In its most simplistic definition, racism is prejudice or discrimination directed at someone of a different race – based on the belief that your own race is superior.
Taking this definition at its word, then, would suggest that it is possible for a person of any race to experience racism if someone treats them badly for this reason – even white people.
But this definition of racism leaves out one crucial element: The power structures that uphold and perpetuate racism.
Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within a hierarchical structure with power at its core. Racism only works because one group has power and other groups do not.
And it is white people who – historically, and in the West at least – hold the power when it comes to racial divides, thanks to centuries of Eurocentric beliefs and structures that continue to privilege and centre whiteness.
Think about it in terms of the effects
If an ethnic minority person treats a white person badly because of inherent prejudice against white people, that is wrong and completely unacceptable, but the wider ramifications are likely to be less significant than if it were the other way around.
If a white person treats an ethnic minority badly because of the colour of their skin, not only is it morally wrong, it can also have serious and dangerous implications for the life and prospects of that person.
Prejudice against white people might make individuals feel bad, but prejudice against ethnic minorities can lead to structural, systemic and lasting disadvantages (in education, healthcare, disproportionate policing, career prospects, among other areas), and this is what makes it racism.
White people would only experience racism if the existing power structures enabled prejudice against them to cause this kind of widespread negative impact – as it does for people of colour. But that’s not how society currently works.
Can white people experience racial prejudice?
In a word, yes. Stereotypes and negative beliefs about white people are examples of racial prejudice – but not racism.
Which, to be clear, is still wrong. Prejudice directed at any group based on a set of pre-conceived assumptions is never a good thing, and almost always leads to behaviour that is hurtful and causes harm.
The difference between racial prejudice and racism is the lack of any power structure weighted in favour of a particular race.
‘There is no doubt that white people can experience discrimination, harassment and be the victim of prejudice,’ explains psychologist and anti-racism scholar Guilaine Kinouani.
‘We could even argue in some contexts they can be the victims of racial hatred. However, no matter how condemnable these acts or attitudes are, we should be careful, as has been now argued for decades, not to confuse individual acts of prejudice or bigotry with racism, which, as a system, is ubiquitous and determinative of life course, opportunities and experiences.’
Why white people can’t experience racism
White people can indeed face stereotypical assumptions based on their skin colour and hence encounter racial prejudice. But this cannot be called racism, because of the inherent systemic imbalance of power between those with lighter skin colour and people of colour.
Racial prejudice can affect people on an individual level, but it would not have the same effect on a larger social and cultural level because it is only when stereotypes are bolstered by power, such as through a eurocentric model of thinking, that it creates systemic and structural racism and oppression that people of colour have encountered throughout history.
Dr Pragya Agarwal, author and behavioural scientist
Guilaine adds that racism as a system is supported by institutional power and historical myths about the socially constructed inferiority of certain groups; people of colour.
‘It is a system which has a history spanning several centuries, a system which has become part of the very fabric of our society and, which ultimately continues to place increased worth on the lives and bodies of white people,’ explains Guilaine.
‘Fundamentally, without socially sanctioned power, what we’re only ever going to be left with is racial bigotry rather than a system of racial oppression.
‘This distinction matters, and erasing it is not only intellectually lazy and disingenuous, but it is also harmful, creates false equivalencies and therefore feeds racial illiteracy. Further, it stops us from tackling structural issues.’
The terms ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’ are not interchangeable, and to remove the element of power from the definition of racism is overly simplistic and ignores the real and damaging impact racism has on the lives of ethnic minorities.
What is ‘reverse racism’?
‘Reverse racism’ is the concept that the dominant racial group in a society – white people – can experience racism at the hands of minority groups.
People of colour can be accused of ‘reverse racism’ when they carve out safe spaces for themselves. For example, a ‘black girls fitness club’ might be accused of ‘reverse racism’ for not including white people in their group.
But most race academics regard ‘reverse racism’ as a myth. They say it doesn’t exist because of the one-way nature of those all-important power structures mentioned above.
The theoretical ‘black girls fitness club’ is necessary because white people are, by default, welcome in any fitness group, whereas black women may feel excluded or unwelcome in spaces where they are a minority. That is the difference.
White American activist Tim Wise explains it really succinctly in a 2002 essay: ‘”n*gger” was and is a term used by whites to dehumanise blacks, to imply their inferiority, to “put them in their place” if you will, the same cannot be said of “honky”: after all, you can’t put white people in their place when they own the place to begin with.
‘Power is like body armour,’ Tim continues. ‘And while not all white folks have the same degree of power, there is a very real extent to which all of us have more than we need vis-à-vis people of colour: at least when it comes to racial position, privilege and perceptions.’
It isn’t hard to understand why some people may argue for the existence of ‘reverse racism’. Most white people will face hardships and struggles, and the privileges that come with whiteness aren’t in any way a guarantee of an easy life.
So, to some, to say that white people cannot experience racism implies that all white people have an easy life. But that’s not what it means at all.
It does not mean that white people don’t have struggles, or face prejudice, discrimination or any other kind of hardship. It simply means that when it comes to racism specifically, the structures of society mean white people will always hold more power than people of colour.
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020.
We aim to look at how, where and why racist attitudes and biases impact people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital to improve the language we have to talk about racism and start the difficult conversations about inequality.