Everyone can be racist

What is racism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the “belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to other races.” Under this definition, white people can be racist, black people can be racist – anyone can be racist, regardless of skin color.

Yet beginning in the 1960s, this definition was increasingly rejected; scores of professors in ethnic studies departments and law schools across the nation have instead put forth a new definition. For these scholars, what the dictionaries define as “racism” is considered “prejudice,” and racism is equated to prejudice plus power. This notion of “racism = prejudice + power” surely has its advantages – its ability to explain broader societal trajectories, for instance. Yet some prominent thinkers who begin with this definition of racism ultimately conclude, “only whites can be racist.”

Reading a scholarly paper that begins with the definition that “racism = prejudice + power” and concludes that “only whites can be racist” is, to say the least, an interesting intellectual exercise. After reading many of these papers, it seems as if these scholars commit the flaw of circular reasoning: they assume what they need to prove – that only whites can be racist – and tailor the definition of power accordingly. While there is not enough room here to extensively cover the derivation, at the core of the argument is the claim that only whites have power. Thus, for these scholars, an Arab state that degrades black people is not an abuse of power, as such a state falls under the broader influence of white, Western hegemony. And minorities, even the wealthiest and/or most politically connected, still remain powerless as white people established the system within which they operate.

Not only do such notions of power conflict with intuition, but this linkage of “power” and “white” is fundamentally flawed. While the history and current state of white supremacy and white privilege should not be ignored, we should not dismiss inter-minority relations as either being powerless or emanating from the white power structure. This is especially true with foreign nations. Although our world is now linked in many complex ways, there was a time when white people did not exert influence over other societies; non-white groups were at the helms of power in such societies, and it stands to reason that remnants of these power structures remain in place today.

Furthermore, while in the United States whites may have more power than minorities, it is obvious that whites do not control all levers of power. A black man is in the Oval Office, two minorities are serving on the Supreme Court, and roughly one fifth of Fortune 500 CEOs are members of racial minority groups. If we approach racism as something to be avoided, we should ask which is worse: a poor white man in Wisconsin who detests Asians, or a black president who wishes to stop Asian immigration because he perceives Asians as, say, unfit to be Americans. If we subscribe to the position that only white people can be racist, it necessarily follows that the Wisconsinite has more power than the black president. This, however, is absurd – the black president has power and is fully capable of being racist.

Besides these logical flaws, holding that only white people can be racist is detrimental to all races. It is inherently divisive, framing the struggle to attain power as whites versus everyone else. It is also disempowering to minorities. By arguing that minorities have no power with which to be racist, we forget instances in which minorities clearly do have power. My colleague Annie Graham was guilty of this in a recent op-ed. She began a column on abortion with “so these nine white guys walk into a room,” in reference to the Roe v. Wade justices. Neglected in her statement was the fact that one of the nine justices, Thurgood Marshall, was black.

While I can only hypothesize Annie’s ultimate thoughts on race relations, she has in all likelihood been exposed to the leftist communities at Stanford who advance the ideology that “only whites can be racist.” I myself was introduced to that phrase at Stanford, and in my time here I have heard it mentioned many times. Its corollary – that every decision of consequence is brought about “white guys in a room” – is also quite common. My hope is that professors in the humanities and social sciences are not propagating this ideology, yet my suspicion is that many are, or at the very least are sympathetic to it.

By giving weight to the belief that only whites can be racist, that only white people have power, we are not only being intellectually dishonest and generating racial tension, but beginning to forget the influence that minorities have exercised in guiding this and other nations. Though by all means we should not forget the struggles minorities have faced, we should also refuse to accept flawed and divisive ideology that comes at the expense of reason and equality.

Do you agree? Send your thoughts to adamj11@stanford.edu.

About Adam Johnson

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.
  • Thank you

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I’m sick of hearing the insane amount of anti-white rhetoric on this campus. It’s time to speak up against the double standards. Don’t let a single one of the negative, dismissive comments deter you – this side of the debate needs to be heard. Thanks again Adam.

