Racism, emphasis on the second syllable

6 Nov

The question of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination” comes up a lot. Still. Maybe for you, too. So here are some tools to frame and educate around the notion of “reverse racism.” Here’s how I explain it:

reverse-racismIn other words, anyone or any group can discriminate against anyone else or any other group on the basis, in this case, of racial identity: Asian people can discriminate against white people, white people can discriminate against multiracial people, multiracial people can discriminate against Latinos, Latinos can discriminate against black people, etc. Discrimination can go any and every which way. Thus, there is no “reverse” discrimination. Discrimination only and ever moves against/for another group, simply on the basis of phenotype, perceived ancestry and/or socially defined categories. Racial discrimination only requires the  bias and permission to treat someone else as better or worse, just because of how they identify or how we see their race.

So let’s talk -isms. Racism is racial discrimination backed by systemic norms and power, i.e.

Racial discrimination + systemic power = racism

What differentiates racial discrimination from racism is whether an act of racial discrimination is part of a larger, normative, systemic pattern of discrimination that is institutionalized, sometimes to the point that we don’t even notice it because it’s so normal. (Thus, “everyone does it” is not a great litmus test for racism. Everyone doing and accepting it may, in fact, be a symptom of deeply ingrained racism that we’re just used to.)

If racial discrimination doesn’t have this normative backing, it’s still discrimination, and it still matters. It’s just not racism.

“Reverse racism” requires undoing and flipping entire social and institutional systems that discriminate against a racial group(s) in favor of another. I can’t explain it better than comic Aamer Rahman in this stand-up excerpt. In a nutshell: reverse racism requires a time machine and some serious re-engineering of global history.

Then, the other night, I realized something. Like, literally woke-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night realized: perhaps the reason racism and “reverse racism” are so hard to understand is because we over-emphasize the first syllable: RACE-ism, when really, it should be pronounced rac-ISM. At least as far as placing power where it belongs.

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