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"Wait, reverse racism isn't a thing?"


As a quick followup on Chanda's guest post yesterday about unintended but real consequences of the words our leaders use, allow me to make one fact abundantly clear: There is no such thing as reverse racism. If you believe in such a concept, then know that you are falling into the same category as the dude (why is it always a dude?) who writes to you about how general relativity is wrong, or that the Sun is made of iron.  

Racism is a system that supports and reinforces the belief that white people are superior to non-white people. It can be manifest through personal actions, but often more importantly it is systemic and undergirds the history and present nature of our country's society and culture. Here's one particularly useful sociological definition (see also Halley, Eshleman & Vijaya 2011):
Racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race. The manner in which the defense is articulated - either with hostility or subtlety - is not nearly as important as the fact that it insures the continuation of a privileged relationship. Thus it is necessary to broaden the definition of racism beyond prejudice to include sentiments that in their consequence, if not in their intent, support the racial status quo (source).
I like this definition because it is functional rather than theoretical; it's based on research rather than off-the-cuff opinion or personal motto. Racism is best seen and identified by looking for its consequences. For example, a University can claim to support diversity, but if it's faculty is only ~1% Black outside of the African American Studies department, the we can clearly see that it actually supports---passively and/or actively---racist mechanisms and policies. After all, race has no biological basis (Lewontin 1972; Barbujani et al. 1997; Sussman 2012). The number of Black individuals talented enough to be on your University's faculty should be equal to their representation in the population. Their underrepresentation must therefore be the result of a program of active exclusion rather than the result a meritocratic selection process.

Racist words and actions are not just rude interruptions to polite society, like a belch during a faculty meeting. Instead, these words actively support this systemic process by reminding non-white people that they are inferior to white people, that they are less than human, that they do not belong. This messaging starts at a young age for people of color in this country, particularly Black, Latina/o and Native people. Whether the speaker of racist words means to or not, their words reflect the economic, political and social power of white people and the lack of power for everyone else. This is why intent does not matter. The impact is real and felt daily by people of color. It is manifest in higher rates of hypertension in Black people, increased rates of depression in Black children, and lower performance in schoolwork and standardized tests. 

Thus, it is ridiculous and perverse to accuse a person of color of being racist. How can people who have no power, and have never held power in this country systematically oppress white people? How can our words toward white people ever possibly communicate to them that they are inferior, when they are, in fact, systematically advantaged as a group in every aspect of American life?

It's perverse because the word "racism" is what allows us people of color to name the source of our pain. Having words to describe emotional and mental distress gives us a tiny bit of agency, a sliver of relief in a world designed to relegate us to a lower position in society. Otherwise it just feels like chaos. Accusing, say, a Black woman of racism turns the name of our pain back on us, redoubling our pain. It is like pulling a knife out of the victim of a mugging, and then promptly stabbing it back in, all while denying that they are in pain or need of help. 

Accusations of reverse racism are cruel, and result in real pain for people of color. Actual racism and its consequences are nothing like the embarrassment and temporary bruised feelings of white people who are accused of saying something racist. Indeed, anyone with a modicum of curiosity and empathy can see that being accused of saying something racist is far, far less painful than being the target of racist words and actions. In short, accusations of reverse racism are a mechanism of supporting and propagating actual systemic racism. We need to move past the childish notion of "reverse racism" if we are ever to move toward social justice for all people in our country. 

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