is "reverse racism" a thing?
“Reverse racism” is the idea that people of color are “racist” against white people, unfairly and to the detriment of white people, & that left-leaning social programs unfairly benefit people of color, to the detriment of white people. Essentially, “reverse racism” is the idea that anyone can be oppressed for their race, even if that race is white.
Full disclosure: I believe that “reverse racism” is a complete fabrication.
Nope. Not a thing.
Yet the idea of it persists, and I’m not just talking about the most racist corners of your Twitter feed, the ones where you’re like “Why in the ever-lovin’ hell am I even seeing this cornholing nonsense, there’s no way in hell I know anyone who would like this,” and then you see that someone you follow has responded to the tweet to be like “This is cornholing nonsense,” and you’re like, “Oh, okay, that makes sense now.” Not SENSE-sense. But Twitter-sense, sure.
The idea of “reverse racism” persists even in otherwise progressive, seemingly inclusive spaces. You see the idea of “reverse racism” in the indignant defensiveness of white men who hear that their Kamala Harris opinions are not necessary to the conversation. You see the idea of “reverse racism” in the backlash against Star Wars casting, “diversity hiring,” and the passionate, monogamous relationship that white people have with the idea of “fairness.”
While I don’t believe “reverse racism” is a thing, I ALSO believe that “reverse racism” is a pure, emotional truth for many white people who never developed the tools to interact with the reality of racism in America.
Whenever I’m in the woods, I always wish I had infrared goggles. (Go with me on this. I’ll bring it back around, I promise.)
It would be amazing to be able to look through the woods and gaze upon all the majestic creatures that I cannot see with my own crappy eyes: Stoic owls, sweet-footed deer, bear cubs chewing each other’s downy ears.
One day I said as much to my son Chicken, who answered, “Yeah! I bet you’d see TONS of bees and rats.”
So that’s what I imagine it feels like to be confronted with the reality of race in America, after a life of benefiting from it invisibly, and imagining its relative peace and harmony.
“Sure,” you think. “I’d love to learn more about race equality in America! I think things are going pretty well since the Civil Rights Movement. Sure, there’ve been some hiccups here and there, but they’ve got water in Flint now, right?”
(Narrator: They don’t.)
Then you slap on your goggles and suddenly you can see that the woods are not full of Bambis and Thumpers. They’re full of winged stingers and fast rats. First impulse? Whip off those goggles. But you can’t UNSEE that shit. Damn it, why the hell did you put on those goggles in the first place? You were perfectly happy imagining bear cubs sniffing butterflies just beyond the trees.
So let’s dig into this idea of “reverse racism,” because again, while I don’t believe it exists, I also believe that it’s an emotional reality that deserves our attention right now.
“Reverse racism” is built on a foundation of flawed or outdated assumptions, and I think it’s worthwhile to look at each assumption so we know exactly how shaky the ground is here.
Flawed assumption #1: Racism is defined as a person judging another person by their race, which anyone can do against anyone, including Black people against white people. Therefore, “reverse racism” is real.
I think you’re thinking of “prejudice,” which is, yes, a personal attitude that any person can hold against any other person, including black people against white people. There was a time that “racist” and “prejudiced” were used relatively interchangeably, but the definition of racism has evolved to include not only the idea of prejudice based on race, but also the systemic oppression of people based on their race.
Racism is more than one person’s attitude, suspicions, or personal beliefs. Racism is an institutionalized system of injustice that predates our nation’s birth, one that benefits one race at the expense of others in employment, personal liberty, health care, housing, education, criminal justice, cultural value, and political power.
Now, I’ve had conversations with people who disagree with me about the evolution of the word “racism,” saying that such evolutions are subject to personal opinions and political agendas. And I suppose if we can’t agree on the definition of racism, it’s hard for us to move forward with any conversation at all. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts, and if you’re calling my facts opinions, recognize that’s your opinion, but not really a fact.
Riddle me this, though. If you refuse to believe in the definition of racism as an institutional reality, then I’d ask you to follow your belief down the yellow brick road toward its logical conclusion. If institutional racism does not limit the opportunities, educations, liberties, health care, housing, justice, and power of people of color, then why, do you believe, are people of color paid less, hired less, and promoted less than white people are - because they’re not as good at work as white people?
Why, do you believe, do communities of color face harsher criminal justice penalties and far more active and punitive policing - because people of color are just worse, more violent than white people?
Why are more diverse schools chronically underfunded - because people of color don’t care about their children’s education as much as white people do?
Why, do you believe, do black mothers face far higher rates of maternal mortality than white mothers, regardless of education or class - because they’re just biologically more fragile than white mothers?
If you do not explain these glaring disparities with institutional inequality, then you’re left with one explanation to support your belief, which is that white people care more about their families, are the smartest, healthiest, and least criminal, are just better, deserve fair wealth for being better and making better choices.
If you deny the social constructs that restrict the freedoms and health of POC, all you have left is the idea that they “did this to themselves.” Do you see how, by denying institutional racism, you actually tattle on your personal prejudice?
