The crux of the matter

The myth of reverse racism

© Konstantinakos Tsanakas

Chika Unigwe: ‘A cashier accused me of stealing, bolstered by an ideology that has told her for years that people like me steal because we can’t afford clothes or because it’s in our DNA.’

Can white people be treated as racist as black people are? Writer Chika Unigwe thinks such reverse racism is ‘a nonsensical idea’. ‘That myth persists because some people ignore the link between racism and power. In a world constructed to maintain white privilege, you have good reason to fear discrimination.’

I had an argument with someone recently over whether or not oppressed peoples could be racist. My answer in short was no. I said oppressed peoples could discriminate (and do discriminate even amongst themselves) but racism is a construct that requires power. It isn’t just prejudice. It isn’t classism.

Think of Racism as a mathematical equation: R(acism) = D(iscrimination) + P(ower). This is important to remember because it is meaningless to discuss racism without the context of power.

If we cannot have reverse white supremacy, then we certainly cannot have reverse racism.

Kennedy Mitchum, 22 years old and recently graduated, wrote a letter to the editors at Merriam-Webster dictionary asking that the definition of racism be updated as ‘…a system of advantage based on skin color’, because she was frustrated that people (racists) were using the dictionary definition of racism to claim that they weren’t racist. She asked for a definition that better reflected what racism was. Perhaps, it would be easier if we thought of racism as white supremacy, which basically is what it is.

This is the reason why reverse racism is nonsensical. If we cannot have reverse white supremacy, then we certainly cannot have reverse racism.

Trump and His people

The myth of reverse racism persists because some people ignore the proximity racism has to power, and pretend that all discrimination is equal.

Recently, particularly in the years of Trump’s disastrous, polarizing, racist presidency, the myth of white victimhood was pushed here in the United States. On the radio, on TV, the President and his men attacked all the ways in which they thought white people were being discriminated (affirmative action in universities for one) and in the post-Trump era, critical race theory has become the latest victim of this myth.

A white person in a colored world has no such fear for being part of a race.

When the Dutch writer Jamal Ouariachi talks of reverse racism, he falls prey to the fallacy of the myth of white victimhood. When he switches ‘black’ for ‘white’ in an extract from an essay by Nourhessen in the anthology Zwart (Black), and writes ‘I need a white bubble, because I can’t last in that sea of blackness, in black environments. I realize more and more that in solitude from blackness I find my liberation’, he fails to see how racism isn’t simply a matter of replacing one color for the other.

A BIPOC person (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) in a world of whiteness has genuine reasons to fear discrimination operating in world constructed to uphold white privilege.

A white person in a BIPOC world has no such fear for being part of a race. Their economic and cultural power – even when the individual himself is not wealthy – is often enough to protect them. There is a reason why not even the poorest white South African, for example, is likely to be found in the spaces where poor South Africans of color are. They are not bus drivers. They are not domestic helps.

How racism works

The myth of white victimhood – consequence of a belief in reverse racism – pretends that in this running race of life (for lack of a better comparison), all the runners are starting off at the same time, and with access to the same materials. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In an article for the Atlantic, Ta Nehisi Coates illustrates the story of America’s inequality so well by telling the story of Ross. When Ross was a child, his father – who could not read or write – was accused of back taxes. Everything he owned was snatched from him and the family became sharecroppers.

Ross was a smart child, but he could not go to school because the local school was too far for him to walk. His white peers were bussed to school. They had the opportunity to get an education, become doctors and lawyers and politicians.

What options did Ross have? He was drafted into the military. He served his country well, returned in the late 40’s and kept a steady job. In 1961, he bought his first home. However, from the 1930s through the 60s, it was close to impossible for African Americans to access the home-mortgage market.

White real estate developers amassed what would become generational wealth for their descendants.

Racist government policies meant that while white people could get legitimate loans from banks, African Americans were prevented from accessing these same loans and were forced to turn to property scammers, white speculators who got wealthy off of “contract selling” homes with atrocious conditions.

Cut a long story short, when Ross missed a payment, only months into owning his home (because of repairs on the house), he lost his home, lost his down payment, lost the money he had put into the house already. As would happen to others like Ross, the white developer would sell the house on to another black family, who would lose it on missing one payment and the cycle would continue. The rich became richer. The blacks became poorer.

White peers of Ross who took bank mortgages to buy homes, did not run the risk of losing everything they’d saved and put in a home. While Ross, broken, started again from square one, his white peers were moving up the ladder, acquiring property their children could inherit. White real estate developers who exploited Ross and people like him made a killing in the meantime, amassing what would become generational wealth for their descendants.

This is how racism works. It upholds the privilege of whiteness.

Discrimination for being part of a group

And white privilege exists – despite the deniers –because racism exists.

When the cashier at the C&A store in Turnhout accused me many years ago of shoplifting because the alarm went off as soon as I stepped out of the store ( she had forgotten to remove the security tag on the outfit I bought), she was empowered by years of an ideology that told her that people like me were likely to shoplift, because we couldn’t afford to pay for the clothes, or had thieving in our DNA. Her initial thought could not be that she had made a mistake or that I had not realized that the beeping sound required me to return to the store.

When the cops came in to the launderette where my sisters and I were waiting for my mountain of laundry to dry and asked us for our IDs – but not those of the white people in the same launderette – their bias was backed by an ideology that assured them that the three black women couldn’t possibly belong to the space they were occupying.

When the train conductor swooped in on me in the first-class cabin on my way to Brussels and asked if I knew I was sitting in the first-class coach, his question did not come out of a vacuum. It was backed by an ideology that told him that Blackness did not belong in that space. In all three instances, I was dressed in a way that would have marked me out as middle class at least.

White people, in cases of discrimination, are often treated as individuals. For people of color, the discrimination is because they belong to a group.

In all three cases, chances are that had I been white and dressed the same way, I would most likely not have been seen as a person who would steal or could not legally belong in the spaces I was in.

I am intentional in mentioning how I was dressed because deniers of white privilege turn to instances of poor/powerless white people to say that whiteness doesn’t immunize one from biases and assumptions and oppressions at the hands of more powerful people. They sometimes comment on their own powerlessness.

They choose to ignore that whiteness as a group gives those perceived as white the privilege of navigating a world where unless they look a certain way or act a certain way, they are in fact protected. Individual acts of biases or oppression against white people is not backed by a history of systemic racism that has their children discriminated against at school, that has employers refusing to employ you, that has landlords refusing to rent you for belonging to a group.

White people, in cases of discrimination, are often treated as individuals. For people of color, the discrimination is because they belong to a group. The prejudiced assumptions made against you – and which can have lifelong consequences, which can in fact be fatal as illustrated by the cases of Black people killed by cops- are made because your Blackness supersedes whatever other identity you have.

That really is the crux of the matter.

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