Race is a touchy subject, especially in the good ol’ USA. I think this is a country where the powers that be are both (theoretically) obsessed with political correctness in race discourse, whilst simultaneously and paradoxically, quite prejudice in practice. Given the history of this country, it is almost impossible to not look at one’s own social position when discussing race. As I often mention, I am a Black African and I live in the United States and thus I experience what it is to be a Black person in the United States to some extent. However, I cannot truthfully claim to embody the Black or African-American experience.
The history of Black Americans and the history of Black Africans are different; the effects that these histories have on these separate communities are also different, especially in the United States. It is a strange phenomenon but I do believe that many times privileged Black non-Americans like myself, are often treated with a higher regard in American society than Black Americans. It is a topic that has been considered a cause for concern in the sometimes complicated relationship between Black Americans and Black non-Americans who live here.
However, I do not wish to digress too much from the purpose of this piece, which are my thoughts on so-called, “reverse racism.” There are very few things that I take absolute positions on because I like to be flexible; I like to be able to change my mind about topics of political and social importance. While my fundamental values may be quite firm, in many areas I like to take a moderate stance on things. Racism and “reverse racism” is not one of them.
The reality of this country is that Whiteness is the default for every aspect of “normalcy.” From beauty standards to societal values, White Eurocentric culture that was transformed over the centuries is a part of what is perceived as the standard of American culture. The cultures that fall outside of these parameters including several African cultures, Hispanic and Latino cultures, Asian cultures, and Middle Eastern cultures – all constructed as “the other.”
Consider simply how Americans designate who gets a hyphenated American status and who does not. Minority persons do – “African-American or Black American,” “Asian-American,” etc. And I am not particularly against the claiming of one’s heritage in this way but my question is: Why do White people in this country not get a hyphen as well? Why are they just “American” but non-White people are not? Even “Native Americans” have to be distinguished. Some would say it is merely a matter of semantics. I would argue that it is representative of the way in which American society is constructed and the language mirrors the reality. A reality that signifies that what is “White” is given precedence and privilege in America, over what is not.
An argument often touted by mainstream White culture is that slavery was so long ago and that people “should just get over it.” And that the civil rights movement was obviously a signal of a changed America. I would argue that this is an attempt to desensitize one’s self from African-American history as well as the effects of that history on this community today. This also extends to other minority histories. As an African, if you tell me that colonization was, “so long ago” and that “we should just get over it,” I am inclined to tell you that the effects of colonization have penetrated the mind of Africans and African nations such that they are a people who are still feeling the effects of European imperialism, in everywhere from economics to identity construction. A parallel of this African experience is the African-American historical experience of slavery, of Jim Crow laws, and of institutionalized racism that is still very much present.
But what is racism? Is racism just a feeling of hatred or superiority towards a group of people with a different color of skin than you? It certainly can be. And if this is only the case, it is absolutely true that racism is not only limited to White people as the perpetrators. There can be minorities who are racist. However, the experience of racism by a minority and by a White person, even on an individual basis is very different. Why? Because of history. And because of the significance of institutionalized racism.
When a White person experiences racism from an individual, it is within the parameters of a particular incidence; one particular moment in time and oftentimes, is relegated to that moment. When a person who is a minority experiences racism, they bear the weight of a history behind this racism. It needn’t even be direct; it is oftentimes the result of merely existing in this nation because of the subtleties of institutions that are biased against them.
Minorities experience racism when they look at media and it only disperses a particular type of story about people of their color. They experience racism in the socio-economic make-up that disadvantages them from birth. They experience racism when it is deemed that their abilities in education and capacity to acquire a good education are not from merit, first and foremost. They experience racism in beauty standards, in being judged on their vernacular, in hearing car doors lock when they walk past, and in constantly and continuously having to think about their race in any given situation. Till you have experienced what this is like, you will never know what it’s like to be a minority. And in America’s racial caste system where Black Americans are at the bottom, it is no surprise that unless you are a Black American, many times the experience is exclusive.
I am not aiming to deny or diminish any individual experience of racism. If you have ever experienced racism, it hurts no matter what color you are. But I think one of the reasons why race discourse is so difficult in this country is because it is difficult for the mainstream White culture to accept and acknowledge that experiences are different because of people’s skin color. Any individual can be racist to another but institutional racism is the monster that matters. It is the monster that keeps minorities constantly and continuously feeling even in 2013, that they are still not considered “the norm” in what should be a truly multicultural nation.
In my Deconstructing Whiteness And White Privilege piece a few weeks ago, someone commented, “White people have already taken so much from Black America, and now they even want the oppression that they gave us in the first place! We can’t even own our oppression!…” The truth is every time “reverse racism” comes up, this comment, to me is a hallmark and a representation of the lack of consideration felt for the significance of history in race discourse. And not only history but class, and the intersectionality of race and class in America. “Reverse racism” doesn’t work because ultimately oppressions are not equal. Individual racism does not compare to systematic racism which is experienced by minorities and not by people who are White.
I believe in racial harmony. But I also believe in racial healing. And I am neither a scholar nor a person who buys into the historical amnesia that often plagues society. I don’t think racism goes away by not talking about it and pretending it doesn’t have real consequences. I think “reverse racism” is an attempt to remove the history of racism and the institutionalized consequences and practices experienced by minorities. And if we are ever to engage in racial discourse that is productive, that is restorative, we must first begin by understanding that experiences are different; different experiences do matter. We must be willing to acknowledge racism and “reverse racism” cannot be discussed as if they are equally problematic. It doesn’t reflect reality; it simply doesn’t work. tc-mark]