Why you can’t be ‘racist’ towards a white person

Open Letters

Trigger Warning: this post deals with identity politics and might raise some hackles if you have strong feelings about race, privilege and power. I invite you to read with an open mind. These views represent what I have come to understand, as a person who studied Equity and Diversity in university and has spent the last decade, plus, trying to be a better, more informed ally to those who experience marginalization.

A friend asked recently: What’s a topic you’d love to deep dive into with a group of people that you rarely have time / energy to “go there” with?

I answered: why you can’t be ‘racist’ towards white people. In recent weeks, I had tried explaining this to a 15 year old boy and got very little traction.

My big question for this young, white boy was ‘what do you gain by being ‘right’ about this? Do you benefit somehow by maintaining that people can, in fact, be racist towards you? This claim of ‘reverse racism’ seems to soothe our ideas about equality – people can be ‘mean to us’ too, after all. But is this effort to establish that white people can be treated as badly as others have been treated by white people missing the point? Arguably, no person or group will ever be able to top white people’s treatment of … any minority.

A friend of a friend very sweetly and sincerely asked for my thoughts on this issue. She wrote, “Hi, we don’t know each other and have the lovely E as a mutual friend but I’m curious – why can’t someone be ‘racist’ toward a white person? I’d have thought that racism doesn’t know ‘colour’. Is racism racist? I think intolerance of one race against another race would qualify as racism, regardless. But maybe I misunderstood!”

Here is my best effort to succinctly unpack the question and offer some answers:

 A simple definition of racism is about someone treating another person poorly (or worse) because of bias/prejudice based on one’s race.

But racISM is about power and power is systemic. There has never been a time when white people were disenfranchised or without systemic power (even if they are the only white person in the room). Peggy McIntosh wrote a very effective essay and list of questions you can ask yourself, which can help to put this into perspective: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. 

So, while someone can be prejudiced or treat someone in a way that discriminates against a white person based on their racial bias, there will never be/has never been a time when those attitudes were also supported by systems of power that allowed another group to use those avenues to oppress white people based on that aspect of their identity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t disenfranchised white people, or people of colour who have power, etc. But generally, the ability to wield power in conjunction with bias and prejudice about race leads to Racism (capital R).

So, while I might sense or know for sure that someone has treated me with prejudice or inequality based on my ‘whiteness’ I don’t stand to lose my housing, be shot by police, be prevented from moving freely and safely, be taken off a voter list (as is currently happening in Georgia), be denied job opportunities, be followed by security in a store, have speculations about me being a _____________ (insert racial stereotype). To equate whatever prejudice I might experience with the centuries-long murder, enslavement, oppression and pervasive inequality experienced by other races would trivialize the real, lived experiences of minorities (largely perpetrated by colonizing white nations and the legacy of these institutions).

Long answer, but hopefully makes sense. It’s hard sometimes to square this with the definition of racism as just ‘treating some X, based on race’ but equating the treatment of any minority with a white person’s limited experience with racial bias obscures a lot of the history and pervasive, lasting impacts of colonization and racialized violence.

When we cling to the simple definition of racism, one we might use to explain this idea to … elementary students, we overlook the nuances of this issue which isn’t black and white. Even if, on the surface it is about colour, it’s also about… power, access to power and legacies of inequality … of power.  I’m hoping that by looking at those grey areas we can stop holding onto our privilege (to claim we are also experiencing racism), while simultaneously not acknowledging that we have privilege. This doesn’t suggest that we can’t be made to feel bad, be treated badly, or be lumped into a category with every other potato-hued person… which can feel pretty shitty. But that feeling is not comparable to the suffering experienced and real fear visited on people who are not white, now and through history.

Thanks for this question! I’m always still learning and really appreciate exploring this topic, as well as input from others who know more than I do/ can offer insight.  Please feel free to offer you ideas, questions, insights, etc., nicely and politely. I am, after all, Canadian and while really being a fan of diversity, I’m also a huge fan of civility. Thank you!

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