I was searching online for a quote that I was 99% certain I had read somewhere (and now I’m 99% certain that it exists only in my head.) I couldn’t find the quote. Quite possibly my memory made it up.
But I did find a blog post explaining that reverse racism doesn’t exist.
I bristled. So minorities can’t be prejudiced? So what about . . . and I started to tick off all the cases of minority prejudice I had ever heard or read. (That’s not something I’m proud of admitting. My inner racist kicks defensively, and I hate that. I’m working on this.)
Stop. Ask. Listen.
Those weren’t the words Rick had used in his comment on my last post, but the message was there. Ask, “why do you think that?” before immediately defending your stance.
I stopped. Inhale, exhale.
I silently asked Jamie Utt, the blog writer, “Why do you think reverse racism can’t exist?” Inhale, exhale.
I read on.
Utt explains that racial prejudice and racism are two different things.
All people can be racially prejudiced. But racism adds power to the prejudice:
Prejudice + Power = Racism
The power comes from white privilege. I don’t often see my white privilege, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It gives my prejudiced words and my prejudiced actions a power that similarly prejudiced words and actions from a minority don’t have. Mine have the power to reinforce systematic racism.
If someone called me a racial slur, that would hurt.
But it doesn’t pound yet another nail into the solid structure of a racially oppressive system where one race determines the worth, opportunities, and perceptions of all others.
It doesn’t reinforce a negative message about who is in the dominant position and who isn’t.
It doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of discrimination, of slavery, of mob lynchings, of fear and grief and anger.
Nigger. Coming from me, a white person, that word does all that and more.
That is the point Utt makes. (He also makes some other great points about “8 Things White People Really Need to Understand about Race.”) For the first time, the idea that reverse racism doesn’t exist made sense.
Then I had a second ah-ha moment. This explanation answered a question left over from graduate school. We were reading Native Son, by Richard Wright. It takes place in Chicago in the 1930s. Early in the book, Bigger, a young black man, is hired by the wealthy Dalton family as a chauffeur.
One night, he is reluctantly driving the spoiled daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan through the South Side of the city. The couple believe they are working for racial equality and try to treat Bigger like a friend, though every attempt is filled with racial prejudice and white privilege.
Mary touches Bigger’s arm and says,
“ ‘You know, Bigger, I’ve longed to go into these houses,’ she said, pointing to the tall, dark apartment buildings looming to either side of them, ‘and just see how your people live.’ (. . .) ‘I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They’re human. . . . There are twelve million of them. . . . They live in our country. . . . In the same city with us. . . . .’”
—Native Son, by Richard Wright
A classmate commented. “She’s using the word ‘they.’ That’s so racist.”
Everyone else nodded their heads, but I scratched mine. I understood that Mary was behaving badly, expressing these sentiments to a black man, and failing to understand that, no, Bigger’s family didn’t live like she did, in her safe, glitzy world. Mary’s father owns the apartment building where Bigger and his family live in a cramped, rat-infested, one room apartment. No, Mary,” I wanted to say, “you don’t live like “them.”
I understood that.
But I didn’t understand how “they” was racist. What other word could she have used? I asked the question on our class online forum. The responses revolved around this:
When Mary uses the word “they,” she distances herself from the very people she wants to understand.
Her words reinforce her dominance in the social hieracrchy:
she controls whether or not she goes into a black home,
she longs to see into the houses but not live in them,
she claims the city for her people and treats minorities as displaced people.
And, after all, the car is her family’s. Bigger works for her father. When she allows her boyfriend to drive, Jan can drive wherever he pleases. When Bigger drives, he is limited to where the white couple direct him.
Even proclaiming that “they” are human calls into question whether or not she truly regards “them” as such. If she regarded everyone as equals, would she even need to say this?
I was still puzzled. After all, Bigger regards white people in much the same way. He’s suspicious, hostile, and rebuffs Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend him. Didn’t he see that their gestures were well-intentioned, if inadequate? Isn’t he racist, too?
Prejudice + Power = Racism
Jan and Mary have white privilege that blinds them. Their words and actions reinforce Bigger’s lack of power. He can’t tell them no:
No, I don’t want to go to a black restaurant with you and eat fried chicken.
No, I don’t want to tell you slang terms so you’ll sound “black.”
No, I don’t want my friends to see us together.
No, I don’t want to answer your nosy questions.
He is powerless, and he knows it. They have power, and they don’t know it.
I have power, too. How often do I realize this? And how often do I recognize how my actions and words reinforce a system of oppression?