How Terms Like “Reverse Racism” and “Reverse Discrimination” Can Harm DEI

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Have you ever heard a white person make claims of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination?” When DEI practitioners respond by sharing that reverse racism doesn’t exist, that can be confusing for some who aren’t fully aware of what racism actually is and why this statement is true. 

What is racism? We define it as a system comprised of individual, interpersonal, institutional, and structural beliefs, practices, and policies that enforce the idea that people of color are inferior to non-people of color, which advantages individuals of white European descent and disadvantages individuals of non-white European descent.

Can white people experience reverse discrimination?

We define discrimination as the act of denying an individual or group access to goods, opportunities, or resources or negatively singling an individual/group out for unequal treatment based on social group membership. Discrimination is reinforced by law, policy, and cultural norms. Simply put, discrimination occurs when we treat someone unequally based on perceived differences from the norm or the majority. 

Discrimination isn’t an interchangeable term for racism. 

Racism refers to the ability of an individual or group of people to enact discrimination on a systemic level through policies and practices. From a legal perspective, reverse discrimination against white people is, in fact, possible. 

What about reverse racism?

When we adopt the definition of racism as described above, “racism” ceases to be about individual acts of discrimination and instead refers to the ways that systems and institutions privilege whiteness. With that understanding of racism in mind, the idea of “reverse racism” isn’t possible. Simply put: reverse racism is a myth. White people can have racial prejudices directed towards them, but this isn’t considered racism because of its systemic relationship to power. 

What if a BIPOC has power over a white person? 

An individual of any race can demonstrate racial prejudice in ways that are harmful to others through their positional power. For example, a BIPOC manager may fire a white person based on racial prejudice. However, this isn’t racism as we have defined the term above because the overall systems of power still overwhelmingly favor whiteness.

Why don’t we just abandon race altogether?

As long as our skin color remains a factor in how we’re perceived, treated, and considered in life, we can’t abandon the concept of race. Nor can we default to a colorblind approach. Race is a tool that helps us understand systemic inequities. Abandoning discussion of race, or its use as a tool, wouldn’t make underlying race-based inequities disappear- it would simply make it much more difficult for us to see that inequity. 

Can BIPOC be racist towards other BIPOC?

BIPOC are not exempt from exhibiting or demonstrating prejudice. One example of how this might play out is colorism (placing greater value on lighter skin as opposed to darker skin, within a racial group or in general). However, given our history concerning power dynamics between different racial groups (especially here within the United States), many BIPOC experience internalized racism- ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors, that support or uphold racism.