For years I have been making the following statement: “By definition, as a white person, I cannot experience racism.” In other words: There is no such thing as reverse racism. The reason for my statement is because of the fact that racism, by definition, is about power.
Of course, most white people disagree with me because most white people will swear either themselves or a close friend or family member has been a victim of reverse racism. I then try to explain that they have been a victim of prejudice or discrimination, but not racism. Most of the time, in spite of my best efforts, I have failed in convincing my white friends they have not, nor can they be, victims of racism.
I have recently begun reading a book titled, White Fragility (2018), by Robin Diangelo, a white, female, sociology professor. I am less then 50 pages into this book, but I highly recommend it. Why? Because she agrees with me! Thus, she has to be right. In chapter 2, “Racism and White Supremecy,” she beautifully makes my point about whites not being able to experience racism. She says it better than I ever could. Pages 19-24 are worth the price of the book. Here is what she writes:
“Prejudice is a pre-judgment about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs…All humans have prejudice…People who claim not to be prejudice are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness” (p. 19).
“Prejudice is foundational to understanding white fragility because suggesting that white people have racial prejudice is perceived as saying that we are bad and should be ashamed We then feel the need to defend our character rather explore the inevitable racial prejudices we have absorbed so that we might change them. In this way, our misunderstanding about what prejudice is protects it” (p. 20).
“Discrimination is action based on prejudice…Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates. Given this reality, inserting the qualifier ‘reverse’ is nonsensical” (p. 20).
“When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors… ‘Racism is a structure, not an event’…” (p. 20).
“Similarly, racism..occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control. This authority and control transforms individual prejudices into a far-reaching system that no longer depends on the good intentions of individual actors; it becomes the default of the society and is reproduced automatically. Racism is a system” (p. 21).
“Ideologies are frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence. Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing. Examples of ideology in the United States include individualism, the superiority of capitalism as an economic system and democracy as a political system, consumerism as a desirable lifestyle, and meritocracy (anyone can succeed if he or she works hard)…Ideologies that obscure racism as a system of inequality are perhaps the most powerful racial forces because once we accept our positions within racial hierarchies, these positions seem natural and difficult to question, even when we are disadvantaged by them” (pp. 21-22).
Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. It is not limited to a single act or person. Nor does it move back and forth, one day benefitting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between white people and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized ideology. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching effects” (p. 22).
“People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual…A person of color may refuse to wait on my if I enter a shop, but people of color cannot pass legislation that prohibits me and everyone like me from buying a home in a certain neighborhood…Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people” (p. 22).
“Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression. If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage. But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern–a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird. Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not” (p. 23).
“Individual whites may be ‘against’ racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group. David Wellman succinctly summarizes racism as ‘a system of advantage based on race.’ The advantages are referred to as white privilege, a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.). But let me be clear: stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism. As with prejudice and discrimination, we can remove the qualifier ‘reverse’ from any discussion of racism. By definition, racism is a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power. It is not fluid and does not change direction simply because a few individuals of color manage to excel” (p. 24).
I love it when smart people agree with me. What about you? Do you have any thoughts on this?