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When is the charge of ‘reverse racism’ justified?

Role reversal can be a useful gauge of when something is unfair, but not always, and it has to be used judiciously. Take the case of racism. One occasionally hears complaints that minorities or people of color can say things that would be condemned as racist if others did it, and this is labeled as a form of ‘reverse racism’.

For example, I wrote earlier about the strange sense of grievance that some white people seem to have about the fact that if they use the n-word they are condemned as racist while black people use it with impunity, which is asserted to be a form of reverse racism.

Comedian Aamer Rahman explains when an accusation of reverse racism is justified.

(Via Cory Doctorow)

Comments

  1. mnb0 says

    I think it’s quite simple. If I call myself a cheesehead – I’m Dutch – it’s selfmockery. If you would call me a cheesehead I would not appreciate it. The fact that you would belong to a minority in The Netherlands and not me is quite irrelevant.
    It’s true though that one only tends to become aware of such issues when one has been part of a minority oneself, like me in Suriname.

  2. says

    I wrote a blog post a while back on what someone I told the story too called a case of ‘reverse racism’ – that being, a minority made a negative assumption about me and accused me of racism because of my appearance. http://withinthismind.com/racism-goes-both-ways/

    My feelings about this and other charges of ‘reverse racism’ is – get over it. For the majority, being a victim of ‘racism’ is at best a momentary affair, a rare event, something that is unlikely to have any real impact on their lives. They will find supporters (whether they want to or not) be given a chance to explain, and have the benefit of the doubt.

    It’s like complaining about stubbing your toe to a person who has had to have both legs amputated.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Fancy that, a Muslim dude from Bangladesh born in Saudi Arabia heard decrying the hundreds of years when Western Culture bombed Africa thereby destroying the country decrying the notion anyone could be racist against ‘whites’ without a time machine and never mentioning his own Islamic culture’s rich history of racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and just plain assholishness for centuries.

    Big surprise there.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I mean, he literally said Western Culture had been bombing Africa for hundreds of years along with many other clear historical inaccuracies in his charming tale.

    Hey, look at that, Rahman’s Islam spread into Africa as early as the 7th century. I wonder what might be considered more ruinous to Africa by 2014, the spread of Islam throughout the land and the religious, and sexist customs?

    The Islamic Slave Trade in Africa?

    Or the “hundreds of years” Western Culture has been bombing Africa to destroy it.

  5. M can help you with that. says

    …because it’s not like the “punching up/punching down” concept is a thing, right? And it’s not like actually existing power relations in the context where comedy is being performed should have any influence, eh?

  6. Schlumbumbi says

    What is dumber ? The guy in the vid or anyone who thinks he’s right ?

    Even the briefest form of cross-thinking history will immediately tell you that “white people” never had a monopoly on colonisation or slave trade. Quite the opposite. The only difference is that white folks’ efforts have been more successful in terms of civilisation building than anyone else’s.

    Me thinks, funny boy is jelly much.

  7. Schlumbumbi says

    It’s not “punching up” when you’re just angry that you got the short end of the stick in a fight.

  8. doublereed says

    The fact is that anti-white racism is generally quite rare in the United States. Sure, you can find anti-white racist groups like The New Black Panther Party (not to be confused with the non-racist Black Panther Party). But when factoring in the serious institutional racism that continues to exist in this country, no I’m sorry but context matters.

    White people can whine about how the N word is “just a word” but they have to ignore the social context. And guess what? You don’t get to ignore social context. That’s not going to be a thing. Sorry.

  9. M can help you with that. says

    “Waah, my whiteness doesn’t protect me from jokes about the historical context of my privilege” isn’t a matter of “the short end of the stick.”

  10. M can help you with that. says

    Wait — I see that I misread you. Let’s try this again:

    Jokes about the historical context of your privilege aren’t just sour grapes that your(/our) ancestors won you(/me) the supposed right to hegemony. And jokes undermining a sense of right to privilege are pretty much the definition of “punching up.”

  11. lanir says

    Term is disingenious and misleading. Deliberately so I think.

