I have had a couple of people take some exception to the central thesis of this morning’s post, specifically the idea that white people by definition cannot experience racism:
white people are far less likely (some would say it is definitionally impossible) to experience racism than are PoC. It seems preposterous to assume that you, a person with no experience in the topic under discussion, would be in a position to lecture someone about that topic.
I want to take a careful look at the above quoted claim, and then attempt to respond to the criticisms in a satisfactory matter.
The easiest way for me to weasel out of the problem is to point out that I specifically use the words “some would say”, passing the burden of a response off to those “some”. I’m sure my critics wouldn’t find such a response particularly satisfactory, and neither do I. However, I do wish to clarify that there are some worthwhile definitions of racism that do not necessarily preclude the possibility of anti-white racism, which includes the one I have previously provided on this site. That definition – racism as the ascribing of group traits to an individual – would not exclude the possibility of white people being on the receiving end. There are lots of examples of white people being assumed to behave/believe a certain way based on their race, sometimes even with violent results.
In my zeal to make my point, I failed to account for these kinds of experiences, and that is a failure on my part. I apologize for that.
Do white people experience racism?
What I was making reference to, with my “some would say”, is a definition of racism that looks beyond racial discrimination at an individual level and looks more broadly at systematic discrimination. I have made reference to some of these on this blog at various points. This understanding of racism uses a formulation often simplified as “prejudice plus power“, with the idea being that if your group does not have the ability to take oppressive action against another, any act of individual prejudice does not qualify as racism. That is, while I might be able to spit on a white person and call hir “honkey”, I can’t avail myself of a black supremacist systemic apparatus to ensure that ze has a higher risk of poverty, poorer health outcomes, and less access to a quality education.
I will readily confess that I have some concerns about the idea that, if a black person does it, it’s not racism. At the same time, I readily recognize that when we talk about “racism”, we are talking about much more than an individual act of race-based aggression. Racism can, and usually does, manifest itself in the absence of a consciously bad actor. In other words, you don’t have to be “a racist” to be racist. Indeed, you don’t even have to be a living person to be racist. Laws and institutions and systems, by creating or exacerbating pre-existing racial disparities, can be racist. And it is grossly disproportionate to look at the product of a massive white supremacist system and say that it is equal to someone making fun of the way white people dance. There is something importantly and qualitatively different about those two things, and calling them both “racism” is unacceptably problematic.
That does not mean, however, that acts of racial discrimination are never leveled against white people. That is absurd, and I would never dream of making such a claim. I do, however, want to take a moment to look at some of the context in which many (but certainly not all) of those discriminatory acts occur, because there is something there worth exploring.
Before I get into that, I want to make something as clear as possible: I am in no way trying to minimize or dismiss the pain of being discriminated against. White people who have been taunted, excluded, beaten, harassed, or otherwise abused by PoC on the basis of their race should not be told to “get over it” because there is no matching systemic discrimination. Their pain is real, and deserves to be taken seriously.
Is being treated differently the same as racism?
With that disclaimer made, I want to push back a bit on some of the experiences commonly related to me by white people who complain of anti-white racism. Oftentimes (but again, not always), those experiences are about being treated as different from PoC. That’s it. A white person is presumed to not know very much about the experiences of racialized people – they call that racist. A white person is presumed, in a majority non-white country, to be rich or to have influence or seen as exotic – they call that racist. A white person is presumed to have retrograde attitudes about race – they call that racist. I have even seen being called white given as an example of anti-white racism.
I don’t deny that these kinds of experiences could make someone feel uncomfortable. I won’t pretend that being seen as different is a particularly pleasant experience, but it is important to recognize the yawning chasm of difference between “being seen as different” and “being on the receiving end of racism”. If Jimmy punches all of the kids in his class, and people start saying “watch out for Jimmy” and tell him they don’t want him around, that’s not evidence that Jimmy is being bullied; it’s evidence that Jimmy’s classmates have learned to watch their backs. Similarly, most of the stereotypes about white people are based on a white supremacist framing that exalts white people above others. There was an intentional effort, made over the course of generations, to hold out white people as special. For a white person to then turn around and complain that they aren’t immediately accepted as “one of us” is… let’s euphemistically call it “cheeky”.
For the same reason (and to the same extent) that Christians aren’t being “bullied” by gays, for the same reason that men aren’t victims of “female privilege”, for the same reason that there isn’t a “gay Mafia”, it is not the case that white people are the victims of racism. At least not in the above examples.
