Note to my white self…

Claiming “everyone is racist” is racist.

I know other white people are telling you that anyone – regardless of their color or ethnicity – can be racist. They’re quoting the definition of racism from the dictionary – “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  They’re arguing people of color can be biased or antagonistic toward white people, that everyone is equally capable of being racist.  They tell stories of when they’ve been personally attacked or mistreated by someone of color.  Or they point out situations in the world where people of color have marginalized another group.

Don’t be confused.

In most cases, these arguments are attempts to normalize racism and not to end it. Indeed, once they’ve convinced you that everyone is racist, racism is no longer a problem requiring societal change.  It becomes a personal issue.  After all, if everyone is racist, white people have no greater responsibility for addressing and combatting it than others.  Ironically, while these people are fighting for an equal application of the definition of racism, they are far less concerned about actual social inequities, such as the power to define language.

When we who are white insist on a definition of racism which includes everyone, we are arguing that we – and not people of color – get to define the term. When we quote from Merriam-Webster, we seldom acknowledge George Merriam, Charles Merriam and Noah Webster were all white men, or that the academic and publishing worlds continue to be dominated by white people.  This assumption that our definition of racism trumps alternative definitions, especially those of people of color, exposes a dynamic white people seldom want to discuss – the differences in political and economic power in America.

Systemic racism is so insidious because it permeates every societal institution, including the publishers of dictionaries. Thankfully, in recent years, alternate definitions of racism have gained credibility.  Most sociologists define racism within a societal structure where there are significant differences in power.  They understand what most people of color know intuitively – without power – prejudice, discrimination and antagonism toward someone of another race is powerless.  It can do little systemic damage. In America, while anyone can be biased and prejudiced, it is only white people who have the power to be racist.

Think about this. Obviously, black people were antagonistic toward their white oppressors during the era of slavery.  Was this antagonism racist?  When they ran away, or killed their owners, or led rebellions, should these actions be seen as reverse racism?  Of course not.  Most people would acknowledge that their actions were a legitimate response to their mistreatment.  Yet, today, if a person of color expresses anger or resentment about their mistreatment, many white people want to define their behavior as racist.  Don’t be confused.  Resisting oppression is not racism.

When you confront other white people with this reality, don’t be surprised when they call you racist. When white people call other white people racist for challenging racist attitudes or behavior, they demonstrate how little they really care about Merriam-Webster’s definition.  By that definition, it is impossible for you – another white person – to be racist toward them.  What they are upset about is your lack of loyalty.

Merriam and Webster did get one part of their definition correct. Racism has always included a deep seated conviction that one’s own race is superior.  This loyalty to your race is vital to sustaining injustice.  It is difficult to justify inequality if we acknowledge the worth of another group of people.  Racism thrives on an underlying assertion of superiority.  This makes the claim that everyone is racist, when mouthed by white people, even more ugly.  If we who are white want to emphasize our common humanity with people of color, offering them equality in the propensity toward racism seems a ridiculous place to start.

Theoretically, is it possible for any group of people to be racist?  Of course.  If Africans had preceded Europeans in the Industrial Revolution, colonized North America, brought over Europeans as slaves, oppressed white people for generations and resisted every attempt to create a just and equitable society, it would be possible to legitimately accuse people of color of racism.  However, short of that, claiming everyone is racist…is racist.  We live in a country where racism is a white affliction that can only be cured when we who are white acknowledge this ugly disease and seek treatment.

Here is my challenge to you.

Work for a society where people of color have enough power that they can be rightfully accused of racism.  Create a society where power is distributed so evenly that blame and responsibility for injustice can be equally shared.  This will not happen by accusing everyone of racism.  It will only happen when white people surrender the power of defining and dominating the conversation.


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