No Such Thing as ‘Reverse Racism’

Every culture holds positive and negative stereotypes of their own group as well as other groups. A stereotype is a mental attitude or belief. This is not racism. Racism is a concept that describes institutional processes that are linked to historical social relations. A racist statement by a member of a privileged or majority group carries power and the threat of violence because institutional processes ensure minorities are marginalised. Racism is locked to a system of discrimination at school, work, in the media, in politics and through other social institutions. The false concept of reverse racism ignores these institutional experiences of oppression.

Research by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and colleagues shows that the idea of “reverse racism” is prevalent amongst white people who hold two paradoxical beliefs: 1) Society hasn’t really got a problem with racism, 2) Minorities get special privileges because of their heritage. White people today mostly understand that saying negative things about minorities is not acceptable. So in interviews, they will talk about their racist relatives, without thinking of themselves as racist. They will share one off examples where they’ve had a positive encounter with a Person of Colour. Yet their negative experiences with minorities take on a different meaning. The positive is an example of a “good” individual. The negative example is an indictment of the entire minority group. So, white people will say things say things like:

I have, I just have a problem with the discrimination, you’re gonna discriminate against a group and what happened in the past is horrible and it should never happen again, but I also think that to move forward you have to let go of the past and let go of what happened um, you know?

Reverse racism is an attempt to be ahistorical. White people will evoke this concept when they say they don’t understand why some minorities (People of Colour who experienced colonialism) still talk about racism when other white groups aren’t “allowed” to talk about “racism.”

those that say we should pay them because they were slaves back in the past and yet, how often do you hear about the people who were whites that were slaves and the white that were, ah? Boy, we should get reparations, the Irish should get reparations from the English… 

A common idea underlying the “reverse racism” discourse is that white people today shouldn’t have to pay for the oppression that happened in the past. (As if social relations today aren’t correlated with history and as if oppression is not longer happening.):

Me, as [a] white person, I had nothing to do with slavery. You, as a black person, you never experienced it. It was so long ago I just don’t see how that pertains to what’s happening to the race today, so that’s one thing that I’m just like “God, shut up!”

White people feel disconnected to historical processes because these relations don’t affect their present-day life outcomes. Conversely, whenever they see minorities getting ahead in life, they presume it’s due to “reverse racism” rather than individual merit:

No, other than I have applied at jobs and been turned down because I was white. Now, I have nothing against the black person [if he] was qualified better than I was. But when the guy comes into the interview, and I’m off on the side and I can hear them talking, and he can’t even speak English, he doesn’t know how to read a map, and they’re gonna make him a bus driver and hire him over me… I know why he got the job, and I don’t think that’s fair. 

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and colleagues argue that the “reverse racism” narrative is a safe way for white people to air out racist ideals without thinking of themselves as racist. This is also known as “colour blind racism.”

Sociologists have a difficult time teaching white students about social privilege because the social benefits of whiteness are difficult for people to “see” when they are part of the majority. See my previous post to better understand this phenomena in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the USA.