When white people complain about “reverse racism”, it’s generally because they have been badly treated by a person of color.
“I’m not arguing that racism doesn’t exist, it’s more obvious than ever now. My statement is regarding reverse racism, which some people argue doesn’t exist.”—on Facebook
I would agree with those “some people.” Set aside bigotry and bad manners. This theory of “racism” is that it exists only where it benefits one group over another. In America, even if someone is rude to me because I am white (because of my race) I might feel rotten, and the mean person might feel triumphant, but that mean behavior gains them absolutely no material advantage. On the other hand, the only time I have been followed by security at Nordstrom was when I took in a tote big enough to hold a car with merchandise to return. It doesn’t work that way for people of color in the US. Send a black child into Nordstrom on any errand and they are likely to be tailed.
White people make more money, white men make more than that, attractive white men fare best of all. But just because a guy is white, male, and good looking doesn’t mean everyone is nice to him.
There are enough mean people in the world, people who are not normally mean but are having a bad day and people who are easily triggered that we experience unpleasant interactions now and again. The white woman I know had such an experience and claimed she was the victim of reverse racism.
I understand. And I was hoping to explain another perspective, another point of view, and the reason some say “reverse racism” does not exist, can not exist. Racism might merely be prejudice. I say mere, not because prejudice or rude behavior is a small thing, but because racism is a powerful thing—beyond bias or preference and unreasonable dislike, racism is the power to cause damage.
Racism, then, is the advantaging of one group at the expense of another.
The term “racist” applies specifically to those who do benefit under the system that promotes and supports it. That’s true for white people in the U.S. today. Doing absolutely nothing to earn or maintain their privilege, white people have advantage in our society. This is not to say that a white person has no problems. Any American may suffer from poverty or other disadvantage, but on top of that, a person of color (most colors in the U.S.) also suffers from their race, a disadvantage that, unlike education or language or even sexual orientation, cannot be escaped or denied.
Is it possible for a person of color to arbitrarily and unfairly dislike a white person? Sure. It’s unkind and wrong and bigoted. However, by definition, this still isn’t “racism” because that person of color does not benefit from their bigotry. He or she already suffers in a racist system and has no personal power to overcome it. The term “reverse racism” is thus itself considered racist, representing only a white perspective. It perpetuates an us vs. them mindset, which I don’t think most of us want.
The very word is loaded. Using the term “racist” is so loaded with anger and resentment on all sides it is difficult to talk about. But here I am trying.
Winter Term, 1971, I was singing “Amazing Grace” just after 7am while waiting for the beginning of my second Drawing course. I was just eighteen and the vast studio space made my voice sound better than it was. Two black women walked through the room, complaining loud enough for me to hear about white people taking their songs. It was unjust since the author, a white Scot, belonged as much to me as them, but I stopped singing. I knew that. But I also heard them. I heard.
They did not say that to hurt me, and it was not reverse racism. They were protecting their own narrow space in the world.
When white people complain about reverse racism, it’s generally because they have been badly treated by a person of color who calls out their race as the reason, or who merely notes their race in passing.
When a person of color talks about racism it’s generally because our entire social structure is biased against them.
Peggy McIntosh first explained to me what “white privilege” means in her 1990 essay. (If you don’t know the essay, click the link to the pdf. It’s pretty mind-blowing.)
I don’t do anything to earn or maintain my privilege as a white person. It is just there, and too often I take it for granted. As an old woman now I recognize how much else I have taken for granted because English is my first language, because when I was young I was pretty, because I was intelligent and well educated, and because my parents taught me to value information and a solid argument.
Racism only counts when the general culture is there to back it up.
There really is a difference here. Years ago, my son’s orthodontist told me, “Well, you know it’s our sons who suffer from all this talk.” A well-respected professional in those days, he went on to complain about his son not getting into dental school, how that was all the fault of “reverse discrimination” and completely unfair. I politely disagreed until, as I was walking out of his office I sent my teenaged son ahead and went back to less politely disagree.
[Our fair-haired sons had plenty of advantages and were perfectly capable of finding their way without whining about a tiny boost given to other kids. I already knew that one likely reason his son did not get into dental school was a drug conviction. What I did not know until much later was that this “orthodontist” was unqualified for his position, and would eventually be forced out of his practice for incompetence.]
We all hit bumps in our road through life. In high school I heartily resented the after-school jobs of friends who pushed papers and swept floors of their fathers’ offices for double the pay I received working at Taco Bell. I worked minimum in college too while my brother gained a workstudy job at the University that also paid double what I earned in the music department of the University Book Store. He was the second child in college, and even though our parents didn’t contribute a dime toward either of our educations, he was judged the more needy. And then again, maybe it was because he was a boy.
So I say this now, all these years later, though I never did at the time, and the upshot is that I would not have wanted my brother’s job. I learned a lot about music selling records. A graduate student played “Syrinx” by Debussy just for me before going off to study with Rampal. That happened because I asked what was in his case, because I begged to see his flute, because I begged him to play. Because he chose one of my favorite pieces, standing there on the other side of the counter in the music department of the University Book Store.
Over the years, I overcame bad teeth, poverty, social awkwardness, and gender. On top of all that, I did not experience racism. It was purely my luck. I did nothing to earn it. I was a member of the dominant race in my country. When people described me, they did not bother to say I was a white girl. That was taken for granted.
Only those two painters commented on my race. It had never happened to me before. All these years later I have wondered if one of those women remembers me from that day. Many years later she became a friend when we both attended a writing workshop together. I have sometimes thought of asking if she remembers. But no. It is enough to know her for herself.
A little humility. Gratitude. Acceptance. It is enough.