I’ve pondered whether the above title is the best one for this post, but it is the original question that prompted the thoughts, so I guess it will do, though I hope that before we’re done here I’ll have at least explained why I think this is an ultimately unhelpful question to ask.
Though I don’t typically make it a habit to involve myself in contentious conversations, it does occasionally happen. I spend a significant portion of my time on the internet, after all. In a forum that I frequent, I recently encountered someone taking aim at the assertion that all white people are racist. It was an earnest attempt to dismantle the accusation, but it was founded on a specific definition of racist that isn’t applied by the communities that typically make this claim. There was some back and forth from both defenders and detractors of the statement in question, and it quickly became clear that the the definition of “racist” was the key point on which all the arguments hinged.
On one side, the argument was made that the term “racist” is a derogatory one, and on that basis to argue that an entire class of people could be described as such is both logically incorrect and deplorable. Given the classic definition of “racist”–a person who harbors feelings of superiority over or overt animosity towards members of another race–this is a reasonable position. It is literally true that you can’t describe every white person as harboring direct animosity against people of other racial groups. We rightly see this characteristic as morally reprehensible, and in white communities we have a word for people possessing it: racist.
At the same time, in certain circles that include some (but not all) white people, there is an ongoing conversation about “structural racism.” Within this conversation, people discuss the effects of large scale sociopolitical trends that have brought about white hegemony in the West and how that current reality impacts all people on an individual level. Within this conversation, it’s uncontroversial to point out white dominance and label the benefits it confers on certain groups of people as effects of racism. Beneficiaries of these effects may be passive or active recipients, but either way they exist within the racist system, and so, without making a specific moral judgment on individuals, they inherit the characteristic “racist.”
The two words look and sound alike, but they don’t mean precisely the same thing.
This is an unfortunate reality. Language is messy and imprecise, and it’s a fluid thing that responds to the pressures and needs of the people using it. Two different groups with overlapping membership will have to strive occasionally with confusion that arises from these linguistic happenstances.
I want to set aside that line of thought for a moment and return to the original phrase that sparked the conversation in the first place: all white people are racist.
For me, this is an uncontroversial statement; white people are heavily invested in white supremacy, and we instinctively act in ways designed to perpetuate our cultural dominance. We are racist. Question answered, discussion over.
At least, the discussion would be over if we really just wanted to deal with the initial question. However, I don’t think “Are all white people racist?” is a helpful idea around which to center the conversation. Answering that question one way or another doesn’t accomplish anything practical in the work for increased equity. It’s better, I think, to ask the question of how our behaviors reinforce racist systems so that we can better understand what sociological engineering is necessary to improve equity. That sidesteps the problem of the defensive reaction that some white people, operating on their communities’ old definition of racism and its derivatives, often have to the detriment and derailment of serious conversations about promoting social justice.
Up to this point, everything I’ve discussed has been implicitly positioned from a white liberal perspective. My experience gives me the privilege of emotional distance from both that group of white people who feel personally attacked when they’re included in descriptions of racist systems and also the people of color who are direct victims of those same racist systems. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the emotional experiences of those groups, so I’m likely to discount them in my own ruminations on the matter.
In the original conversation, one thing that bugged me immensely was the fact that all of the active participants were white folks. Some were reacting to a question that they felt personally attacked them, and others were trying their best to act as good allies given the situation; even my own input irritated me on some level because I felt like I was also guilty of playing with a question that carries serious consequences for people of color in America. There’s no really good way to get around these feelings; I think I’ve decided that I have to accept any criticism that might come my way for being part of these sorts of conversations where white people discuss, without outside reference, whether they are in fact racist. One thing that I do try to do is point to the thoughts and arguments of people of color who have spent time grappling with these same questions. For white folks, the question of what the proper definition of racism is and to whom it applies are largely academic exercises; at least when you invite commentary from others you’re taking the time to hear how racism (whatever its definition) impacts the people who are most commonly victims of it.