    The reverse of racism is common sense and equality. That’s it. There’s no need for complex interpretation there.

    As far as what words are acceptable and from whom, it may be simpler to think of family rather than race and use that as a guide. You may be upset with a family member and voice criticism of them. But if someone outside your family were to voice the same criticism, you may not be comfortable with it and it may even offend you. When people experience pressure from outside based on a common characteristic it’s natural for them to begin forming a group.

    Let’s use atheists as a convenient example of this. Being an atheist, if I called one of my atheist friends a godless heathen they may wonder at my choice of words but it wouldn’t be cause for concern. But if the local pastor does the same, it’s unlikely to be meant in a friendly way and may be followed by attacks against myself, my lifestyle, and even my right to think for myself. Even if the local pastor didn’t mean to bring up any of these things our known differences would bring them to mind, making this a poor choice of words for simple and friendly conversation.

  12. mofa says

    There is no such thing as reverse racism….there is only racism. The same with sexism, there is no such thing as reverse sexism….only sexism. Both men and women can be sexist. People with skin of any shade or non shade can be racist.

  13. khms says

    Huh. “Reverse racism” isn’t the reverse of racism, it’s racism in the reversed direction.

    Different from the guy in the video, I do think there can be racism on the side of the underprivileged. They are human, and thus they can be racist like everyone else.

    I do think, however, that if you’re “punching up”, you’ll have to do a lot more before it’s justified to call any racism serious, than when you’re “punching down” – there’s a force multiplier involved, and that counts.

    In other words, I’d argue that racism isn’t a black-and-white thing – either you are or you are not. I believe there are shades of gray, and there’s a difference if you look at it in the dark or under a light. (OK, sorry for the bad puns.) The question isn’t if you are a racist – it is how much of a racist you are. And especially, it’s less about your inner nature or thoughts, than it is about your actual actions – observable behavior. (That’s why some people say it’s wrong to talk about racist people, you should talk about racist behavior instead.)

  14. BrainyOne says

    Well, the answer is quite simple, when racism is realized to be the combination of prejudice and power.

    Members of marginalized groups can clearly be as prejudiced against members of dominant groups as the reverse. Normally, they don’t have the power to do much with it due to the existing power structures in society.

    However, there can be sub-units in society where the power dynamic is reversed compared to the society as a whole. A black-owned business treating white employees horribly, denying them promotions, subjecting them to racial insults, etc., merely because they are white; in short treating them as horribly as some white-owned businesses have done to blacks? That’s an example of reverse racism. I’m sure it will be argued that the white employees can find another job easier than the black employees, and while this may be true and this fact will contribute to less actual instances of reverse racism (because the whites just leave), it does not refute the point that in the sub-unit of the black-owned business it is blacks with the power.

  15. says

    Exactly, it’s the power dynamic that’s important.

    Jason Thibeault’s post about the sexist treatment of men at Archie Comics is a perfect example of the power dynamic being used in a sexist way against the traditionally dominant group (a woman CEO being sexist towards her male employees.)

  16. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    The New Black Panthers are not anti-white racists, they are a shill organization for Rupert Murdoch to race bait against. They have no presence except on Fox News where they present a caricature to amuse the elderly white racists who watch it. Profitable no doubt but they represent the opposite of what they pretend.

  17. says

    By definition, racism — and all other *-isms such as sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia — are institutionalized, meaning that they are reinforced by churches, schools, the legal system and other institutions of society. They occur when the dominant group uses its dominance to remain dominant. I would say there is no such thing as “reverse *-ism”, because that would require the backing of social institutions, which makes it just *-ism.

  18. says

    That’s a nice hypothetical example, but examples in reality are quite rare. Generally, whites get treated better by black managers, black police officers, black teachers, etc.

  19. doublereed says

    I’m going by the SPLC which has them saying plenty of Anti-Semitic things about the evils of Zionism etc. They’re both anti-white and anti-semitic. They were also condemned by original Black Panthers as being a black racist hate group.