It’s also important to recognize the role that the aforementioned systemic pressures play when it comes to seeking remedies from racism. In many cases, a black man has as much to fear from a violently racist white assailant as he does from the police he might call for protection. Black perfidy and criminality is assumed to be true, which makes a difference even if you don’t believe that white people are presumed to be more honest. A white person who is the victim of a racially discriminatory act can find almost immediate solace in the fact that they still live in a white supremacist system – they are racially represented in media, in politics, in positions of authority. In most cases, they’re a brief car ride away from a majority-white environment. There are no corresponding remedies from racism directed at PoC. It is absolute and eternal.
Why is it okay when black people do it?
Now, this opens me up to accusations of trying to compete in the “oppression Olympics”, meaning turning racism into a contest to see who “has it worse”, rather than recognizing that all racism is bad. In response to this hypothetical accusation, I give the following responses. First, I deny that white people are, in any meaningful sense of the term, oppressed by PoC. Second, I draw your attention to an important distinction. A white person and a PoC might experience the same event: someone calls them a race-based name (let’s say “snowflake” and “darkie”, to avoid having to have the “is it a slur” conversation).
For the white person, they are uncomfortably reminded of their race, they are made to feel self-conscious, they are treated differently. All things that are not particularly pleasant. All of these things also happen to the PoC in this example, but additionally the entire weight of a hateful past and oppressive present accompanies those words. They fit into a cluster of denigrating and dehumanizing beliefs that have existed for generations. They underline a lifetime of feeling “less than” or “other than” those around them. They conjure a lot of ghosts, both personal and historical. There is no corresponding example of such widespread and pervasive hatred directed at white people. The two experiences will always be different.
This, by the way, is why I don’t take accusations of a “double standard”, or the insistence that “both sides do it”, particularly seriously. It is comparing the experience of being momentarily caught in the rain to that of drowning in the ocean.
One more claim I have to address, which is a special case of the above complaints.
White people experience racism in other countries
I have, recently and in the past, been asked to carve out a special place for white people living in countries that are not majority white. The example I received today on Twitter was about white people living in Japan experiencing racism at the hands of Japanese people. Having never lived in Japan, I can’t speak to specifics (or rather, I decline to). I will also not invoke the examples that white friends living in Asia related to me, although they all strongly suggest that white people get preferential treatment when they travel abroad. What I will suggest, briefly, is that whiteness is pervasively and intentionally entangled with colonialism and/or imperialism (h/t to Simon for suggesting that I not confuse those two terms). That the reasons for differential white treatment in non-white countries is a product of the establishment of white supremacist colonial/imperialist systems all around the world (including in US-occupied Japan).
This is certainly a discussion worth having, but in the absence of specific examples to refute, I will simply say that I have some suspicions about white people experiencing anything that I would describe as “racism”, even in countries where they are a statistical minority.
So when I made my argument that white people are less likely, or perhaps completely unlikely to experience racism, this is what I had in my head. Failing to explain this meant that I didn’t necessarily put the best form of my own argument forward, which I regret. But as you can see, the full explanation would have been a 1700-word digression into a post that was already on the chunky side. Hopefully this clears things up a bit.
“This is certainly a discussion worth having, but in the absence of specific examples to refute, I will simply say that I have some suspicions about white people experiencing anything that I would describe as “racism”, even in countries where they are a statistical minority”
A famous case of racism in Japan:
More background info on one of the plaintiffs:
And a page on racism in Japan in general:
Also, Wikipedia writes about whites in Zimbabwe “In recent years there has been a surge in violence and racism against the dwindling white community and particularly against white farmers. (…) white families were subjected to a torrent of abuse by suspected Zanu PF supporters who later drove them away shouting racial slurs.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_people_in_Zimbabwe)
So I wouldn’t say there a complete “absence of specific examples to refute”.
You are using Zimbabwe as an example? A country colonised by white people for centuries in which the native people were robbed and oppressed leaving them to live as second class citizens in their own country? No wonder people are abusing white people there!
Are you suggesting that it isn’t racism when the situation used to be reversed previously? It isn’t racism when the former* target turns the tables and applies the exact same behaviour to their former* oppressors?
* “former” begin loosly defined, as the “centuries in which the native people were robbed and oppressed” ended at least one generation previous to the described incidents.
Then I’d be interested to know what you do call it? In my opinion, it’s still murder if you murder your father’s murderers son, and it’s still theft if you steal the items stolen from your father, back from the son of the thief.
Having lived in China I call tell you how wrong you are. I have white friends there that are very much discriminated against, both racially, and because they are Americans.
The example about white people in white-minority countries brings up the folly of commenting on a system of race as an outside observer without in-depth knowledge.
