Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

No, Black People Can’t Be Racist

If racism is about power (and it is) and a racial hierarchy exists (and it does), Black people cannot be racist.

“To be black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up.” — Rosemary Brown

There’s been something I’ve been hearing a lot lately — and especially since George Floyd was killed in June — and it bothers me every time I hear it.

“Black people can be racist too.”

I remember when, at the Emmys, Issa Rae said she was “rooting for everyone Black” and (White) people were upset and were like “if a White person ever said that, they’d be raked over the coals but because a Black person said it it’s somehow ‘okay?’”

I remember when BET used to have the Black Girls Rock awards show and people were like “that’s so racist. What if we were to have a show called ‘White Girls Rock’ huh?”

I just listened to a friend — who happens to be a Black man — say that, “if you see a Black person being racist to a White person, you need to speak up.”

And I’m like, “Whoa. Wait. What?”

Black people can’t be racist.

Don’t get me wrong — Black people can be many things:

Black people can be prejudiced. Black people can be discriminatory. Black people can be mean. Black people can be cruel. Black people can be ignorant. Black people can be stupid. But Black people cannot be racist.

I can almost hear the counter-arguments:

“But what if a Black person denies a job to a White person just because they’re White? Or if a Black doctor doesn’t treat their patients of colour with fairness?” I mean that’s wrong. That’s flat out wrong. That’s discrimination. That’s prejudice. But it’s not racism.

All things being considered equal (which they aren’t), anyone can (i.e. has the ability to) be racist in theory.

What I’m saying, however, is that Black people can’t — as a matter of principle and practice — be racist. When I say “can’t”, it’s an intellectual, logical or theoretical appeal as opposed to referring to inherent ability or capacity.

I actually believe that this distinction is important. It’s not just about semantics or splitting hairs. If you think racism is just about unfair treatment and skin preferences, then you misunderstand racism. Your definition is too reductive, too narrow.

When we talk about racism, we have to think about power structures and who holds the power systemically speaking. Racism is about power and power dynamics, not just mere treatment or ideology.

Racism is a system of oppression premised on a belief in the superiority of one race over another. Racism must take into account positionality — where one member of a race is situated in relation to other races. Inherent to this definition is the power dynamic — the power of the oppressor over the oppressed.

A racist is someone with racial power within a system of oppression.

The racial hierarchy is a system of oppression with White people at the top, coloured people in the middle and Black people at the bottom.

Black people do not hold racial power in the racial hierarchy. Black people do not hold that kind of systemic power. Therefore, they cannot be racist. There’s no one to be racist against or towards.

The racial power differential between a Black person and a person of colour is nothing like the power dynamic between a White person and a Black, Indigenous or person of colour. White people hold racial power in our society. Thus, only White people (and the systems created by White people) can be racist.

It’s not just about skin color and hatred (which is more often than not prejudice and which is, etymologically speaking, pre-judging someone), but how skin color plays into power (or perhaps how hatred of a certain skin color plays into power). It’s not synonymous with unfair treatment based on skin color (which is discrimination), but rather unfair treatment set against the backdrop of power dynamics.

Some people may interpret this assertion as somehow letting Black people off of the proverbial hook. They may argue that it is problematic if Black people or people of colour are not considered racist or can’t be called racist, when in fact they can be just as bad as racist White people. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. (Also, racism is not about “badness” or “goodness” or “kindness.” You can be a kind person and still be a kind, racist person).

I’m not trying to demonize White people or posit that somehow Black people are morally blameless, but rather to absolve Black people from the burden of fixing a problem that they did not create. I want us to really think about what racism means — racism as an “ism,” as a system of power and hierarchies much like other “isms” like sexism, ableism, and speciesism.

While racial hatred and belief in one’s racial superiority may be part of it, I still believe that it is far too limited to think of racism as just mere racial hatred. Human rights commissions seem to agree with me. That’s why those of us who work in social justice propose equity measures as a redress as opposed to just kumbayah/lets-hold-hands-and-learn-to-love-one-another love fests.