    While I’m sure they are used by Fox News to race bait and such, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they are a shill organization. They’re just another brand of crazy. Most of the Black Separatist hate groups on the SPLC seem more like tight-knit cults with little presence. Nothing like White Nationalist or Nativist groups.

  20. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    What it all comes down to is whether someone is getting an unfair disadvantage net.

    The folks who bleat on about ‘reverse racism’ never ever complain about the discriminatory practices that Harvard and Yale introduced in the 1930s to keep out Jews and still have to this day. George W. Bush did not get into any of the elite colleges he attended on merit, he was a legacy who got the place purely because his father went there. MIT is the institution it is today because it did not follow suit. As a result they managed to hire the best minds in the emerging computing field in the 1950s.

    The main area where this comes up is in elite college applications where the big schools that try to only admit on merit alone face a big problem, they all have far more applicants than places. There is no fair way to divide up 1000 places among 5000 applicants that presented stellar resumes. Making sure that the proportion of minorities matches the proportion in the general population is rather more fair than a coin toss.

  21. says

    Diversity has its own rewards, so deliberately choosing a diverse group of students may not be more “fair”, but it’s better the student body and the university.

  22. Pen says

    On ‘isms’ being institutionalised, it’s important to note that very few institutions these days officially condone racism, sexism, etc. Most officially decry it, while still sometimes practicing it. A lot of the actual discrimination is done by individuals where the rubber hits the road. So in theory, ‘reverse’ racism can happen any time an individual from a generally non-dominant group is actually in a position of power. As previously non-dominant groups gain more and more power, so-called reverse racism becomes and increasingly likely possibility. For example, if Mano systematically uses his position to favor other students in his ethnic group regardless of their performance (I’m sure he doesn’t) it would be reverse racism.

    Or, to take an incident that really did happen: I was the new and only white worker in an all black workplace. One woman decided she didn’t want to work with me on account of (British Empire, colonialism, her parent’s country of origin). Needless to say her attitude was against the law but under those circumstances I was pretty vulnerable. I might not have been around for the events she was holding against me but I was certainly around then and in desperate need of that job. I was very much the local minority, so if our mutual colleagues had decided to swing along with her, it would have been easy to force me out.

    In fact, since most people are pretty good people, our mutual colleagues put themselves to the trouble or re-arranging things so that we never did work together and then continued maintaining equally friendly relations with both of us. So, yeah, I escaped reverse racism by the skin of my teeth. However, we were all young and relatively powerless in that particular workplace. I hope this woman grew out of it before she started being the boss.

  23. says

    Y’know, I’ve met Black people who flat out refused to have anything to do with me, because I’m white.

    I found it hard to argue much. Just politely said, “Okay, I think I get it enough to leave you to it then.”

    Because I can’t honestly say that if I had to put up with what they and their forebears have, I’d not probably be pretty pissed at people who look like I do too. Yeah, it wasn’t me that did it. But given how often we lumber PoC with Racial Representative status, it doesn’t seem terribly unfair or overburdening to have to suffer such a mild and temporary form of it.

  24. says

    . So in theory, ‘reverse’ racism can happen any time an individual from a generally non-dominant group is actually in a position of power.

    Yes, that a nice hypothetical, but it rarely plays out that way. People higher on the axis of privilege get treated better even when they are in the local minority.

    Or, to take an incident that really did happen: I was the new and only white worker in an all black workplace.

    So, when you were threatened, the local power structure rallied to your aid. In other words, as it usually does, racism worked in your favor, even as the only white employee in a black company.

  25. says

    Racism is both a “world view” judging character by physical attributes. It is also systematic structures whitin society which enforce and segregates depending on the views held by the people in said society. So yes a black person who thinks: yes of course that person is a x, he is white! is having a racist thought. But the damage and fallout from racism will hit those “races” which are under represented and / or repressed in said society. In the end we all loose from racism, look at the disadvantaged and poor white class of america, it’s fine to call them rednecks or white-trash and laugh at them because they are white, so of course it’s there own damned fault! (what premises are we arguing from here?) In the end the structures of oppression always targets the weak, the poor and disenfranchised.