This is actually similar to a problem white people in North America face in grappling with the concept of institutional racism. It’s hard to see from where we are. Not only are we unlikely (Our society and its institutions have made much progress, and so we can’t entirely discount the possibility of prejudiced persons of color having power over white people) to experience racism, we’re actually relatively unlikely to perpetrate it or even witness it. This is one of many ways privilege is blinding. Since many of us don’t interact with PoC very often we have absolutely no original insight into those interactions.
That said, I think that defining racism only as institutional racism (the prejudice+power definition) has the significant difficulty of being obscure and confusing for many people. I agree that there’s no equivalence between racial microaggression against a majority (there’s another obscure and confusing term) and systemic oppression of a minority, but both are bad and there’s really no point in trying to appropriate the term “racism” for only the one or the other, when they’re so easily differentiated by simply adding a word. “Racism” can be a broader term that encompasses several other concepts, like “violence” or “writing.” Indeed, this is how it is usually used in common parlance.
This is something I do know a wee bit about, having Japanese relatives and having been there.
While Japan was occupied by the US, unlike other Asian countries it was never really conquered or colonized. The only places like that I can think of in eastern Asia are maybe Thailand and China, but Thailand was under a lot of pressure and China ad the huge spheres of influence carved out even before Japan basically took a chunk of the country. With the conquest of Taiwan and Korea Japan was in a position much more akin to the European powers, and in fact I’d argue they were the one example of a non-European colonial power.
With that historical note, I’d further say that Japan is the one spot that isn’t “European” (the issue of Russia is complicated, so we’ll leave it aside for now) where racism in the prejudice + power formulation exists. The treatment of Koreans that live there, for instance, is a testament to that. And the treatment of white people as foreigners also can fall in that category.
The real big difference though, is that there isn’t really a sizeable white population that wants to live in Japan or does currently. That is, the number of white people that actually decides to make their lives there is about 50,000. Out of a country of 120 million. Even if you include the soldiers on bases the numbers aren’t much larger than that. It’s not like there was a huge group of Europeans that wanted to live in Japan and had to deal with being immigrants and used as laborers or something. The people there are in relatively privileged positions.
With all that said, there are prejudices against Europeans there, and it shows up in all sorts of ways that are sort of analogous to the ways white people treat non-whites. Marrying “out” is rather frowned on, and there are some less-polite terms in Japanese for people who are “half-blood” (they even borowed the English term — hafu — which as I understand it is a bit more polite, but I am by no means a native speaker of Japanese). And there is a persistent attitude in Japan that no foreigner could possibly learn Japanese. When I was there and spoke, (admittedly this was 20 years ago) the reaction was not unlike, “Look, the monkey speaks! How weird!” And “Look, a foreigner knows how to use chopsticks!” and “Oh, I see, you have Japanese blood, that must be why you can learn the language at all.”
Now granted I am sure some of this is also because Americans in particular aren’t great at second languages (I don’t know if this applies as much to Canadians). But still, the view of foreigners as actively less intelligent or inferior seem to be an undercurrent there, as well as what we wold call “positive stereotypes” here. I could even make a case that those two attitudes were part of what sunk the Japanese military (no pun intended) — they thought there was no way that Americans could ever learn enough of the language to break the codes, so they’d abandon bases with code- books all over the place. Had they tried basing a code on Ainu (the way the US military used Diné) the outcome might have differed in many places, but the Japanese leadership was committed to the idea of Japanese superiority and likely saw the Ainu as valueless.
And yes, there are a lot of parallels in this to German racial ideologies of the time. That’s no accident, either.
In sum I’d say the complex dance with history makes it certainly possible that racism directed at white people exists in Japan. But I’d also say that it’s a very different sort of racism, because of that differing history.
I find it interesting that most of the responses so far have been assertions or examples of whites experiencing racism. I’m not in a position to discount any of them, and indeed I don’t. But I think focusing on white-experienced racism is at best tangential to the point Ian is making. Perhaps, if I visit a white-minority country, I will experience racism. Meanwhile I’m quite likely to spend the rest of my life in the US, a place where I do have white privilege and a social and legal system that gives me a preferred status. Because I want to see social justice transform these institutions, I’m obligated to focus on my own privilege and the issues surrounding it — including that it’s damned hard for me to see! The people in Japan, China, Zimbabwe, etc. are going to have to sort out their own cultural problems.
“But I think focusing on white-experienced racism is at best tangential to the point Ian is making.” – You are right of course. It’s like MRAs shouting “but the menz!” when the point is about women and the way they are treated. I apologize for being an accomplice to it.