The Evolving Definitions of Racism (and Why There’s No “Reverse”)
I find most of the discussion around the term “reverse racism” troubling. Partly for the obvious reason that some people still think such a thing exists, but also because the usual line of reasoning given to disprove it is frustratingly counterproductive. The problem, I believe, lies in the definitions of racism, and particularly the tension between its original, commonplace definition and a newer, evolving definition.
The prevailing counter-argument to the concept of reverse racism is usually given thus: Racism is prejudice + power; in other words, it is an institutionalized form of discrimination deeply embedded in a society that provides one racial group with the power to act out their prejudice through systematic oppression of other racial groups. This system can’t be “reversed”, because the oppressed groups do not have enough power and influence to act against the dominant group in any significant way.
This is an extremely valid and important concept that I wish a lot more (white) people would take the time to really understand. The problem, however, is that it’s not the only definition of racism. It’s not, in fact, even the primary definition of racism, as both found in most dictionaries and used by most English speakers. Which is why I see the following miscommunication repeated over and over:
A: That person of colour used a slur against whites. Reverse racism!
B: No, reverse racism doesn’t exist, because racism is prejudice + power, so people of colour can’t be racist.
A: Wait, wait, WHAT?!
(Before I continue, let me divulge that prior to giving this topic a lot more consideration, I myself used a variation on the above bolded phrase in conversation with a Punjabi friend, who blithely retorted that it was racist of me to suggest that only white people could be racist. She had a point.)
In my unofficial survey of several free online dictionaries (including Merriam-Webster, Cambridge and Oxford) the primary – if not the only – definitions given revolve around racism as a belief in the superiority of a particular race; a feeling of hatred or intolerance for other races; or acts of discrimination or violence against other races. Sadly, of course, it is clear that these xenophobic tendencies are intrinsic to human beings of all varieties.
It is my impression that the primary dictionary definitions of the word “racism” reflect its primary usage in common speech as well. Only two of the six sources I checked (dictionary.com and yourdictionary.com) even included any mention of the “institutionalized discrimination” definition. The fact that both of these are uniquely online sources rather than inveterate standbys like Merriam-Webster would indicate that this a newer definition — one that I believe probably evolved precisely to explain why “reverse racism” can’t exist.
But any student of linguistics will tell you that people are very, very resistant to language change, especially language change that seems “forced”, and especially especially language change that involves creating a polysemous definition for a word already in common circulation. And understandably so; the potential for confusion is enormous. This is why I say that attempting to use a newer, restricted definition of the word “racism” in order to oppose the concept of “reverse racism” is counterproductive. People will confuse it with the older definition and look at you like you’re a space alien when you try to tell them that people of colour are incapable of racism — because while you mean institutional racism, they think you mean commonplace racism — and will thereby dismiss you as a delusional, raving Social Justice Warrior.
I don’t really know what the solution is. In writing, we could maybe differentiate between lowercase-r racism and uppercase-R Racism in the same way that we differentiate between the commonplace and institutional definitions of catholic/Catholic, but that doesn’t really help us in speech. I do think it is important to figure out how to remedy this problem, however, so that we can continue to discuss why, for example, Maya Peterson’s Instagram photo mocking white bros was not Racist:
Not being personally acquainted with Ms. Peterson, I can’t comment on whether she happens to hold any lowercase-r racist views. But a black woman who posts a photo making fun of a group of people who hold long-established social power and influence over her is not enacting Racism. She is not disparaging white males for the simple fact of being white and male; she is disparaging those white males who continue to propagate systematic prejudice against her for the simple fact of being black and female. She does not have a godlike capability to “reverse” centuries-old paradigms of oppression with one Instagram photo. If only.