“He’s black, he can’t be racist.” A statement that irritates a lot of our non-colored counterparts. The vast majority of people have quite a simplistic definition of racism in their heads on that equates racism with prejudice. According to one definition racism is,”a belief in the superiority of one race over another resulting in prejudice and discrimination.” If this is your definition of racism then yes, anyone can be racist. Then why are there so many people asserting otherwise?Well, there is much more to it than that and according to Nicki Lisa Cole,”If it relies on stereotypical notions of race and reproduces a racially structured society, then it is racist.”
Those who propose that black people or people of color can’t be racist often cite social science as the source of their logic. Racism, as defined by social science, includes race-based prejudice but analyzes it much deeper. Racism is a series of attitudes, beliefs and social relations that produce hierarchies grating power and privilege to certain groups and results in oppression and discrimination for others.
According to sociology there are seven forms of racism: representational,ideological,discursive,interactional,institutional,structural, and systematic. Representational racism describes the display of race-based stereotypes in media. One common example would be sports teams mascots which rely on characters that are racist in their depiction like the Washington Redskins for example. Ideological racism refers to views, beliefs, and ideas rooted in racial stereotyping and biases, like believing that people with lighter skin are of higher intelligence. Discursive racism is racism expressed via how we talk about people and the world. One obvious display of discursive racism is the use of racial slurs or hate speech but it is also displayed in words with underlying connotations to race like “gangsta” or “thug”. Interactional racism is expressed by the way we interact with one another such as crossing the street to avoid a black or Latino male because of the perception that they are more threatening. Now these last three forms of racism that I have mentioned work on an individual level, and still with these definitions anyone can be racist. But sociology goes further and explains that racism functions on a wider scale as well when it is combined with power.
Institutional racism takes form in laws and policies that disproportionately affect different groups. One historical example of Institutional racism would be Separate but Equal. A more contemporary example would be the fact that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated when compared to their white counterparts and receive more server sentencings for the same crimes. Structural Racism refers to the ongoing reproduction of racial inequality caused by all of the above forms of racism. And lastly, systematic racism describes the very “system” as racist. The assertion is that America was built on racist ideologies that bleed into the laws and policies that have been created.
Now to come full circle, both the dictionary and sociology have more than one definition of racism. Even sociology, which many people cite as the reason behind why they believe that people of color cannot be racist acknowledge that racism exists on both an individual and an institutional level. So when someone says that black people can’t be racist what they are arguing is that people of color don’t have the power to create systems that disadvantage people based on race. On the other hand, the individual calling someone a racist is stating that one is expressing bigotry, intolerance, and or prejudice based on race. Both definitions of racism are equally valid, but there is an obvious disconnect between what the two ideas are expressing. One is talking about race at an institutional level and the other and the interactional level, and to argue about which definition holds ultimate authority over the word racism is foolish. Stating that you cannot be racist when confronted about a racial prejudice claim is absurd because it ignores the context of the discussion. Ignoring context is the same as not listening at all, and arguing about semantics is no way to encourage a discussion.