Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, and I fully accept that my privileged vantage may skew my perspective. So, I’ll only speak to my own perceptions based on what I was taught by others and what I see resulting from doomed conversations on social media.
Here’s the problem: Phrases like “reverse racism doesn’t exist” or “black people can’t be racist” do not come off as constructive to the people who do not understand institutional racism and who, consequently, need to hear these points the most.
Here’s some data: An NPR poll found that more than half of white Americans believe that they face discrimination in this country. But when pressed to determine whether they’ve experienced discrimination when applying for a job, for college, or for a promotion, the numbers plummeted.
What this tells me is that people are operating on different definitions of “discrimination” and “racism.” Because of this, people talk about the subject in blanket statements, which leads to more blanket statements and the conversation breaks down entirely.
I didn’t really learn the difference between systemic and cultural racism until I got to college, and that’s only because I chose to take a class on it and I had the opportunity to attend higher education.
Not everyone gets that chance. Even if they do, not everyone gets the same education.
That kind of environment encourages bigots to run for office and social media to perpetuate stigmas that seem like common sense to people who have never heard differently.
When you see Facebook posts that ask, “why are white people blamed for slavery when other cultures do it/have done it too?” it is easy to see how the topic of racism gets oversimplified and boiled down to blanket statements.
That question is misguided because it conflates two things based on a common relationship: race and slavery. But again, race is complicated. Saying slavery in one place is the same as slavery everywhere is like saying Hip-hop and Rock are the same because they’re both musical genres.
It’s not that simple. Even if it were, what good does it do to draw that comparison? Racist histories in other places don’t change how our own racist history shaped our country and affects us today.
It may not be intended this way, but the “reverse racism doesn’t exist” statement similarly applies one aspect of racism to an issue that demands more consideration than that.
The singular definition that the argument uses, as I understand it, is ‘institutional racism’ or systemic racism: a system whereby social and political institutions marginalize people based on race. That marginalization then often becomes normalized. (Source: Chegg Study)
So, when people use the ‘reverse racism’ statement, they are really pointing out that prejudice towards white people is not the same as the oppression that people of color face in our society.
That’s a valid and crucial distinction.
White people, whether they agree or not, do not experience racism in that way. “White suffering,” certainly, does not exist.
I applaud the effort to point out that there’s more nuance involved than, “I experienced a situation of prejudice, therefore, I am a victim of racism.”
The problem is that this point is being made, however well-intentioned, in a reductionist way.
We’re trying to jam an entire cultural literacy course into one sentence that, if you don’t already understand and agree with, just sounds inflammatory.
I don’t posit this criticism as a way to defend the ignorant arguments that are floated in opposition of diversity, I’m just saying that the way we talk about things matters.
Because when people don’t feel heard, they stop listening.
We should say things in a way that acknowledges the point we’re actually trying to make. And we shouldn’t eliminate the nuance of touchy conversations in the hopes of cutting to the chase.
Sure, the idea that racism isn’t one thing takes more words to articulate, but it seems a more constructive way to talk about a topic that is not as simple as, “racism either is or isn’t.”
To say that racism can only go one way, whether intended this way or not, is a reason for people to shut out the idea of diversity altogether - a reason that is all too accessible in this era of viewpoint-affirming social media.
I get that this all might sound like, “we should only say things in ways that don’t make white people uncomfortable.” I promise, that’s not what I mean. Discomfort can be constructive.
No, we shouldn’t sit back and accept people’s ignorance. We should see instances of racism or social misunderstanding, no matter how minute, as a chance to share a perspective that someone may not have considered or been exposed to yet.
In order to do so, we need to say things in a way that isn’t disingenuous to that goal.
With everyone locked in their techno echo chambers online, we often only get one chance to educate people. We should make it count, not give them a reason to lock themselves back in.
It’s possible to acknowledge that racism, in the purely prejudicial sense, towards white people exists without saying it is comparable to a flashing, neon “RACISM in America” sign.
Perhaps there’s something I’ve said here that is dumb or ignorant and if so, educate me. But hopefully, there is some useful insight too.
All I know is that the way we are trying to talk about this now doesn’t seem to be working.