What About Reverse Racism?

Have you heard the term “reverse racism”? Let’s break it down.

By Momentous Institute | Feb 05, 2018
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Have you heard the term “reverse racism”? While we’re all familiar with the idea of racism, some also reference the idea of “reverse racism”. This term has been coined to describe one of the following experiences:

  • Some people of color are prejudiced against White people

The argument here is that people of color who don’t like White people, purposely exclude them, or say hateful things are “racist” against White people.

  • Some activities are designed exclusively for communities of color and are not welcoming to White people

The argument here is that things such as BET (Black Entertainment Television) are “racist” against Whites because they are exclusive.

Is “reverse racism” a thing? Let’s break it down.

First, let’s talk semantics. Racism is not the same thing as prejudice, bigotry or discrimination.

And let’s be clear: prejudice, bigotry and discrimination are wrong. They are wrong no matter what person or group is enacting them. Yes, people of color can sometimes be prejudiced about White people. They can hold negative views about White people as a group. They can act on these negative views. This can and does happen.

Racism, however, is much more complex. Racism has a power dynamic. When one is racist toward another, he or she has an element of power over that person, and that power can negatively affect another person’s life. This power differential can show up when one person or group limits another person or group’s rights. It can show up in false narratives about a race or culture that feed stereotypes. It can show up in policies that are aimed at keeping a person or a group from experiencing equitable access to the same benefits as others. The person or group with power has the ability to negatively affect another person’s life. (They also have the ability to positively affect another person’s life, by being an ally to marginalized populations.)

Racism is often systemic. While there are certainly individuals who are racist, racist views and policies also influence society as a whole. In America, the laws of this nation were created for and exclusively by White people As a result, people of color have historically been left out of positions of power within important systems, primarily the government.  Still today, people of color face discrimination, incarceration, poverty, unemployment, lack of education opportunities and affordable housing at higher rates than White people. Yes, White people can face discrimination, incarceration, poverty, unemployment, etc. But they are not experienced at the same rate or on the same scale as people of color.

So – can people of color be “reverse racist”?

While people of color can certainly be prejudiced against White people, they cannot be racist. They don’t hold the power.

Think of it this way. When a person of color is prejudiced against a White person, what happens to the White person? In what way does this prejudice negatively affect the quality of the White person’s life? How is his life worse because of this prejudice? Prejudice from a person of color does not affect the rights of a White person. The same is not true in reverse. When White people are prejudiced against people of color, there are many negative effects. As listed above, this prejudice can severely affect the quality of a person’s life and can violate his rights.

What about BET, Black History Month and other events or opportunities that are just for one group of people? Is that reverse racism?

One way to think about this is to flip it around. What is the default? The default history lessons typically involve mostly White people. The default television programming involves mostly White people. When people of color choose – on their own, not chosen for them – to participate in groups with other members of their same culture, race or ethnicity, that is not racism. Some may say, “Why isn’t’ there White History Month or White Entertainment Television?” The difference is that almost all history and television is already about White people. White is the default. When people of color create an environment where they can see themselves and feel that they belong, they aren’t being racist or exclusive. They are simply creating a safe place for them to participate in their culture, in a world where they don’t always have that opportunity.

It can be very challenging for White people to acknowledge their privilege and the power it affords them. But there are certain inherent advantages to being white that people of color do not have. Our society is based on a long history of racist policies. It will take intentional effort to un-learn what societal norms have taught and begin to move forward in a productive way. But like all things, paying attention to the perspectives of others and listening to truly understand is a great starting place.