A lot of people think that the words “prejudice,” “discrimination” and “racism” are synonymous but they’re not. We can’t solve a problem that we don’t understand. So unless we understand the dimensions of power inherent in racism, we won’t know how to adequately fix it, and we’ll wrongly assume that because “anybody can be racist,” (as has been trumpeted by many previously), the burden can fall on certain actors (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) as much as it does on others (White people). It makes it sounds like Black people are complicit in a system that they never designed and thus they can or should be assigned some culpability or responsibility. We know this is not the case. Not acknowledging the distinction also makes our strategies reductive (“all we need to do is treat people better and equally!” “Just be kind!”) as opposed to actually dismantling systems of oppression. The remedy for racism is a transfer of power, but you can’t do this if your working definition doesn’t acknowledge this.

I get tired of hearing “Black people can be racist too,” as if those suffering under oppression have the same responsibility as the oppressors to dismantle the system of oppression. Our responsibilities relative to oppressive frameworks are not the same.

Can a Black person (or person of colour or Indigenous person) uphold and perpetuate a system of White supremacy? Yes. Can that person be racist? No.

Black people can internalize racism. The idea of ‘lateral violence,’ can be helpful here, whereby Black folks can engage in upholding colonialism and White supremacy for instance and Indigenous folks can engage in anti-Blackness.

“Lateral violence is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves.

“Lateral violence is believed to occur worldwide in minorities and particularly Aboriginal peoples.”

So Black people can internalize racism — but Black people can’t be racist. Jamaica is a good example.

Racism requires control of deep power structures, which Black people in general and in Jamaican specifically have not had. After independence, it took over thirty years for a country that has a majority Black population to elect a Black Prime Minister. Moreover, many Jamaicans (perhaps unknowingly or subconsciously) espouse a colourist ideology and prefer lighter skin or “brown skin” (hence the problem of skin-bleaching) in an attempt to attain some proximity to Whiteness.

Racism comes in different forms. It’s internalized by the oppressed. It manifests itself in colorism and pigmentocracy.

But Black people can’t be racist.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone from any moral responsibility. I’ll say it again: People of colour can certainly be prejudiced. They can certainly be discriminatory. They can certainly privilege or prefer a lighter skin colour over another. They can certainly internalize racism. But, if racism is about power (and I believe any accurate definition of racism must take power into account), and if racism is about oppression at least on some level (as I have asserted that it is), and if power is determined by White supremacy and one’s proximity to Whiteness, and if, contextually speaking, the holders of racial power in our society are White, then Black people cannot be racist.

Some may argue that I conflate being Black with being powerless. I argue that Black people are not inherently powerless, but rather that their power is relative. Some may argue against this “societal stem that unfairly apportions power based on race,” as one friend once described it. This friend said that, “Power is relative, which would allow a person to be the beneficiary of a systemic racism in one situation but on the other side of the equation in another situation.” While this is true, I don’t know of many societies (save perhaps for some African ones) where the racial hierarchy as I have posited does not hold merit.

On a side note, I think it is dangerous when we use the language of benefit when describing systemic racism. There are people in this world who honestly feel that Black people and other equity seeking groups “benefit” from equity measures, and that somehow other groups are put at a disadvantage. There are people out there who flaunt the one-drop rule and the ambiguity of Blackness to “benefit” their careers. My Blackness, however, is not a “benefit.” No one “benefits” from systemic racism. If anything, systemic racism allows for the negation of the full humanity of the oppressor, let alone allowing the suffering of the oppressed. But that’s a story for another day.

For today, though, here’s a message that will provide you with ample food for thought and perhaps a more accurate launchpad for activism and anti-racism: Black people cannot be racist.

I like big stories and I cannot lie. Authentic, transparent musings & connecting with others so we can all feel less alone.

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