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Who Can Be ‘Racist’?

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

It bemuses me that some absolve non-white people of racism. They declare point-blank, “It’s literally impossible to be racist to a white person.” “Racism against white people doesn’t exist.”

I suppose that as an Asian American, I would qualify as a recipient of this exemption. While that could be convenient, I don’t think I — or any other person of color — should deserve such an exemption. I’m sure, for example, that I can be racist (I imagine some might call me that from reading this column), and I’d like to be engaged in conversation if I mess up, perhaps by making a distasteful remark.

The debate about whether all people can be racist stems from different definitions of “racism.” One camp subscribes to the standard dictionary definition: racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” There are no restrictions on which races can be the instigators and what magnitude of disdain counts as “superiority.” 

Another camp thinks primarily of institutional racism and factors in a person’s power to use their racist beliefs against others. As one African-American lead character from the 2014 movie “Dear White People” argues, “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”

What a convoluted way to absolve oneself of possible racist fault. Under this definition, yes, black individuals can’t be racist. The system is rigged in favor of white people, who have traditionally been in power. But the strange implication of this statement is that being called “prejudiced” isn’t as bad as being called a “racist” — although racism can manifest itself as prejudice, and though prejudice surely is not desired either. So Sam’s argument achieves the linguistic triumph of avoiding the label “racist,” but that’s about it. 

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This argument’s main point — that minorities can’t be racist because they have no power to act on such antagonism — is also reductive. We shouldn’t have to take stock of each other’s race and relative power in society before making a judgment on an act itself. We shouldn’t have to condone prejudice or discrimination against anyone, for any reason.

Racism is individual, not just institutional. As individuals, we all have the power to hurt one another. However, though power dynamics of race in our society shouldn’t absolve some races from the ability to be racist, they should affect how we determine degrees of racism. I’d argue that, on average, a racist comment would cause a white person less harm or fear than it would cause a black person. I’m not sure how exactly one could measure that, but white people have it easier in America, and that shouldn’t be a controversial statement. 

Consider the recent controversy involving Sarah Jeong, a writer of Asian descent, whose colorful tweets against white people were dug up after the New York Times’ editorial board hired her. Such tweets included: “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”; “fuck white women lol”; “dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” While not condoning her tweets, The Times stood by Jeong, who also issued her own statement.

This seemed like the best resolution. I thought it was important, as the Times did, to deny the right-wing trolls who are orchestrating smear campaigns to get journalists fired and to reserve judgment of their employees for what they actually do at their jobs. 

But the tweets were pretty racist. I didn’t see the point of those insisting that Jeong’s tweets weren’t racist at all and that she had nothing to apologize for, because “there was no sense of threat associated” with her jokes. After winning this round, since Jeong wasn’t fired, refusing to budge an inch and admit some wrongdoing is not a good look for the left.

Because there’s no scenario in which racism is not a bad thing. If some extremists won’t engage in good faith, we can’t force them. But at least among the rest of us, we can do better. We shouldn’t need to compare how a possible act of racism would differ if perpetrated against blacks, whites, or Asians just to understand if it’s wrong. We shouldn’t allow some people to indulge in their racism just because they may not have any power to systematically discriminate against other groups. Let’s acknowledge the existence of so-called “reverse racism” and the existence of degrees of racism. Otherwise, discourse around race will become a race to the bottom.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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