Racism is a truly interdisciplinary issue, after all, since it’s relevant to all of our lives. While someone majoring in, say, math or physics may not have explicitly discussed racism in their classes, their unique academic background will still provide them with their own perspective on the issue that should be heard and acknowledged, in much the same way that someone can still comment on contemporary television even if they haven’t watched Breaking Bad. Their thoughts and opinions might end up being irrational or unsupported, but it is foolish to discredit these thoughts and opinions exclusively because they differ from your own or because of the person’s breadth of experience.

Allow me to explain my own thoughts on the matter as an example. My academic background focuses on psychology and English, so I tend to approach problems and questions from those perspectives, even outside scholarly pursuits. My English studies prompt me to focus on the semantic structure of the word “racism,” which etymologically denotes a belief, doctrine, or practice based on race (without any mention of institutional or systemic effects). My psychology classes prompt me to focus more on individuals and small groups rather than societies or institutions — I acknowledge their effects, of course, but they are not the primary concern of my academic discipline.

In combination, these factors lead me to focus more on the first and third definitions of racism from the Dictionary.com entry. By these two definitions, people of colour can quite clearly be racist, as they are entirely capable of holding prejudicial views towards white people or even other minorities, as well as pure and simple hatred.

My point, however, isn’t to argue one way or another on that original question. Because our perception and analysis of the question varies so dramatically, arguing a simple “yes” or “no” is largely meaningless. Regardless of whether or not you believe that people of colour can be racist (and however you define that term), the really interesting part is the fact that there are differences in our answers, that we each think about the issue in different ways. This emphasizes just how different our thought processes can be, and unfortunately comes with both good news and bad news.

The good news is that all of our perspectives on the question and the underlying concepts are equally valid, as long as there’s reasoning to back them up. Each individual is equipped with a different point of view on racism and may thus be able to view certain aspects of the problem in a way that others might not have considered.

The bad news is that we’re not taking advantage of this, at least not right now. Too often, we angrily dismiss opinions because they don’t line up with our own, without bothering to hear the explanation behind them. Healthy disagreement and discussion has been alienated from academia, but it doesn’t have to be. The next time that someone starts talking about racism (I don’t know how frequently this happens for you), engage with them. Start a dialogue and explore each other’s views without name-calling, hostility, or outright dismissal. You don’t have to agree with them at the end, and if their reasoning is completely out of whack, you can walk away and mutter to yourself, “Wow, that guy was crazy.” But it will have been a valuable experience nonetheless.

Each of us has been equipped with a unique perspective through our life experiences, our education, and the people we’ve interacted with along the way. These factors grant us the ability to discuss issues like racism and provide insight that might otherwise be ignored. With so many diverse voices, there’s an amazing and immensely enriching conversation to be had. We just have to stop shouting at each other first.

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