Flawed assumption #2: White people are oppressed by people of color, both personally (when a POC accuses a white person of racism) and institutionally (through programs that benefit POC and not white people, or cultural representation of POC over white people.) Therefore, “reverse racism” is real.
It’s interesting that one of the core tenets of “reverse racism” is that it’s more offensive to assert that a white person has done or said something racist than it is to be white and say or do something racist. Notice that!
If someone says, “Hey, what you just said was racist,” your first impulse is likely to be “I’m not racist,” rather than, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” And why is that?
Because you are more offended by the idea that you need to grow and learn than you are by the idea that you just hurt someone. And why is that?
Because to many of us, our own reputations are more valuable than the lives and safety of people of color. And why is that?
Because of racism. Because we grew up swimming in it like cucumbers in brine. We were never not going to be pickled.
I’ve often likened discussions about racism to discussions with an alcoholic. A person who suffers from alcoholism wants you to ignore their abuse so that it can continue unchallenged, and if you bring it up then YOU are the one who has a problem, not the alcoholic. Hopefully, we can all see that this is not a rational reaction, that the person who recognizes the disease is not responsible for creating that disease, and that the boy who cried, “the Emperor has no clothes” wasn’t the one who stripped him nude. If you can see that the people who identify addiction aren’t the ones who caused it and that the person who calls out the spinach in your teeth isn’t the one who ate the frittata, then you should also be able to recognize that the person who names your racism isn’t the one wielding it.
It’s also interesting and important for white folks to note that there is a difference between the sensation of discomfort and the sensation of oppression. Many of us don’t know the difference because we’re not weighing our discomfort on a scale that tops out at “full-blown oppression.” We’re weighing our discomfort on a scale that tops out at “What do you mean, I’m not allowed? It’s my opinion and I matter. I’m an American. What happened to freedom of speech?”
So when we come up against a person who says, “That was racist,” and our discomfort blows off its “WHAT ABOUT MY FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS” top, we often feel “oppressed.” The reality is, oppression is a relentless attack on your opportunities, safety, life, health, and happiness. An uncomfortable conversation does not qualify. Another person taking up a person-sized space in the world does not qualify.
When the Star Wars franchise (a movie, by the way, that features aliens and magic floating wombats and outer space light swords, and that should, presumably, also be able to STRETCH to the limits of IMAGINED FANCY and construct a make-believe world in which the hero does NOT have pink cheeks and a ding-dong) casts a Black man and an Asian woman to save the day, untold numbers of white male fans complain that something has been stolen from them - it feels like “oppression,” when in reality it’s “What do you mean, I’m not allowed?”
This time, sir, no, you’re not allowed. This role belongs to John Boyega. That role belongs to Kelly Marie Tran. Yet, nothing has been stolen from you. You’ve still got Harry Potter, James Bond, The Lord of The Rings, Jurassic Park, The Avengers, The Terminator, The Matrix, Back to the Future, Star Treks aplenty, and oh, I forgot to mention ALL THE OTHER STAR WARS MOVIES.
In this vast landscape of white male heroes, this time we made a different choice. Nothing has been stolen from you. But “I’m not allowed” feels like the same thing as “I’m oppressed,” and remember, that’s only because you have literally never felt anything like institutionalized, legal oppression.
But Katie, what about affirmative action?
Good question! Let’s talk about affirmative action. The story goes that unqualified people of color are unfairly taking positions from qualified white people, purely for the optics of leveling racial diversity in schools and workplaces. On paper, is affirmative action a program that creates intentional space for candidates that come from marginalized or underserved populations? Yes. Does that space have to come from somewhere else? Yes. Is the “somewhere else” a space that was probably occupied by white people? Yes.
So how is that not “reverse racism,” you ask? Something HAS been taken from us this time, right?
I was listening to a podcast about Jeffrey Epstein’s estate and I learned something interesting. If the government can successfully prosecute Epstein for making money illegally, and if they can track that money to his current estate, then it doesn’t matter how deeply he tied it up in the US Virgin Islands, the government can use his money to pay restitution to his victims. Because that money didn’t really belong to him when he made it, illegally. His estate is an orchard grown with stolen seeds.
And look, this country didn’t really belong to us when we took it.
And the bodies of people we stole didn’t really belong to us, either.
And if we look at our racial history through the lens of the idea that illegally-procured assets are subject to surrender if a criminal case is successfully prosecuted, then we need to start facing the reality that even though you, nor I, nor anyone we know ever owned an enslaved person, and no matter how long we’ve lived on this orchard, the seeds were stolen and the grandchildren of the people we stole them from are our neighbors. Now that you know, what do you think you should do about it?
Affirmative action only feels unjust if you started keeping score, like, this generation. Affirmative action only feels like a theft if you’re Dory the fish. Affirmative action only feels like an unfair advantage if you conveniently forget that the reason such a program exists is because communities of color are chronically underserved, underfunded, undersupported, underhired, underpaid, because of institutional oppression that white communities created.
If you want to believe in fairness, you have to start thinking of fairness as a comprehensive thing, not just fairness in the equation of YOUR work plus YOUR character equals YOUR success, but fairness toward everyone.
