Today we are going to be unpacking the concept of “reverse racism.” I was recently featured in a discussion about DEI in tech and I mentioned that “reverse racism” isn’t a thing and someone commented that I failed to explain why. So, here we are…
To start, what is “reverse racism?” Or As some call it, “reverse discrimination.”
In short, "reverse racism" is the belief or concept that any sort of efforts, programs, or initiatives that aim to address racial inequity are a form of anti-whiteness. Or “racism” towards white individuals.
I want to read a quick excerpt from “National Education Association” or NEA, because I think they did a really good job summarizing this. The define "reverse racism" as:
"A concept based on a misunderstanding of what racism is, often used to accuse and attack efforts made to rectify systemic injustices."
They go on to say:
"Even though some people of color hold powerful positions, white people overwhelmingly hold the most systemic power. The concept of “reverse racism” ignores structural racism, which permeates all dimensions of our society, routinely advantaging white people and disadvantaging people of color. It is deeply entrenched and in no danger of being dismantled or “reversed” any time soon."
Racism, by definition, is the belief that racial differences (as identified by shared characteristics and traits), inherently make individuals and groups of the same race, superior to others. Racism, by definition, requires a level of power and privilege. And historically, racial minority groups have not, and do not hold any systemic or institutional power in this world. And therefore cannot be racist.
To be racist, you yourself have to believe (consciously or not) that your own race is superior to that of another.
Individuals may want to ignore it or may even be “tired” of hearing about it. But racism and the concept of racial hierarchy is alive and well in our society. And it poses a constant threat to many of us on a daily basis, whether we want it to or not. Racism is heavily ingrained. It negatively impacts minorities groups in all domains: healthcare, education, finances, housing, policing, etc.
So when people bring up the concept of “reverse racism” it’s sometimes rooted a misunderstanding of the concept of racism itself. But often, in a lot of instances, it’s an act of racism itself, aimed at re-centering the conversation towards white individuals
I’ll give you an example. About a year or so ago, I spoke to a senior executive (self-identified white man) at a well known media conglomerate, and he was upset because the org, which has traditionally been led by white men, was putting more emphasis on diversifying their executive leadership team. They were considering a promotion for a Black woman. And his immediate reaction to this was, well now I won’t have the opportunity to grow, because they’re going to choose the “diversity hire” over me. If you’re not familiar with the problems associated with the term “diversity hire” check out episode 2 of "DEI" in 5 where I talk about it.
But, back to this story: he was afraid that “reverse racism” was going to prevent him from furthering his career. To be clear, he was already at the top, with several other white men. Extremely well paid, with plenty of opportunity to continue contributing to the org, and it was very VERY unlikely that anyone, other than another white person, was going to surpass him in hierarchy.
And this is just one of many real world examples that I have from the work that I do.
Often I find that when white people bring up the concept of “reverse racism,” that it’s tied to unconscious fear that they have of a potential power shift. Not only within an org, but within our society, where they fear that racism will no longer live and white folks will no longer hold majority power.
But again, as the NEA highlighted, racism will not be “reversed” or dismantled anytime soon, unfortunately —because we’re talking about years, centuries, of white supremacists beliefs being ingrained into our collective societal beliefs, systems, and processes, interpersonal relationships, etc. No one person, or even handful of poeple diversifying your organization is going to change our society overnight.
But let me know what thoughts you have about this about the concept of reverse racism, the concept of power & privilege being a part of the definition of racism, and anything else that comes to mind. I know that topics like this can get touchy and I hope that people come into the comments respectfully, with the intent to learn and understand other perspectives. But that’s probably wishful thinking.
I’m dropping a few resources below. If you haven’t already subscribed to my channel or this playlist, please go ahead and do so. I’m aiming to drop episodes every week day. DEI in 5: Bite Sized Discussions on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.