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”?