Quick Note: ‘Reverse Racism’ Doesn’t Exist

Aug 27, 2015 | Gay Rights and Other LGBTQIA Issues, Gender and Sexism, History, Race and Racism

Published: The Good Men Project (August 27, 2015)

When people talk about “reverse racism,” they are describing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

This isn’t to say that yesterday’s shooting of two Virginia journalists wasn’t motivated by prejudice. For that matter, even if perpetrator Bryce Williams was correct in claiming that he had experienced discrimination at the hands of his employers, he was undeniably wrong for choosing such a violent method for redressing his grievances. What happened on Wednesday was a terrible crime, one that horrifies all decent people.

But it wasn’t racist, despite being labeled as such by actual racists like America’s favorite child murderer, George Zimmerman.

Of course, most of the people who bandy about the phrase “reverse racism” aren’t nearly as contemptible as Zimmerman, and it wouldn’t be fair to imply otherwise. That said, I’ve heard the term used often enough that it is necessary to briefly explain why it’s out of line.

We can start with some vocabulary lessons. When you’re referring to an individual’s negative attitude toward a group of people (usually based on popular stereotypes), the correct term is “prejudice.” If a person decides to harm someone else based on that prejudiced attitude—whether it’s as minor as making a derogatory comment, as awful as an act of violence, or anything in between—then the correct term is “discrimination.” As the events in Virginia make clear, it is entirely possible for a non-white person to hold prejudiced views and discriminate against white individuals.

Racism, on the other hand, refers to a systematic problem rather than an individual one. Entire societies have been built around the assumption that certain races are inherently superior to other ones—see the United States and how it treats African Americans, Nazi Germany and its atrocities against the Jews, the Turkish oppression of Armenians, etc. Within these societies, individuals not inherently inclined toward prejudiced beliefs or discriminatory attitudes are far more likely to contribute to repressive ideas and practices because an entire culture has been built around perpetuating them.

That’s why, despite the shrill claims of Zimmerman and other right-wingers (Zeba Blay of The Huffington Post does a fantastic job debunking its use on issues like affirmative action or black-only institutions like Black Entertainment Television), it is nonsensical at best and malevolent at worst to argue that “reverse racism” exists. A similar point can be made about those who decry “reverse sexism” or argue that they’re victimized by religious oppression when scolded for holding prejudiced views against LGBT individuals. If you want to condemn the bigotry of someone who doesn’t benefit from “in group” status—i.e., someone who isn’t a white, heterosexual, Christian male—you should pick words that clearly establish you’re referring to an individual’s errors. It is simply inappropriate to choose language that refers specifically to systemic forms of oppression, regardless of whether you’re doing so intentionally or otherwise.