Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ally School 7: Unpacking Reverse Racism

It is generally a bad idea to complain about reverse racism around people of color. The most positive response you are likely to get is quiet sighing and eye rolling: many will be more forceful in their objections.  Consider A.D. Song and Mia McKenzie's "How to be a Reverse Racist." Some of its highlights include: 
Ship them from Germany, Sweden, and other exotic countries. Force them to build entire cities, roads, bridges. Force them to plant and harvest all the food everyone eats. Let an entire economic system be built on their backs, with their blood and sweat. Later, deny them access to the system they have been used to build, and accuse them of being extremely lazy.
* * * 
Do everything you can think of to make it so that white people make less money; their children are shot by cops; white women are at higher risk for assault and they are exotified until they no longer seem human; white men are beaten and thrown into jails because they look “suspicious” and “threatening”; they are racially profiled everywhere they go.
You may find "How to be a Reverse Racist" disturbing.  It scornfully dismisses all your experiences as whining from "[w]hite people who are confronted with their white privilege and the white supremacist acts they perpetuate." Song and McKenzie pull no punches and paint with broad strokes: they appear unconcerned that their humorous piece could be read as an attack on all white people, you included.  You're no white supremacist, and lumping you in with klansmen and skinheads reduces you to an ugly, hateful stereotype. It's offensive, demeaning, even (sorry) reverse racist.

I see why many white people have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that reverse racism is impossible. I know racism involves prejudice plus power, bigotry plus social and political mechanisms of control and oppression.  But outside of a fairly small circle of activists and allies, most white people don't see it that way.  They see racism as disliking a person based on race, creed, etc. and acting on that dislike.  The "prejudice plus power" definition of racism is the most workable , but it's not the only or even the most widely accepted one. For most racism is prejudice and bigotry period.

So when they get treated badly because they are white, they assume it's racism. Then they're told that it's not, and that furthermore only white people can be racists.  Which is, by everything they've been taught, a racist idea.  The dynamics of racist oppression are invisible if you're not experiencing them: privilege is invisible if you are. It's not surprising that a lot of well-meaning white people have trouble with this idea, or that the Usual Suspects use it as proof that white anti-racists and white liberals in general suffer from racial self-hatred and constantly make excuses for minorities.   
I'm not here to point out racists, condemn whiners or declare anybody guilty or innocent of the sin of privilege.  I don't know your backstory, what you brought to the table when you read that post or what experiences you have had with reverse racism. Neither do I know the life experiences which led Song & McKenzie to write this piece.  What I can do is provide some context which may help you to consider alternate interpretations of this article.

Consider first that Black Girl Dangerous defines itself as "a place where queer women and trans* people of color can make our voices heard on the issues that interest us and affect us." While BGD does not block white people from commenting, our presence there is neither necessary nor especially desired.  (To abuse another term from the Civil Rights era, they aren't running an affirmative action outreach to white readers).  They are under no obligation to educate white people or to show special concern for our feelings.

Remember that the authors of Black Girl Dangerous are activists.  Activists generally favor the loud and direct over the quiet and subtle.  They are hoping to get your attention and rub your face in a problem. Since Song & McKenzie are both women of color, chances are they have experienced the silencing other people of color have reported here and elsewhere.  When they are polite they are ignored: when they speak up they are accused of anger.  And while we're on that subject keep in mind that white people tend to read people of color in general, and black people in particular, as angry or hostile.

And if you have a problem grasping humor and satire (a real possibility for Aspies or people who speak English as a foreign language, among others), perhaps you will find a more serious analysis useful. In his "Myth of Reverse Racism," Tim Wise has pointed out some of these differences.
Power is much more potent when it can be deployed without having to break the law to do it, or when doing it would only risk a small civil penalty at worst. So discrimination in lending, though illegal is not going to result in the perp going to jail; so too with employment discrimination or racial profiling.

There are plenty of ways that more powerful groups can deploy racism against less powerful groups without having to break the law: by moving away when too many of "them" move in (which one can only do if one has the option of moving without having to worry about discrimination in housing.)

Or one can discriminate in employment but not be subjected to penalty, so long as one makes the claim that the applicant of color was "less qualified," even though that determination is wholly subjective and rarely scrutinized to see if it was determined accurately, as opposed to being a mere proxy for racial bias. In short, it is institutional power that matters most.
I've talked about taking people at their word when they perceive racism, and so I assume those who say they have encountered reverse racism are telling the truth, or at least their truth.  They encountered some words, some action, some situation which they perceived to be anti-white discrimination aimed specifically them.  Instead of explaining what they did or did not really experience, I'd rather let people tell their own stories.  Whatever is taking place under the rubric "reverse racism" appears to be a real problem.  At least a lot of white people think so: a 2011 Tufts University study suggests that most white Americans believe that anti-white discrimination is a greater problem than anti-black discrimination.