Monday, August 24, 2009

Defining "Racism"

I've been hearing and reading a lot about "reverse racism" lately, seems like. Aside from some high-profile comments by certain politicians it seems like some of the people in my life use this phrase more these days. Sometimes it comes up in conjunction with politically charged topics like Affirmative Action, other times in conversations about racism in general. "I have met black people who hate white people, too! Isn't that just as bad?"

Well, it might be just as bad, but the question is, is it racism?

I've always wanted to say no. It's not the same. A black person with a prejudice against a white person is not the same as a white person with a prejudice against black people. But I haven't had the language to explain why.

Last weeks' Stuff White People Do post helped me out. Guest blogger Robin F offers a "Racism 101 for Clueless White People." This is the part that turned on a light bulb for me:

The first thing you really need to understand is that the definition of racism that you probably have (which is the colloquial definition: "racism is prejudice against someone based on their skin color or ethnicity") is NOT the definition that's commonly used in anti-racist circles.

The definition used in anti-racist circles is the accepted sociological definition (which is commonly used in academic research, and has been used for more than a decade now): "racism is prejudice plus power". What this means, in easy language:

A. Anyone can hold "racial prejudice" -- that is, they can carry positive or negative stereotypes of others based on racial characteristics. For example, a white person thinking all Asians are smart, or all black people are criminals; or a Chinese person thinking Japanese people are untrustworthy; or what-have-you. ANYONE, of any race, can have racial prejudices.

B. People of any race can commit acts of violence, mistreatment, ostracizing, etc., based on their racial prejudices. A black kid can beat up a white kid because he doesn't like white kids. An Indian person can refuse to associate with Asians. Whatever, you get the idea.

C. However, to be racist (rather than simply prejudiced) requires having institutional power. In North America, white people have the institutional power. In large part we head the corporations; we make up the largest proportion of lawmakers and judges; we have the money; we make the decisions. In short, we control the systems that matter. "White" is presented as normal, the default. Because we have institutional power, when we think differently about people based on their race or act on our racial prejudices, we are being racist. Only white people can be racist, because only white people have institutional power.(more here)

While I, perhaps arrogantly, haven't considered myself a totally "clueless" white person, these categories were new to me. And I think they make a lot of sense.

This isn't the last word on the subject, of course. For another, also educated and race-aware, perspective I also recommend this post from Average Bro. He's not at all sure that black people can't be racist, and the discussion that takes place in the comments is worth reading.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, as well.


  1. My gut reaction is to disagree. I think we would want to be against all forms of racism under the "classic" or "clueless" definition, and not excuse racist thought or behavior by people who lack power. But it is certainly worthy of more thought.

  2. I don't think this definition is pro any sort of prejudice. They're all bad, for sure. But it separates the definition of "racism" away from racial prejudice.

    It's a way of saying that they're all bad but they're not all the same, in that the racial prejudice of whites also packs the punch of institutional power behind it.

    Does that make sense? or not so much?

  3. I disagree with this definition. It's kind of racially prejudice in it's own right - it assumes because you are in the race with the "institutional" power you actually have power. What institution? Is every x/y/z person's experience the same in our country?

    Power can be very locallized. Is the institution a country, a neighborhood, a block, a social group?

    The root of all these problems is lumping people together and assuming they are the same based on skin colour. To me, that's racism.

  4. I can definitely see where you're coming from, Cassie.

    "lumping people together" certainly sounds negative. I think prejudice is negative, as is stereotyping. But how, then, to describe the common experience that just does exist across racial lines? How to charactarize white privilege? To assume that everyone can just be an individual without being influenced by race doesn't accurately reflect the reality of the racial situation in our country, and is an assumption that generally is made exclusively by those who are white.

    I guess I would define the "institution" as the root organizations that weild power. So, not a neighborhood or block - although they can be powerful - but yes, a country.

    thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  5. I don't think Average Bro is wrong in suggesting that there aren't people of color in powerful positions who may harbor prejudices against other races than their own. As someone in the comments on his post suggests, asserting that racism doesn't exist in races other than white can seem like a weird form of dehumanization.

    Every time I can remember so-called "reverse racism" brought up, however, it's been invoked in order to suggest that white people have no more power and privilege than people of color, or that we've moved into a post-race society. And I vehemently believe that neither of those things are true. So, like Robin F, I'm fairly suspicious when I hear "reverse racism" or "black prejudice" invoked.

  6. I can see the point of requiring some degree of power in the definition of racism (as opposed to prejudice or bigotry), but I disagree with the statement that "only white people have institutional power." Obama has no power? Oprah has no power? All over the country, non-whites are judges, legislators, corporate executives, academics, etc. I'm not saying we've achieved equality yet (I agree with Paige's comment), but haven't we progressed to the point that non-whites can be considered racist?

  7. After I hit post, I wondered whether people would disagree that power can even be shared among different races - are people saying that only one race can be considered racist at any given time? I'm not asking you to speak for all, A, just wondering... And this is all good to think and talk about, so thanks for raising the issue.

  8. Those are good questions, Lane. I think it has to do with how one definies "institutional" power. Yes, Obama has power and so does Oprah, but the role race plays in their power is different than the role race plays in Howard Dean's power, or Sarah Palin's. They are exceptions, and one might even say that they have power "in spite" of their race.

    Or, put differently, the institutions that for the most part control our culture are disproportionately controlled by white people. The culture itself, as an institution, supports white people in ways it does not support people of color, so when a white person acheives status and power it's different than when a person of color does.

    I think it's a good question, if power can be shared among different races. I hope so? Is it currently? I don't think so.

  9. This is a really good post, Alissa. I meant to say that before.

    Lane, I think that people often define power as the ability to get things done -- and people of color have achieved a great deal in that regard. But I tend to define institutional power as the point at which a less-privileged individual (I'm expanding this from PoC in order to include women, since it also applies to them) can perform their office without being regularly called out/mocked/questioned. When it becomes shocking, and an utter rarity for people to refer to the actions of African-Americans or (sometimes) women as "uppity" -- or when there stop being regular news stories about whether women really belong/or are capable of holding a man's job, then I'll feel that they have equal institutional power with white people, and especially white males.

    I don't doubt that people of color can obtain and wield institutional power, when they fight for it. But I think that the fact that they must fight for it, whereas for white men, fighting isn't necessary, changes the balance, and the significance of that institutional power.

  10. I appreciate you posting this and continuing the dialogue.

    The problem I have is well illustrated in your comment- Oprah and Obama "have power in spite of their race."

    In my worldview, their power counts just as much as any other person's power. Meaning, those with darker skin also hold "institutional power". And therefore, are capable of racism.

    I was introduced to the definition you reference during a Race & Ethnicity class in college. To me, it is playing semantics (and not all that well).

    I realize it is a commonly accepted definition in well-studied circles. Which is fine. I just don't personally find that the definition shift means anything to me in a real way. And I find the definition inherently racist as it assumes people of color are ALWAYS without power.

  11. Krysta - I definitely hear that criticism - and there is an interesting conversation about just this going on at Stuff White People Do right now, where there are POC who share your objection.

    I'm not married to "racism" being the word that describes this concept, but I feel like there needs to be some way to describe the power that backs a white person's prejudice and isn't there to back up the prejudice of a person who isn't benefiting from white privilege. Individuals both benefit from that power and defy it to gain power of their own from various sources, but it doesn't equally benefit everyone.

    What an interesting discussion, I'm very grateful for everyone's contributions! ♥