  26. says

    I mean, he literally said Western Culture had been bombing Africa for hundreds of years along with many other clear historical inaccuracies in his charming tale.

    Hey, look at that, Rahman’s Islam spread into Africa as early as the 7th century. I wonder what might be considered more ruinous to Africa by 2014, the spread of Islam throughout the land and the religious, and sexist customs?

    The Islamic Slave Trade in Africa?

    Or the “hundreds of years” Western Culture has been bombing Africa to destroy it.

    Yer kidding, right? It’s the wars and exploitation, definitely. FYI, africa is also pretty Christian, and for the most part the Christian countries are only doing better because they get more aid. You know about, for instance, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa, right?

  27. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Racism, surely, is simply judging other individuals not on the basis of their actions or behaviour but on the colour of their skin or /and other merely physical “racial” attributes.

    Racism is also practicing a pseudo-science that clams there is such a thing as “race” when we are all of us equally human.

    I think it is quite clear that African -Americans can be racist towards, say Jewish people or European -Americans people every bit as much as the reverse – it may not be as common but assuming somebody is ‘X’ (whatever X may be) and /or thus needs to be treated like ‘Y” (almost always worse than others who aren’t X) because of their skin colour or superficial physical traits is racism.

    There definitely are racist African American groups – didn’t Louis Theroux interview and engage with one such on one of his docos?

    BTW. Its also too simplistic from a point of historical accuracy to blame all slavery on Europeans as seems to be the case. The slave trade started way back in pre-history really, it was common and pretty much unquestioned in the ancient classical Greek culture (e..g Periclean Athens) and the Roman empire; it was present throughout the historical world in many, even most cultures and societies pre-Westernisation. Let’s not forget just for once that the most famous Transatlantic slave trade which created the current African -Americans in what is now the USA began with African tribes selling their own or captured black people to Arabs and then the Arab slavers to Europeans. There are also famously cases of white slaves and the Moorish slave trade which features in, among other places the full story of Robinson Crusoe. Slavery was a notable feature in the Ottoman empire too among other Islamic ones. Singling out only the European slave “industry” (for want of a better word) is just plain cherry-picking and wrong.

    Slavery needles to say is always unethical and wrong and to be opposed. Ditto racism. Regardless of who is doing the slaving or being racist towards who.

    We are all human and should all try to treat others with more Humanity.

    I also think too many commenters on FTB and elsewhere especially on the political Left are throwing the term “racist” around far too widely, often and inaccurately and thereby devaluing the word making it as meaningless as “communist” or “socialist” has become in certain right wing circles where such terms have become a mere insult devoid of actual meaning. Words do have meanings and definitions people – and NO someone isn’t necessarily “racist” just for disagreeing with you on a certain issue or two.

    If a term such as “racism”is continually wrongly used as a method of censorship or abuse, it loses its power and the new weaker meaning will become just “person who disagrees with me /group X” and we’re all worse off for that. Word like “racist” should be used with care, rarely and *only* when there is actual valid reason and evidence to prove the case that person X is indeed racist.

    To help those who seem confused here on FTB, critcising certain groups based on their ideology,religion or actions is definitely NOT racism. Whereas critciism that focus on a persons skin colour and other superficial traits definitely is racism.

  28. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    To help those who seem confused here on FTB, critcising certain groups based on their ideology,religion or actions is definitely NOT racism.

    Note : Culture alos is NOT the same thing as race and pointing out that some cultures have problematic or harmful practices isn’t racism.

    Short version :

    Someone is a racist if and only if they specifically focus on and believe in “race” as something that actually exists and that “race” is a key or good basis on how to treat others.

    If they don’t do this then however much you disagree with them, how bad you think their thinking might be -it ain’t racism.

  29. says

    Because I can’t honestly say that if I had to put up with what they and their forebears have, I’d not probably be pretty pissed at people who look like I do too.

    Not just forebears. It’s what people have to put up with in modern times, as well.