  • ’14

    Go home white girl.

  • EastAsianNationalist

    You hear a lot of the prejudice + power nonsense in the new social justice circles. I steeped myself in tumblr’s social justice movement out of interest at first, and after about 5 months it’s changed my views entirely. I was a liberal when I went in. Not anymore. Here’s why.

    The argument is basically that “your racism is worse than our racism (which doesn’t exist)”.

    Whites, (and they will never say MAJORITY, because they want a racial target) have institutional power, historical power and therefore are oppressors. If you call a black man the n- word, it carries a ton of historical baggage, like being lynched, denied equal housing, etc. If you call someone a cracker, well, not so much.

    Sure, makes sense.

    Here’s where it goes wrong. Because your prejudice is so much worse, so much more effective than their prejudice, we should call them different things. Why should we use mitigating language for a lesser wrong?

    “Because it’s my life experience!”
    “You can’t use the dictionary definition!”
    “We can’t oppress the oppressors!”
    “Your argument is wrong because you’re privileged!”

    This is the level of discourse within their circles. These are the sickening ideas that drove me away from them. Let me reveal something. Every one of these people that’s confided in me turned out two be one of two things:

    1. Anti-white. It’s much easier to express your hatred under the cover of moral righteousness. Empathy? Only for people they like. “Fuck their white feels” is a perfectly sound argument, in their mind.

    2. Brownnoser. Usually a white woman, feminist, or some such thing looking to score brownie points by being as self loathing as possible. She advocates “listening” and never questioning the godly Person of Color. If a minority is even mildly uncomfortable, if any white acts with a shred of ethnic agency, she’s the first to scream RACIST!

    It is extremely obvious what’s going on here. These people are not seeking justice for all, they’re seeking justice for themselves. It is them, serving their own interests, in the guise of morality. The Only-Whites-Can-Be-Racist theory is specifically designed as a double standard, to deflect criticism, ridicule opposition, and most importantly, hold themselves morally superior.

    They admit they can be prejudiced, but god forbid anyone points it out. If you do, you are the racist/bigot. For them, there’s no such thing as reverse racism, misandry, or any sort of appreciated wrong that can be done to the majority/normative demographic.

    No. Vengefulness is not justice. Empowerment is not justice. Full and unconditional egalitarianism, is justice.

    If the most pitiable individual, suffering under every intersection of disadvantage, judges or offends anybody based on their race, however insignificant the implications, however powerless he/she may be, that individual is still a racist. Period.

    Until they realize this, we should have no part in their social “justice”.

  • NMyTree

    Commando Cool said:
    ” As long as the concept of race has existed, it has existed in a hierarchy with white people on the top. The whole system of race was devised as a justification for white imperialism/colonialism/enslaving people. ”

    I can’t even keep a straight face after reading that one. I had to laugh. Then Commando Cool followed up that “amazing” comment, with: ” If you’re not willing to accept that, you don’t really belong in the conversation.”

    It appears the one who does not belong in this discussion, would be you, sir.

    There’s nothing historically accurate or even remotely legitimate about your comments. You are making an enormous effort to completely ignore massive chunks of human history and the history of racism and slavery: perpetrated by many, many non-white cultures; long before there ever were “White People” on this planet. As well as ignoring the racism and slavery White people did in fact suffer through in our human history.

    It is no small wonder people in this country are so oblivious and so misinformed. With people like you running around and spreading downright lies and misinformation.

  • Skinny Fingers Jefferson

    “anti-racists” are not in America singling out white….wait….THIS A NATIVE AMERICAN COUNTRY!!!!

  • pan

    you obviously don’t know much about the state of affairs in most places in africa.

