Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #5: “Reverse Racism”

This week’s phrase is reverse racism.

The general understanding of reverse racism is “racism” towards white people, by people of colour. Proponents of reverse racism also liken it to oppression of white folks and compensation/revenge for centuries of oppression against people of colour.

However, reverse racism does not exist. It does not exist because there are systems of oppression that disadvantage Indigenous people and people of colour while privileging white folks. Essentially, this means that racism is about the assertion of power – power that is institutionalised and systemic. It is a result of colonialism, dispossession, slavery, genocide, assimilation, and other histories of racialized oppression that have benefitted white people at the expense of non-whites. These forms of racism are held up today by governments, courts, schools, media, and many other institutions. Take for example, how 51% of cocaine users are white, while 95% of those in prison for cocaine-related crimes are black, or how black unemployment is consistently double that of white unemployment, or how employers are 50% more likely to hire someone with a ‘white sounding’ name than someone with a ‘black sounding’ name. These are examples of racism, which is discrimination within a system of oppression that disadvantages people of colour. It cannot, therefore be reversed. People of colour cannot be racist to white people.

While people of colour may indeed experience privilege in some facets of their identity (e.g. as men or as able-bodied folk), people of colour are never privileged as people of colour. In the same vein, white people are never oppressed as white people. It is certainly possible that a black person may insult or assault a white person based on the colour of their skin, or they may throw around remarks like cracker* as a racial slur. But this is not racism; it is racial discrimination. Discrimination is when prejudice – usually unfavourable preconceived judgements of others – physically manifests. Discrimination refers to the unjust treatment of another or a group based on a certain aspect of their identity. It is founded on individual attacks, not centuries of oppression. Racism, on the other hand, is embodied by the full force of histories and ongoing experiences of exploitation, occupation, and violence – to list a few.

As Sara Luckey says,

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.

Using the term reverse racism is problematic because it largely comes up in conversations where people of colour and Indigenous people are sharing examples of actual racism. This serves to further silence racialised stories in a world in which racialised voices are already marginalised. It is also problematic because it assumes that racial prejudice occurs on a level playing field. It doesn’t. Racial prejudice occurs in and as a result of a society formed from colonial violence and racial hierarchies.

The society in which we live not only privileges white people, white skin, and white bodies; it simultaneously marginalises people of colour and Indigenous people through racial profiling, violence and murder, detention and deportation of immigrants, Islamophobia, workplace discrimination, unjust imprisonment, negative media portrayal, cultural appropriation, white domination of queer spaces and so many more ways. Therefore, racism refers to discrimination based on race, in addition to the weight of historical, political and societal oppression, marginalisation and unfairness.

Racism is a unidirectional form of prejudice. It cannot be reversed, unless, of course, we were to travel back in time and convince West Africans to take white men as slaves and Indigenous people of Canada and Australia to violently invade and settle in Europe. Alas, that wouldn’t be possible, would it?

If this was TL:DR, watch this video of comedian Aamer Rahman’s brilliant takedown of reverse racism.

Here are some Talon-approved alternatives for reverse racism:

Use Alternative
“That totally happened to me! Once I was chased by a group of black people in a rough neighbourhood!” Please carry on with your story; I should listen to racialised people when they speak of their experiences of racism.
“You can’t call me a cracker, that’s reverse racism!” That is racial prejudice.That is racial discrimination!That’s not a very nice thing to say!

I feel discriminated.

“He said white people can’t dance. That’s reverse racism.” That’s stereotyping!Please don’t perpetuate stereotypes about white people. Not all white people are bad at dancing.
“Ugh, affirmative action is so racist. Some Asian guy got a job over me!” I see how affirmative action attempts to combat some of the inequalities in our society.
“You can’t generalise white people. That’s racist.” I understand that you are talking about whiteness as a system, and that you are not necessarily speaking to me as an individual white person. I see you are pointing out how I may be complicit in this system, and that I have white privilege.

*One possible etymology for the term cracker derives from white men being slave owners and ‘cracking the whip’. Ultimately, this still places white people in a position of power, even if the term is meant as an insult.

  • techedgeek

    The general understanding of racism is “Pure Bullshit” (Urban Dictionary, 2004). Thus, reverse racism is simply flipping over the patty. Are you telling me that’s not possible to accomplish with a hefty spatula?

    Stay fresh.

  • Shana

    This really should be amended with reverse racism doesn’t exist where whites are the majority. Racism exists against minorities.You really shouldn’t diminish white people’s experiences of racism in countries that are not their own.
    I also think there is a very valuable discussion that can be had around the issues of affirmative action. Many Universities in the US have really been thinking hard about their policies on that front. Rather that simply say, “I see how affirmative action attempts to combat some of the inequalities in our society.” It is valuable to have a good discussion on the merits of affirmative action in our unequal society. A topic of particular interest is how affirmative action affects non-visible minorities.
    I find it very problematic to say white people can’t be the target of racism. In our society I agree it does not exist, however, I think you are really diminishing experiences of racism outside of our society.