  30. says

    I think it is quite clear that African -Americans can be racist towards, say Jewish people or European -Americans people every bit as much as the reverse – it may not be as common but assuming somebody is ‘X’ (whatever X may be) and /or thus needs to be treated like ‘Y” (almost always worse than others who aren’t X) because of their skin colour or superficial physical traits is racism.

    There definitely are racist African American groups – didn’t Louis Theroux interview and engage with one such on one of his docos?

    It’s helpful to not confuse racism (the expression of a power structure) with bigotry. There are African American groups full of bigots against Jews/whites/etc., but they are not racist, because they don’t have the power to impose or participate in a systemic entrenchment of those beliefs.

  31. says

    Me: Because I can’t honestly say that if I had to put up with what they and their forebears have, I’d not probably be pretty pissed at people who look like I do too.

    One Brow: Not just forebears. It’s what people have to put up with in modern times, as well.

    Indeed so. And it was for this purpose that I employed the common additive conjunction, “and”, between “they” and “their forebears”*, so as to suggest to the careful or conscientious reader that I meant to imply (as indeed I did) that the opprobrium to which I refer remained an ongoing concern.

    Thank you for your…correction, though. ;)

    * Look! I did it again! I am often guilty of being over ‘andy with a conjunction.

  32. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ One Brow :

    .. because they don’t have the power to impose or participate in a systemic entrenchment of those beliefs.

    I don’t think that’s a fair or reasonable way of defining racism. Someone hates someone based only on the colour of their skin and they aren’t racist because they’re not in a position of power or in a society that shares their bigotry meaning they’re *not* racist? Nope. Doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t think your suggested definition works or is justified and think it runs counter to common sense and (almost) everyone’s understanding of what the word means.

    Racism is judging other people based only or mainly on their race* – usually seen as skin colour and a few other superficial differences. Whoever does that, whatever their “race” is racist. Clear and simple.

    * Race is pseudo-science given the differences aren’t scientifically useful or significant – we aren’t actually divided into sub-species or “races” really; all of us are just human. Wish everyone understood that and acted accordingly.

  33. says

    I think that’s arguable. Pointless “debate” ensues in these discussions because different people are using different definitions.

    Certainly, it must be defined in that way somewhere (perhaps in academic sociology circles?) since it seems to be bandied about so often enough around these parts but that does not seem to be the common use definition you find in most dictionaries.

    Certainly not McMillan’s or Cambridge’s Dictionary of American English or Merriam-Webster‘s or Collin’s English Dictionary.

    So while racism may be synonymous with institutional racism by definition given one uncommonly used definition, for the more commonly used definition you do need to use the qualifier “institutional” to express the same concept.

    Other than that, I agree with mofa that there is no reverse racism because it’s all simply racism (using the dictionary definition).

  34. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    People who actually study this stuff have collected an extensive body of knowledge on it, and some expertise, and do know a bit whereof they speak.

    Racism is judging other people based only or mainly on their race* – usually seen as skin colour and a few other superficial differences. Whoever does that, whatever their “race” is racist. Clear and simple.

    Wrong. This completely minimizes racism in the US. When we kept slaves, when we wrote the Jim Crow laws, we weren’t merely “judging other people based only or mainly on race”.

    Permit me to fix this for you:

    Racial prejudice is judging other people based only or mainly on their race – usually seen as skin colour and a few other superficial differences. Whoever does that, whatever their “race” is prejudiced. Clear and simple.

    it’s still wrong, but it is not at all the same thing as creating a society wide regime of slavery, and not even the same as creating media-wide preferred racial narratives.

    Individuals can be prejudiced no matter what their race.

    But to be racist one must be part of a system of racism.

    This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to be prejudiced. It just means that individual prejudice is not sufficient to constitute oppression.

    Racism was a word coined to discuss the systematic oppression of peoples. Just because you think it would be fun to apply that word to disempowered individuals who happen to use what little power they have to be jerk wads towards empowered people, that does not mean that your use is in any way correct or productive.

  35. Modjo says

    “People who actually study this stuff have collected an extensive body of knowledge on it, and some expertise, and do know a bit whereof they speak.”

    Fashionable ivory-tower intellectuals and cultural theorists, you mean?

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