Systemic Oppression Versus Racism: Get Your Definitions Straight

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. If it would sound racist if you changed the word "white" to "black"'s still racist.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
If it would sound racist if you changed the word “white” to “black”…it’s still racist.

“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.

Apartheid Wikipedia

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.



  1. There are some bafflingly stupid people in this comment section… I’m Black and I 100% agree with the writer’s article. It’s not “HER” understanding of racism, “IT IS THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DEFINITION”, plain and simple.

    The writer is saying that racism goes from any way, you can be White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian. Racism does not scope whether you are minority or not, If you judge or hate a race for the colour of their skin, you are by English definition “racist”.

    I don’t understand where these people get their education, where they think it’s ok to warp the dictionary definition of systemic and institutionalized oppression to justify hatred of a majority.

    To be honest, I think if MLK was alive today, he would be upset at our progress, he preached love and equality, not hatred of majority.

  2. What I find most disturbing is that “racism” has been repurposed to justify racism, as a tool of racism. It is pathetically ironic. Changing the definition of the word (which, by the way, is descriptive in nature, not prescriptive – i.e. the usage in the dictionary has been the correct usage of the word, based on how it was used) to define racism by a skin color and exonerate culpability by a different skin color, is wholly racist. To assume that the definition was written in an egalitarian fashion (anyone can be a victim, anyone can be an aggressor) because the writers were racist bigoted white dudes (also, not every editor involved in the editing of dictionaries is white) is not only ignorant, but also racist. Put simply here: if I were a bigoted racist white dude writing a dictionary, don’t you think I’d word the definition of racism to exclude white people as the aggressor? I would try to remove potential culpability for my race from the definition, if I were a person like the one that the “Social Justice” community assumes writes dictionaries with insidious agendas in mind. I would not write an inclusive definition if I intended to manipulate the meaning of the word. Quite the contrary, the modified usage of the word, has a biased and racially motivated agenda. The modern usage (perversion) of the word is more perscriptive, more biased and unobjective, than the one found in the dictionary.

    There are a lot of racially-motivated tensions, and it is easy to blame white people for it, because they’re different from us. I hate to use this argument, but it belongs here: That is exactly what Hitler and the Nazis did to the Jews. That is the first step in establishing a SYSTEM OF RACIAL OPPRESSION. You separate people by the color of their skin or ethnic origin, find a negative feature you can blindly associate with that particular type of person, and they’re responsible for everything that is wrong in your life, regardless of their actions, because they fit this blindly and loosely applied stereotype. You can walk up to random white guy, punch him in the face, and call him a racist, despite him doing absolutely nothing to you. He disagrees with a non-white person, higher-melanin person, darker person, or person of color, about anything, and he’s a racist. He can do nothing and still be a racist, simply because he happens to have less melanin. The thought processes of this white guy are dictated solely by his skin tone. This is an extreme here, but not to far off from the assumption in the statement that “only white people are capable of racism”. And that line of flawed reasoning (white = racist, not white = not racist) is racism in it purest form, blind association of a negative attribute with a skin tone.

    The worst part is that this myopic perspective completely shits upon the ideas of racial equality, and contradicts the most influential proponent of Black Rights in the USA, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “I have a dream” speech, MLK said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. Is anyone so ignorant to assume that MLK meant that only Black people are to judged by their character and not their skin? I’m pretty sure that his earlier statement of “…we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” implies that this interpretation applies to all human beings, regardless of their skin tone. MLK believed that all men (which applies to women as well, it is used inclusively) should be judged by their character.

    Simply, to paraphrase MLK, all people are capable of goodness or malice, thus all of us should be recognized for our achievements, be culpable for our misdeeds, and be held accountable for our actions. Regardless of skin tone.

    There are problems in the US that affect non-white folks more than white folks, and there sometimes advantages to being white (and yes, there are disadvantages to it, too.), but you can’t hold people accountable for the actions of others. I’m white, that doesn’t mean I hate black people. I’ve got black friends, each of whom I trust with my life and would gladly give the shirt off my back. I know each of them would do the same for me. My Krav Maga instructor is black, and he’s a man I look up to as a personal hero. Not too long ago, I went to his instructor’s funeral, another black gentleman, one of most inspiring and insightful people I’ve ever met. I cried at this man’s funeral. I still miss him, and the conversations we shared, the perspectives he showed me. If you have the gall to call me a racist because I’m white, you are a truly ignorant person, because some of the people I hold closest to my heart are black, and you’re insulting those relationships by saying I would EVER do anything to hurt them, or to hold them back. I judged each of these people by their actions and character, and they judge me in the same vein. I’m white, and I’m not a racist.

    (All uses of “you” in this post are meant to be Generic. The “Generic you”, also called the “Impersonal you”, or “Indefinite you”, are meant to be impersonal, while retaining linguistic fluidity. “Us”, and variations thereof, is an inclusive term, applicable you, I, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, my black neighbor, my white neighbor, or anyone else. If you’re a human being, you’re one of “us”.)

    (I really did not want to mention Hitler, and apologize to anyone that statement may have offended on the premise of mentioning him. However, I will not apologize if you were offended because that comparison applied to you.)

  3. (I’ve heard similar claims. “Only whites can be racist because they’re the ones in power”. I guess they’re meaning whites are the only ones who have the ability to oppress people, assuming they mean in countries where white people are the majority and in charge.

    So under that logic, could a KKK member move to China and no longer be a racist?) LOL

  4. One of the best pages I’ve read about this! People literally attack me every time I bring this topic up and it frustrates the hell out of me. It’s like saying that sexism doesn’t exist toward males because females are the only ones who were oppressed.

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