Over a glass of red wine with colleagues after a hectic day at work, a co-worker used the term “reverse racism” to describe a situation where a person of colour made an ignorant “dumb blonde” comment, and I was reminded, once again, that some (seemingly knowledgable) white people think reverse racism is a thing.
On hearing the remark, I did not challenge her. Tired and caught off guard at the time, I did not expect to have someone – who up until that point I had considered intelligent, creative and thoughtful – spout damaging nonsense, especially after spending a long working day together.
But really, I had no excuse. I did not challenge her when she repeated it, either. Something about how rude people were in China. I winced. Defeated by my own silence, I looked to the other person of colour at the table- who initiated the conversation with a story about the judgement her father has received as a brown taxi driver. She too failed to challenge our colleague.
Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. Not necessarily because I thought society was past such ignorance, but because, when confronted with it, I did not feel prepared to challenge what I had heard. I was silent. I thought to myself: “if I am faced with a similar situation again, what do I say?” In a sort of daydream, I transported myself back to the exchange, fully prepared with a response: “Reverse racism is not a thing.”
Racism is more complicated than a person of one race disliking a person of another race and acting on it. Despite the dictionary definition (racism: noun “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”), I’m supportive of the modern argument that it comes from systemic privilege, which, in general, people of colour (PoC) do not have. If a group of PoC do not like a white person simply because they are white, the same logic applies. Racism causes racial tensions which means yes, hostility exists on all sides and tension can be elevated by any person of any race. But still, reverse racism is not a thing.
For example, if a person of colour initiates violence against a white person, solely because they are white, it is because of prejudice, not reverse racism. It is as condemnable as it would be vice versa. But it does not require a secondary definition or explanation of racism in the form of reverse racism. All racial tensions are products of the same structure of racism.
It is also worth noting here that although I do not intend to condone violence, the structure of racism allows for legitimate anger on the side of people of colour. Reverse racism fails to factor that in. While it may seem as though reactions against a society-wide and centuries-long issue should not manifest on an interpersonal level, in essence, all white people share the responsibility of racism.
The term “reverse racism” implies a level playing field. It ignores the fact that racism, a practise and ideology that both blossomed under and informed centuries of colonialism, has been, and still is, a political tool of Western societies.
Reverse racism also implies that racism is always intentional. It is not. Despite being foundational to a number of the world’s biggest social issues, it is often discrete. The notion of reverse racism ignores that white people have historically benefited from the social structure of racism, and therefore have little motive to change behaviour that secures it’s lifeline.
The reality is, racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of society. It has more far-reaching consequences than race-related remarks. Yes, racist comments about skin, hair, accent, eyes, religion are a huge part of it. And yes, white people do have the capacity to suffer. But when white people suffer, or are insulted, it is born of other social issues. It may be bullying, poverty, classism, sexism, ableism or ignorance, but it is not racism.
Racism is systemic. By design, there is nothing contained in the experience of being a white person that compares to being a person of colour when it comes racial identity. As painful as it may seem, statements like “the black cool kids do not like me” or “the brown shopkeeper was rude to me” are not evidence of racial oppression. In fact, such thinking screams more of entitlement than anything else.
White people do not have to think about being white. Or how to best avoid confrontation or harm because they are white. Yes, some white people have to think about how best to avoid discrimination because of their gender, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, or disability, but it is not because they are white.
If you are one of those white people who is thinking, “but when I went travelling to – insert any majority PoC area – they did not like me because I am white”, re-read the above paragraph about racial tensions as the product of racism.
Also, bear in mind that travelling is a privilege; the most obvious one being cost. Economics, without introducing race, plays it’s own significant part in furthering social inequality. When you include the fact you are much more likely to be financially better off if you are white, it is no surprise racial conflict solidifies itself as the groundwork of society. Additionally, when choosing a holiday destination, factoring in a given country’s level of hostility towards certain races is not a burden that most white people in the West have to bear, even if the locals are rude once they get there. For holiday-planning PoC, it is another thing on the to-do list.
If you only think about your race because you feel the need to become defensive when the topic of race as a political discussion comes up, you have probably not experienced racism. If you only feel it necessary to mention how rudely a person of colour treated you when racism is mentioned, you have not experienced racism. Unless your race is either entirely ignored or conversely, regularly mocked in everyday interactions, discourse or the media, you have not experienced racism.
Racism is a hierarchical system that favours white people; granted some white people more than others. However, it does impact and cause suffering for all PoC, and in turn, damages everyone because a racist society is inherently disastrous to moral civilisation. Reverse racism does not exist because I still have to explain to white people what racism is. Or fail to explain what it is. And sit there, in silence, wincing at a story about an ignorant comment casually compared to centuries of oppression.