The Box-Out

Because the Internet won't write itself.


Can white people be victims of racism?

One of the unfortunate consequences of using social media these days is having to put up with a far broader range of other people’s views than most of us would have willingly exposed ourselves to in the past. This becomes exceptionally trying when we find ourselves confronted with the views of the worryingly large body of people who don’t think exactly as we do on every single issue. If we weren’t tolerant in the face of such deliberate provocativeness we would probably go mad. On a personal level, one of the things that has put me off any kind of blogging for so long is that it can seem like a waste of intellectual effort to set out in tiresome detail arguments that seem intuitively obvious to me personally. However when it’s clear that the opposite view is widely held on the internet and elsewhere, some effort in thinking through and then clearly stating one’s position is justified.

Before continuing: The following is a serious post about an issue that deserves to be treated with seriousness. It contains examples of challenging opinions which some people might find offensive.

In the case of the question at the head of this post, if I might be so vulgar as to invoke the unsleeping ghost of Godwin in my third paragraph, the answer is quite obviously yes unless none of the victims of the Holocaust were white. But let’s examine the question in slightly more detail.

Here’s aseasonedplateofmurder on Tumblr asserting that white people cannot be victims of racism (and making a category error about Hispanic ethnicity in the process):

“Would an african american/asian/hispanic person EVER beleive to be superior to whites? No. But whites think they’re superior and they can cause theyve ruled the world so many years.”

People will say anything on Tumblr, and sometimes they just don’t know any better than to be rampantly offensive. Here’s author and comedian Jo Brand expressing general agreement with that position:

A transcript of the above video:

Brand: My personal opinion is that you can’t be racist towards white people. You can be prejudiced about them but being prejudiced isn’t an illegal act whereas being racist can be.

Interviewer: Dont you think racism is just being derogatory about a race, regardless of the colour?

Brand: No I don’t. I think the definition of racism also encompasses political power. So you cant be racist towards a race that’s politically more powerful than a minority. That to me is the correct definition of racism. I think you can be prejudiced towards a group of people who are more powerful than you, but I don’t think you can be racist towards them.

Those who have expressed the opposite view include Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in the Independent.

“Our entire struggle, its moral and ethical foundation, stands to be discredited because we do not pay the attention we should to white victims of black and Asian hatred.”

For a frank (and again, probably rampantly offensive) exchange of views on the subject, Tumblr has a tag.

I don’t intend to consider the statistical question of whether anti-white racism is a significant problem. Such a question could properly be answered with empirical data, if and only if the semantic notion that white people can be victims of racism holds true. If it doesn’t, any such data would be a response to a nonsensical question and consequently could not be collected. Notwithstanding that from a scientific perspective the genetic differences between “races” are so small as to be virtually irrelevant, and therefore there isn’t really any such thing as “white people”, but race and racism are identifiable social phenomena and will continue to be for the forseeable future.

The OED definition of “racism” is racially neutral.

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 another race or races.
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

As is that of the Anti-Defamation League:

Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.

Conversely, the “power” definition of racism, as invoked by Brand, is attributed to Pat Bidol.

Power + Prejudice = Racism

Online this is sometimes referred to as the “preferred” or “sociological” definition, which merely means that it is preferred by some sociologists.

According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology:

When most people think about racism, they think about the concept of individual prejudice – in other words, negative thoughts or stereotypes about a particular racial group. However, racism can also be embedded in the institutions and structures of social life. This type of racism can be called structural or institutional racism (hereafter ‘‘institutional racism’’), and it is significant in creating and maintaining the disparate outcomes that characterize the landscape of racial inequality.

So sociologists are just as capable as anyone else of distinguishing racism on the individual level from that on the social level which is, of course, the level with which the sociologist is primarily concerned.

Critical race theorists have rejected the notion that racism is synonymous with maligned individual prejudice and have embraced a more structural and institutional understanding of racism.

Critical theorists have a flexible approach to the concept of "data".

Critical theorists have a flexible approach to the concept of “data”.

It’s not unusual for bloggers to take a prescriptivist approach to the use of the critical theory definition, and to not-so-subtly hint that the use of a broader definition of racism is in itself evidence of institutional or structual racism… :

“It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists.”

…which is how the broader definition got into dictionaries in the first place!

“Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.”

This would appear to display a small but crucial misunderstanding of the function of dictionaries, which are intended to give a descriptive summary of how words are actually used, as opposed to sociology textbooks which give prescriptive, normative definitions of key concepts as they ought to be used within the relevant academic field.

The Frankfurt School, yesterday.

The Frankfurt School, yesterday.

Still, even the critical theory definition of structural racism as given above does not actually exclude the possibility of racism either against white minority groups in white-dominated societies, or against white people in societies which are not predominantly or institutionally white. The position that racism against white people is actually logically impossible can only be arrived at with an exclusivist adoption of the critical-theory definition coupled with the conscious privileging of a Western-centric view of racism in which white people dominate even those societies where they are not culturally influential. This is in itself a severely imperialistic erasure of non-Western cultures which not only implicitly denies agency to 80% of the world’s population, but denies the structural and institutional racism that occurs in Western societies against white or predominantly white groups including Travellers, Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans and white Hispanic Americans.