Is it fair that schools with majority students of color get $23 BILLION less per year than majority white schools, despite serving the SAME NUMBER OF STUDENTS? Is that fair? Don’t even answer. There is no answer because I wasn’t really asking. Of course that shit isn’t fair.
At some point, that wrong must be righted. And if you and I choose not to right it, guess what that makes us.
That’s not “reverse racism.” It’s that moral arc of the universe, bending toward justice, just, like, seriously, a little bit. Sometimes.
Flawed assumption #3: A person of color doesn’t like or trust me. They are unfairly judging me for my white skin color. Therefore, “reverse racism” is real.
If you are making this argument, then you’ve just become Exhibit A proving the person of color was right to protect themselves from you. The only people who would make this argument are people who do not understand the constant threat of white violence that hangs over the heads of people of color every day of their lives. Also, dude, seriously, do you just think people should like you because...you? What’s that like? Is it like the ending credits of the 40-Year-Old Virgin in your head all the time?
Look, nobody wishes more than I do that we could just DANCE in a FIELD together. I wish we weren’t dangerous. I wish people of color WERE overreacting. I wish I didn’t hurt people without even knowing it until 5 minutes later and I’m walking out to the car with a spring in my step, reviewing the tape of how AWESOME and TOTALLY NOT RACIST I just was when--
It becomes guttingly clear what I just did and I’m like
SHIT ON A STICK I’m still so racist I hate this UUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH.
Yes, all that happens internally, and then I DO NOT ASK the people I hurt to make me feel better about hurting them. I pick my shit up and go home and try to reflect and grow and do better next time. It sounds icky, right? That shame bell is not a soundtrack you want in your head. If given the choice, I’d totes rather have the 40-Year-Old Virgin’s credit sequence.
Problem is, no matter which soundtrack I’m listening to, it doesn’t change what I just SAID or DID to ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, who is dealing with what I said or did while I sashay away, thinking only about myself regardless of whether I’m prancing barefoot in the grass or drowning in shame.
I get the impulse to get mad at someone for “making you feel bad.” But remember, the person who identifies your alcoholism is not responsible for your drinking. The person who calls out the Emperor’s bare butt didn’t strip him bare. And you can’t get mad at someone for wearing goggles and keeping their distance when you’re walking around the world in a porcupine suit. Come on. That’s not a reasonable thing to be mad about.
You can’t get mad at someone for saying “ouch” when you poke them in the eye, even if you’re not aware you were even flinging a stick around. That’s not a reasonable thing to be mad about. Not if you see the other person as human. Which you do, right?
That’s not “reverse racism.” That’s survival.
Flawed assumption #4: If we’re going to banish racism, we need to stop negatively judging people by their race - ALL people, even white people.
That’s like saying “If we’re going to banish violent crime, we need to stop negatively judging people by their actions - ALL people, even murderers.”
Or, a less inflammatory example, “If we’re going to banish couch shedding, we need to start shaving ALL of the animals, the Alaskan Malamute AND the Chihuaha.”
Come on. Real talk. If you’ve got a Chihuahua and an Alaskan Malamute, only one of those pups is responsible for the UNTENABLE couch situation.
And once you decide you can’t live like this anymore, does it make sense to shave the same amount of hair off BOTH your Chihuaha and your Malamute? What, in solidarity? What, “for fairness”?
Come on. COME ON.
Shave that fluffy hairy bear dog because you KNOW he’s the one gucking up your sofa and furring up your fancy pants.
That’s not “reverse racism.” That’s reasonable accountability.
I worked very hard to try to write this post generously to people who may be struggling to let go of the idea of “reverse racism,” while also trying to remain centered on the truth that MY COMFORT is LESS IMPORTANT than OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES.
I don’t know how successful I was.
As a white person trying to learn anti-racism, I’m always trying to walk the line between “doing the emotional labor of communicating clearly and empathetically to white folks who are completely capable of learning,” and “FOR FUCK’S SAKE GROW UP AND CUT THAT SHIT OUT.” I don’t think I ever get the balance quite right and ultimately, “getting it right” isn’t even the point. “Getting it right” is about me telling my story in a way that pleases me, when the point of anti-racism is to listen.
I’m going to close this one out now by inviting you to witness that it is possible to put on those infrared goggles, look deeply into the woods and count the rats and bees, and accept that they are there whether you choose to look at them or not. That’s survivable shit.
It’s possible for you to expand your idea of fairness so that it is a more generous equation. Not just:
My Actions + My Resources = My Great Life
My Actions + Your Actions + My Resources + Your Resources + Our History + What We Both Need - What I Can Give - What You Can Give = Our Great Community.
It’s possible that you and I are the ones who need to be shaved if the couch is fucked up.
In conclusion, strap on your infrared goggles and don’t shave the Chihuaha.
If you liked this post, I strongly recommend that you follow:
Real Talk: WOC & Allies for Racial Justice & Anti-Oppression
Lace on Race
The SWA Book Club
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