  • pan

    Pretty much the best comment on this article. I’ve noticed that white people are so obsessed with rejecting the notion that they are racist that they refuse to talk about the actual implications and repercussions of racism. It doesn’t matter how you define it, racism still overwhelmingly most negatively affects people of color, so much that it has destroyed and continues to destroy the lives of billions of people of color worldwide. So an attack on racism in order to end it would necessitate focusing on white racism against people of color (i.e. white supremacy).

  • Yeshi Gemaneh

    It is hard
    to say specifically only white people are racist. From my point of view I would
    say people of any color discriminate or show superiority on any color. It is
    probably a feeling or an assumption of I know better or giving self priority.
    There is an incidence when blacks are showing superiority attitude to blacks
    from other parts of the world. Personally I see it as human failure or weakness
    of not accepting that all human beings are equal. These epidemic feelings of one another might
    take time and requiring effort to abolish it; if ever been intact.

  • mike4ty4

    While I might see some merit to the notion of “power” being important, the idea that on a WORLD level, ONLY whites can be “racist” seems to be too much. Arab states degrading black people would certainly be an abuse of their power, because they are a sovereign and they have more power than the group they are oppressing. They do have real power and they’re using it in the wrong way. To say it’s “not an abuse of power” seems like saying its okay and so absolves those governments of any moral responsibility, broadcasting a message to the world that it’s okay to abuse whomever you want so long as the West is the most powerful “civilization area” (which is changing, fortunately). That’s not good news for oppressed parts of humanity!

    White power-backed racism from whites against blacks and other peoples of color sure is a big problem in places where whites are powerful majorities, though. White “power racism” is obviously the most concerning and pressing one in the US, for example, at least now, because so many more whites have power than blacks and so many institutions are structured for whites.

  • mike4ty4

    Why? Because you want someone to support a view that “only whites can be racist, no matter where you are in the world”?

  • Gustav

    Actually, in Africa there is a nation who wont let white people buy land or anything. And no one says anything to them about it so Kevin has a point. http://dailycurrant.com/2013/02/02/zimbabwes-mugabe-pledges-ban-color-white/

  • Jonathon

    The example of CEOs is poor. Yes they have power in their own micro-society, but in the greater society that we all live in, they have none. They have no power when it comes to education, policing, policy-making.

    Only white people can be racist.

  • Ares

    Oh lord here we again everything I’m not makes me everything I am….damn! What you experienced were PREJUDICES. Getting made fun of for race is wrong but its not the true meaning of racism, racism is a bigger problem than name calling, it is a problem that requires businesses to NEED to hire people of color, its the fact that an entire race of human beings in this country were held back and called SUB HUMAN for over 200 years!! THAT my friend is racism, as a black man you cant go into a store, gas station, place of business w/o attracting a certain level of attention its CRAZY, YES it does happen lol If you don’t see it its because YOU are not black. It doesn’t matter what you say these things are proven over and over, Pop culture even indicates this, wit things like hidden camera shows and experimental programs ALWAYS yielding results in favor of “Whites are very wary of Black people” in particular Black males of all ages. Yes there are many white people individually that are kind and non prejudice and will fight with people of color against oppression but in the end white people as whole are not as open minded. Your treatment was not justified but you have zero idea what it really is like to face racism, because at the end of the day you can move out of that neighborhood but if your black you cant move out of your skin color!

  • lex85

    “Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.”

  • lex85

    “Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.”

  • Nunuvell Mephais

    And the US is the majority of the world, right? No, it’s not, not at all. Let’s look at it another way, White people are not the majority on Earth, by ANY stretch of the imagination. Asian peoples and sub-asian peoples make up the resounding majority of peoples on this planet. In those countries there are COUNTLESS instances of institutionalized racism, and the idea that these are not abuses of racial nature is just absurd.

