The term “reverse racism” is racist.

Lately, white people have been throwing around the term “reverse racism” in reference to the current climate in which white privilege is finally beginning to be acknowledged and addressed openly in pop culture. I’ll leave the larger topic of whether or not white people have a right to be offended when someone confronts them about their privilege for later. Right now, I just want to talk about the actual term “reverse racism” and how it’s incredibly racist.

Growing up, I always thought reverse racism meant being extra nice to someone of another race in order to avoid looking like a racist. I only recently learned that caucasian people have been using the term to describe what they see as racism directed at them.

On hearing about this, reverse racism — which had always seemed like a harmless term describing awkward but well-intentioned overcompensation — suddenly became appallingly offensive to me. In my mind, when the term is used in this way, it carries, in its very structure, an implication that caucasians are inherently superior to all other races.

Perhaps you will disagree with me, but here is my thought process if you wish to check my work:

1. If someone is treating you badly based purely on your race, that is racism. It doesn’t matter what your race is. It doesn’t matter what the race of the person mistreating you is. Treating someone badly because of their race is the very dictionary definition of racism. There are, of course, varying degrees of racism, so we want to avoid painting merely thoughtless or ignorant people with the same brush as Adolf Hitler, but the term itself is simple.

2. To say that mistreating someone because they are caucasian is not “racism” but “reverse racism” is to imply that white people are somehow above race. Used in this way, the term openly carries the implication that caucasians have no race at all, as if their skin is literally white rather than various shades of pink and beige. They are pure, unsullied by colour. They alone can be racist, and if someone with a colour tries to play at being racist themselves, it won’t actually be racism, but “reverse racism.”

I think the term is really offensive and people should stop using it. What do you think?

David Warkentin lives in Toronto and writes things which can be bought here. If you’re interested, that is. He’s also on twitter (@acneofthegods)

2 Responses to “The term “reverse racism” is racist.”
  1. Chris says:

    I thought I was going to disagree with this post but I did not. I’m not sure the term is as pernicious as you describe; would it seem so sinister if the term was “turn-about racism”, connoting “you were racist towards us, now its our turn”, instead? The outrage I read when I see discussions about “reverse racism” is “You anti-racists claim to be against racism, but you’re willing to support this flavor of racism? Hypocrites!”

    Also, how do you feel about the new definition of racism as a thing that only people in power (which always seems to be white people, despite the existence of the whole of Asia) can do? E.g. if you call a Japanese person a slanty-eyed pan face, it’s not actually racism if you’re, say, Native.

    • Dave W says:

      That’s a lot to chew on. I offer the following off-the-cuff responses:

      – You’re probably right that it isn’t as pernicious as I describe. At the very least, I think it’s fair to say that most people use the term out of ignorance of the implications rather than purposeful hatred. But that’s sort of my problem with the term in general. Whether purposeful or not, I feel like the implication of white superiority is still embedded in the term when used as I described above. To casually throw that term around still does damage, I think.
      – As for a more appropriate term, I’m at a loss. “Reactionary racism” has a certain something to it, but there are times when I feel like I don’t even want to include the word “racism.” This is a gross oversimplification that ignores some of the nuance of modern society, but let’s picture America’s slave era, in which whites enslaved blacks, mistreated them, beat them, and told them they were no better than animals, In this situation, if a black person came to dislike or even hate their oppressors, could we really call that racism? It certainly doesn’t seem to me that their hatred would be based on race alone.
      – That kind of leads into your other question about only people in power having the ability to be racism. My instincts (which are often wrong) tell me that the term “racism” would definitely apply to your Japanese/Native scenario. I would say, though, that racism certainly gets more egregious when it’s perpetrated by those with power, especially when it’s not just random hatred but actual institutionalized, widely held beliefs. If the people with all the power and money are hating on you (and spreading that hate), it’s a lot harder to deal with than one lone guy on the street calling you a name. I guess I’m saying there are a lot of different types of racism and some of them are clearly bigger problems than others.

      One thing I do think about a lot these days is that maybe a little racism against white people isn’t always a bad thing. When I hear how upset white people get when they’re told something as simple as “your opinion on how black people should feel doesn’t matter because you don’t know what it is to be black,” I always think it might be a good learning experience. Maybe white people — especially white males — need to know what it feels like to have your voice marginalized and discounted, if only in order to understand what so many other groups have to deal with throughout their entire lives.

      Does that make any sense or have I done my words wrong?

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