Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reverse Racism

The other day as I was driving to work I heard a caller to a local talk radio show refer to a particular black public figure as a 'reverse racist', and a wire was tripped in my mind.

The phrase 'reverse racism/reverse racist' is a silly meme that is often employed by white racists to describe racist actions perpetrated by (usually) black people. Usually, the so-called ‘reverse racist’ act is some kind of tame or ironic observation, often the so-called ‘reverse racist’ is somehow calling out some kind of institutional white racism, or has been embroiled in a controversy for standing up for themselves against such mechanisms. Sometimes, the ‘reverse racist’ is actually a racist, or has actually committed a racist act(and the offended white person, who is more desperate to call a black person out on racism because they feel that somehow the crimes of the white power structure throughout history have been piled heavy upon their shoulders. They feel that the insistence of our current society to ‘be nice’ and judge people ‘by the content of their character, not the color of their skin’ is somehow an undue burden). People who call out ‘reverse racism’ are the same people who can also be heard saying ‘I’m not racist, but…’. These people have black friends. When asked around black people who their favorite actor is, they may say ‘Denzel Washington’, or ‘Will Smith’, if they’re feeling ecumenical.

The problem at hand is, however, a linguistic one. Even if the label of ‘reverse racist’ is actually applied to a real racist (there are racist black people), the term ‘reverse racist’ is confusing. If a person is racist, they are racist. Wouldn't a 'reverse racist' be someone who goes out of their way to help a person of a different race, or to erase an existing racial barrier?

There’s something weird going on under the surface of the 'reverse racist' label. It seems to imply that racism originated with white people, and any other kind of racism is somehow reactionary racism, impure racism. In one sense, you could think of it as a preference by the claimant for David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar.

All people are subject to tribal urges, to a greater or lesser degree. Some folks have stronger, more malicious strains than others, with the focal point ranging anywhere from ideology to geography to race. If someone is being racist, feel free to acknowledge it. But please, try to respect your native language by not infusing it with unnecessary silliness (people who call out ‘reverse racists’ are often the same people who feel horribly oppressed at their being a Spanish option when they call customer service*).

If you are white and were offended by this post, let me ask you this: when a black person (public citizen or private) is acting in a ‘racist’ way, among your group of friends/families/associates, are you usually the first person to notice it? Just curious.

*On a (somewhat) unrelated note, aren’t you glad that the Brits are starting to stand up for their healthcare system? It’s about time.


Willie Y said...

I know you are expecting me to write this so I will. Sean Hannity uses that phrase all the time. He seems to have a lot of people on his program that preach hate against anyone who is different.

Andrew David King said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this important manner. I agree with you that 'reverse racism' is misleading, and that racism is racism, period.

However, it's also good to use care when using general examples of racial behavior between whites and blacks. It can be argued that white and black culture use to be more homogeneous, but in modern America these cultures are quickly blending (I'm not so naive as to believe that they are blending anything close to completely) in our big cities, for instance. Where I live, the Bay Area in California, white people such as who you describe in this article exist in such a low population that I have yet to run into any of them. Having spent my entire seventeen-year-old life here and gone to both an elementary and high school with a less than 20% Caucasian population, I can honestly say that because of the Bay’s accepted diversity, racist behavior by any race is typically overtly obvious.

That being said, ‘reverse racism’ is the cry of right-wing 5150s who spread their verbal refuse across the TV channels and airwaves, as an excuse for nativist/conservative viewpoints that generally have no room for alternative ways of life or thinking, regardless if those may be other cultures with dignity or not. Thanks for writing this article—and for doing a good job at that. I’m forwarding it around.

Spencer Troxell said...

Willie: I'm not too worried about Sean Hannity. He's a pitchman for a demographic that is already well stocked up on his product.

Andrew: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It's definitely important to take care when discussing race, but it's a discussion that has to happen, especially here in my neck of the woods (the Midwest), at least until the taboo has totally worn away.

I'm hopeful for the tribe of humanity. Our cultures are blending at an amazing rate, and there is a vast amount of information available in our free societies. Clinging to our ancestral factions is becoming more and more difficult. 'The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.'

Personally, I credit all progress on the subject to Sesame Street.

Lodo Grdzak said...

On a related note,

If you're leading a movement or a political party and you want your members to bond in brotherhood and like-mindedness, then the "politically correct"thing to do is to create an outside enemy. Whether that enemy be Socialists, or Communists, or Jews, or blacks; by negatively defining the other team you've also defined yourself. Political operatives know that negative stereo-typing of your opponent is far more effective politically than honest debate.

What is not good politics--in other words, not politically correct, is to speak politely of your opponent. To refer to them with respect and to avoid antagonistic terminology or epithets. Literally speaking (at least as far as James Carville/Mary Matalin are concerned), that is politically incorrect behavior.

Spencer Troxell said...

Good point, Lodo. I guess in a way I've crystallized my own out-group in this post.

Now I just need to start taking donations...

Alpha:Omega said...

I agree its not the most PC term, but it does effectively convey it's point. You immediately know a white person is complaining about a black racist person, haha. I know this topic came up a lot at Bellevue College when i was taking a 6 hour Saturday Cultural Diversity class all quarter. Yes, it was as painful as it sounds. Lots of arguing. One thing that came to mind when i read that term is Affirmative Action is usually referred to as "reverse racism" because in order to make things equal they went from denying one group to denying another group instead. Its a sore topic so i guess they use that term in light of black racist, haha, which is likely to get you stabbed with a pencil. I say why not use it?

Spencer Troxell said...

"Cultural Diversity class"? On Saturday? Ouch.

If that doesn't get you into heaven, I don't know what will.