    This article is not concerned– and rightly has no reason to be– about what is racial bigotry in the USA. It is assailing a commonly held, ignorant belief that white people are the only race capable of being racist. Not only is that ignorant, it is IN AND OF ITSELF A RACIST CONCEPT!!!! The fact is, too many people are trying to demonize being white. Let me tell you something, a few of the smallest minorities on this planet include white people:

    ~Jews (don’t try to bend this, if you take the modern America/European person of Jewish heritage, you will have a hard time identifying them as anything other than “white”)
    ~Atheists (Currently about ~10% of the actual world populace, since institutionally animistic countries, like China, are not truly atheist)
    ~Mormons (say what you want about them, they face a whole lot of prejudice over their beliefs)

    Sure, those examples aren’t racial, but they are common grounds for prejudice, and widespread hatred of peoples who look white, who ARE white. Saying non-whites can’t be racist is a slippery slope. It slides directly toward an idealism that prejudice against white people is not prejudice, and that is just stupid.

  • Lourdes

    “belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to other races.” Then if it is said that blacks are better at a particular sport because they excel in a specific physical ability. That’s saying blacks are superior at “basket-ball” this is a racist statement? Even though it is stating that “blacks” are superior? So this is a bad thing, to say that blacks are better at a particular sport because they are black? WOW why am I confused. I’m also very young and trying to learn and understand. Can being racist ever be a good thing? For instances if we know through experience that a certain “type” of person or people have caused us harm, can we not use this to our advantage and protect ourselves? I’m walking down the street and I see a group of hoodlum types so I choose to cross the street to make myself an easy target. Isn’t this a good thing in the sense that it is preserving my life? Can someone help me figure this out.

  • echidna

    I’ve always been taught that racism is making judgements/prejudgements on a person or group of persons based on their race. Maybe because I’m in Canada, or because of my generation? Who knows, but I still believe that anyone can be racist towards other people. I understand that in many countries, non-white races were (and unfortunately still are) attacked simply for their skin colour, but I can’t see how racism towards a white person is any better than that?
    So basically no matter your race, don’t be a dick about other people’s skin colour/heritage/what-have-you’s.

  • Pthew2U

    The Daily Currant is a satirical online “publication.”

  • RNCK

    The thing is that they have totally different definitions of racism. What we call racism against white people, they call racial prejudice, and what we call institutional racism, they call just plain racism.
    This would be all fine and good if they were just as much against racial prejudice as they are against institutional racism, but 9 times out of 10, the people who push the power+prejudice idea are not only perfectly accepting of racial prejudice against white people, but they actively promote it, trying to get people to hate the entirety of the white race because a few white people have done terrible things.
    These people who practice the power+prejudice ideology generally hate white people, or in the very least, they are apologists for the hatred of white people, as well as physical attacks on people for being white, making all sorts of excuses for them.

  • RNCK

    Here’s a question. Do you believe that it’s acceptable for people of color to hate white people? Is there something wrong with people of color who don’t hate white people? If a person of color killed your family for being white, would you be okay with that?

  • Resurrected Qween

    Is this really a Stanford University student who wrote this? I’m in high school and I could tear this article apart… I know many people think “Everyone can be racist” but this article was a hard, unrealistic fail in proving that belief.

  • Road Less Traveled

    I agree 100% with this article. I say that as an ally and person committed to anti-racism and anti-oppression.

    First, racism isn’t solely defined as institutionalized racism, and never really has been.

    Second, to say only whites can be racist and not others is essentialism, stereotyping, and a form of racism at its finest. Think about. Just the statement that only whites can be a negative trait or perform a negative action is inherently racist.

  • Road Less Traveled

    Your point is logically fallacious. I’ve noticed that when someone like the author or myself brings up logical inconsistencies in the “only white people can be racist” argument, or explains how not only is this inaccurate but also offensive to us, people like you never really address the actual logical points or hear our side but instead just deflect “but but historical oppression was and is worse for POCs.” That point DOES NOT address the first points we were making, and is a classic deflection. Your point can be true generally and still the whole “only white people can be racist” argument be wrong.

