“You can’t be racist toward white people. Racism is based in systemic/institutional oppression and since there is no sociopolitical infrastructure working against white people, white people can’t be affected by racism!”*
Ah, Social Justice bloggers.
This type of comment usually appears on tumblr (or from the mouth of some professor in an ivory tower) and it is totally lacking any understanding of what systemic and institutional oppression is, as well as misunderstanding (usually intentionally) what racism is. They conflate the two, but they fail to realize there is are differences between the two things and pretending they are interchangeable terms is just dishonest.
First of all, not all systematic or institutional oppression is driven by race. It can be wealth based, gender based, religion based, even clothing or hairstyle based, etc. and, yes, race based. Not all systematic oppression is racist. At the same time not all racism is systematic or institutional oppression either.
First let’s get some definitions out of the way.
Institutionalized Oppression: Institutional Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on one’s membership in targeted social identity groups. If oppressive consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs, or practices, the institution is oppressive whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have oppressive intentions. – Source
Systemic Oppression: Similar to Institutionalized, however it specifically is enforced by the government, laws, and police.
So I won’t have to type as much, I’m going to refer to both as “systemic oppression” throughout the rest of this article.
Racism is far easier to define:
Poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race, the belief that some races of people are better than others. – Webster
Okay, now that you know what both of these things are, let’s start out by talking about a case of systemic oppression that was based in race.
This particular bit of oppression was a huge black mark on the history of South Africa. It involved several decades of racial oppression of black Africans by the white government of the country.
Apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948. Legislation classified inhabitants into four racial groups, “black”, “white”, “coloured“, and “Indian”, with Indian and coloured divided into several sub-classifications, and residential areas were segregated. From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes, and forced into segregated neighbourhoods, in one of the largest mass removals in modern history. Non-white political representation was abolished in 1970, and starting in that year black people were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of white people.
What separates this from your average Joe-racist on the street (and consequently changes it from pure racism to systemic racial oppression) is the fact that the government enforced (not just proposed) the course of action. This means military and law enforcement were involved, and legally obligated, to enforce the rules of Apartheid throughout an entire country.
Other forms of systemic oppression would be the Jim Crow laws of the Civil Rights era and, of course, the most obvious systemic oppression (and one of the worst war crimes ever committed), The Holocaust.
Other cases, such as the treatment of Christians in China or gays in Russia, are non-racially motivated forms of systemic oppression.
So what does this have to do with whether or not racism can be leveled towards white people as well as people of other races?
Honestly I’ve already proved my point, but I’ll explain.
Racism does not require systemic oppression to occur. It happens in day to day interactions, usually in subtle ways that rarely affect our lives or our state of mind. A glare here, a nasty word there, someone cutting you off in traffic, they can (but aren’t always) be motivated by racial tensions. Sometimes it can more serious, such as someone refusing to hire you or not giving you a promotion.
Sometimes the racist moron in question is open about it and lets you know exactly what he’s thinking, other times you’re left to wonder.
None of these forms are truly systemic oppression and require no government enforcement or institutionalization. In fact, in America, our institutions are nominally set up to prevent racism. We have hate crime laws and equal protection laws and our media is probably more obsessed with finding cases of racism to lynch someone over than they are with the sex lives of celebrities.
When someone treats you like crap because of your race that’s racism, but it’s not systemic oppression.
Which means that, regardless of sociopolitical forces, white people can experience racism.
The problem here is not that “you can’t be racist toward white people” but that social justice bloggers have no idea what terminology means and refuse to learn.
Are there cases of racist systemic oppression? Yes, obviously there are. However racism isn’t “caused” by systemic oppression anymore than the Nazi’s hatred of Jews was caused by Nazism rising to power. Hate is either there or it isn’t. If it exists, it can grow to become systemic oppression, given enough time and enough power, and continued ignorance of racism toward those with white skin isn’t going to fix or stop racist tendencies.
If you want a post-racial society, then stop judging people based on race. You don’t get points that excuse bad behavior or racism just because your skin is darker than mine and I’ll judge you based on your actions.
In other words, a racist asshole is a racist asshole…no matter how much melanin they were born with.
Of course given the social and political climate of the day, where white people are told that they are always racist no matter what they say or do and any person who disagrees with our President or holds our Attorney General responsible for his actions is told they are racist for doing so, I might have to disagree with social justice bloggers on the idea that there isn’t a sociopolitical force working against white people…then again, maybe it’s just working against conservatives.
*paraphrasing this, since the original statement came from a friend of my sister.