Why Whites Call People Of Colour “Racist”
I have been called “racist” by White people whenever I specifically reject a legislative, political, media/film/art, or cultural manifestation of White supremacy. I’ve also been called “racist” for recounting any experience that I have had with racism. The actual act of naming what I heard or experienced is deemed “racist.” The naming, deconstruction and discussion of experiences of this nature is important, however. As Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins notes:
Naming daily life by applying language to everyday experience infuses it with the new meaning of a womanist consciousness. Naming becomes a way of transcending the limitations of intersecting oppressions.
Apparently, what I actually heard or experienced is of no concern or consequence to Whites seeking to call Black people or other people of colour racist.
There’s two reasons why Whites call people of colour (especially Black people) “racist.” First of all, it comes from a lack of understanding of the term (through ignorance or willful ignorance and hatred), its history and its consequences. As long as “racism” is viewed solely as “one person being mean to another person because of their race” or basically solely as an individual and arbitrary instance of prejudice with equal social capital between the individuals, Whites can obscure or ignore the ramifications of the historical (whether implied, microaggressions or overt racism), institutional, structural and systemic manifestations of White supremacy (which does NOT require extremism to exist) and racism.
A Black person being insulted based on slurs that facilitate(d)(s) oppression and genocide for centuries and that same sentiment behind that slur facilitates the denial of a plethora of opportunities as well as supports a plethora of types of discrimination and punishment represents a different magnitude and scope of an insult versus a Black person “hurting” a White person’s feelings, even if the former is rude. Oppression is about more than hurt feelings. The latter doesn’t even begin to encapsulate what the former is. Further, individual acts of harm from a person of colour to a White person may be an insult, a tort or a crime—but it does not connect to violence (which is more than just physical) used to facilitate the oppression of an entire people. (Even so, because the criminal justice system is about punishing Blacks and “protecting” Whites, a White person wouldn’t have to have the expectation that a Black person would go unpunished for harming them. More convictions and harsher sentences are factors. Even Black adolescents face more punishment than White adolescents. In fact, Whites should fear Whites, in regards to the criminal justice system.)
Many times an insult is not occurring—it’s just a Black person adamantly rejecting White supremacy. The rejection of White supremacy and racism themselves is not “reverse racism.” Rejecting White supremacy is not then telling Whites to be “ashamed” of Whiteness, as they should be able to live and thrive without the lie that is the claim of inherent superiority. For example, I’ve had White women suggest to me that any rejection of Eurocentric beauty, including considering myself beautiful as a Black woman who looks nothing like them, and having a blog where Black women are celebrated visually, is being “racist.” By not making yet another space (since apparently, having their images dominate commercials, films, television shows, magazines, fashion blogs, print ads, books, stock photography and more is not enough), my personal space, dedicated to White women, I am then deemed ”racist” and “oppressing” White women. This is only a smidgen of the nonsense that I face when Whites choose to call me “racist.”
“Reverse racism,” as well as “misandry” and “heterophobia” are not forms of oppression. The oppressed deconstructing, rejecting and fighting oppression does not then make the privileged become oppressed. The privileged have no “right” to oppress, so losing the opportunity to oppress does not make the privileged become oppressed. If the privileged measure their freedom based on how much they can oppress or not, the know nothing of actual freedom. Nothing.
Whites ignore how White privilege protects them from racial oppression but does not for people of colour, especially Black people. They retreat to examining intersections where they may be oppressed (if they aren’t cisgender, heterosexual, White men in the socioeconomic 1% and living in the Western world)—intersections based on gender, class, sexual orientation, being trans*, weight and ability, while not realizing that despite any or all of these areas where oppression can manifest, they STILL have White privilege. Some Whites will ignore the experiences of people of colour who are women, poor, LGBTQ, considered overweight or have a challenge with a particular ability and by doing so, they can focus on how they themselves experience oppression while ignoring White privilege and matters of race. No country for nuance and intersectionality?
The second reason why Whites call people of colour “racist” is quite different. I’ve been in several graduate-level psychology classes where White students stated that being called “racist” is the absolute worse thing that could happen to them. I always wondered why saying or doing a racist thing didn’t scare them more than being called “racist.” What I realized is that some Whites will call a person of colour who called out their racism “racist” in an “I know you are but what am I” reductionist retreat. The defense mechanisms of projection and denial are to protect their egos. If there’s nothing they fear more than being called “racist,” then the best thing to do is to get that label “away” from them as soon as possible. By deciding that a person of colour rejecting racism is the “real” “racist” act, not the racist act that they or another White person was called out on, they can deflect and derail. A common derailment tactic is to assert in a whiny voice “all Whites aren’t like this.” Who said they are? Again, racism is not solely about individual to individual relationships; even when the discussion or action is between two people, it speaks to a greater experience impacted by institutional, systemic and structural factors. Further, an individual White person does not have to be racist in any way to benefit from White privilege living in a White supremacist society. As Mychal Denzel Smith writes In White People Have To Give Up Racism:
Not every white person is a racist, but the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards.
A lack of understanding regarding what racism actually is, the belief that White supremacy is “normal” in society, the inability to see the manifestations of racism because they do not experience them and are shielded by White privilege, as well as self-protection from the label that they fear most is why Whites call people of colour “racist” and from my experience, seem to take great pleasure in doing so when that person of colour is Black.
Related Essay List: On Race…