  • Road Less Traveled

    Your response was a MUCH MUCH more measured and accurate one. Usually people just knee jerk respond “OMG here comes a white person getting angry” and “You have never experienced any prejudice.” You are right that such an experience is not equal to systematic racism/prejudice, but that point should never be used (as it is by many) to dismiss people who experience other forms of racism or prejudice.

  • Road Less Traveled

    Wow, what a dismissive and hateful response. Why can’t people like you actually hear a point from other people?

  • Road Less Traveled

    But herein lies the problem. People like yourself enjoy making overly generalizing and stereotyping comments like “only white people can be racist” or “only white people have projected systematic oppression on to others.” First, this is not only inaccurate historically but also is offensive as it stereotypes or essentializes a profoundly negative trait only on to one race…

    It can be seen easily with a thorough global historical education that all manners of groups, races, majorities, ethnicities, religions, etc, have shown prejudice AND power+prejudice. Hence such generalized statements like you guys make are wrong.

    Then, when pressed like I just did to you, many of you guys will say things like “Well I was referring to the US.” Fine. How about then use intellectually accurate language like “In the US, only Whites can project systematic racism.” Instead of saying “ALL whites _____.”

    It’s the same with the whole definition of racism too. There are a number of definitions, including interpersonal. STOP pretending that only the institutionalized one is the only one. It only serves to discredit you as its obviously and verifiably false.

    Instead of simply admitting this and editing such comments, you guys side step the issue and use emotional arguments or even worse: “You are blinded by privilege and are a closet racist.” Then you wonder why people are getting pissed off.

  • Road Less Traveled

    Because all humans and groups are capable of the same, good and bad. To say otherwise is actually bigoted and possibly racist. You guys seem to never have considered that…

  • Road Less Traveled

    Your comments reflect exactly why I have started to slowly retreat from what passes for social justice debate now days. I’ve experienced and considered the same problems.

  • Road Less Traveled

    While I get the idea, have you considered that “accepting” their heritage or culture based on a single color (even though probably countless ethnicities or cultures share a similar culture) would be a form of essentialism or stereotyping? Think about that. And who are they to use their color to represent everyone of that color?

  • Road Less Traveled

    I’ve heard the “only white people can be racist” thrown around so many times I couldn’t count. I honestly don’t think someone could be active in or around the social justice scene for any lengthy period without encountering it. I’ve seen entire giant Facebook debates around it, articles, etc.

  • Road Less Traveled

    Your viewpoint about whiteness is essentialism and in fact ignorant. People consider it racist when people think Africa is one single culture and everyone is the same. Do you not get that there are myriad different white cultures and ethnicities across the world?

    Comments like yours are part of the problem. #It’sWrongToStereotypePOCButHellYeahLet’sDoItToWhitePeople

  • Road Less Traveled

    What do you actually disagree with? He covered some of the logical problems, although the article was not an exhaustive piece.

  • Road Less Traveled

    This is stupid final point. People like you constantly make such an overly-generalized statement, while failing to note that in other historical periods or in other countries at many times other majority ethnic or racial groups have oppressed minority groups. It is happening right now in Myanmar.

    And this is how the social justice movement is losing credibility, even with allies like myself. Your statement “only white people can be racist,” even from the power+privilege definition, is demonstrably wrong historically speaking.

    Now watch, you will respond with “i was talking about the US and Europe.” Well then, if you know good argumentation you should have moderated your original statement to reflect that.

  • Road Less Traveled

    I agree with you in one regard. I’ve found that those who claim the only definition of racism is power+privilege will say that other races can be prejudiced. However, when pressed with specific examples of that being so or even worse, if someone calls a POC out on saying something offensive about White people, almost NEVER will the same people agree and also call out the POC. Instead, usually, the White person will be castigated as being full of privilege and that they are just being angry white people.

  • Kareem J. Lanier

    You are a racist. See? This person is most likely black. Example. Point proven.

  • Kareem J. Lanier

    So glad to see this article. So many people have bought into this lie, that blacks can’t be racist.

  • Kareem J. Lanier

    Virtually every campus.