Recently, there was a flurry of criticisms after the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) uploaded a photo on Facebook. Specifically, the post stated that reverse racism does not exist, and that people of colour could not be racist towards white people.
While the UTSMU has a valid point, perhaps it would have been more effective to explicitly critique how and when the term reverse racism is actually used, as opposed to discussing its a priori meaning. In doing so, we can avoid theoretical debates and better realize how the term, in practice, is often a guise for condemning equity initiatives, and should be regarded with caution.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” By this conception, then, it is indeed entirely possible for a person of colour to be racist towards a white person. All they would have to do is believe in the superiority of their own race, and have that to motivate their discriminatory behaviour.
However, this understanding of racism does not acknowledge how societal structures encourage, or reproduce, such discriminatory behaviour, which in turn disproportionately oppress people of colour. The critique of reverse racism proffered by the UTMSU incorporates this structural understanding, which is a necessary step if we are to actually recognize and understand the real-life manifestations of racism.
Even if we were to take the dictionary definition of racism, it is important to note that in a Canadian context, the number of people of colour advancing an agenda of racial superiority is relatively low. As such, the “racism” that white people face does not even begin to approach the oppression that people of colour must face on a daily basis.
What then, are people actually complaining about when they cry “reverse racism?” Instead of addressing systemic oppression, these people are just threatened by pockets of positive racial discrimination, which happen to have the goal of ameliorating the systematic disadvantages that people of colour face. The latter detail is important, as it distinguishes discriminatory initiatives from racism.
Not all racial discrimination is necessarily racism. Indeed, the Canadian Constitution merits admiration among constitutional scholars for its explicit protection of affirmative action programs — which necessarily discriminate based on race — in Section 15(2), which clarifies that the equality guarantees of Section 15(1) “[do] not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
Affirmative action programs are direct responses to the structurally unequal society we live in, and an attempt to level the playing field. As a remedy for historical injustice, then, such positive racial discrimination is not based on racial superiority but on amelioration.
Yet, this distinction between positive racial discrimination and racism is clearly wilfully ignored by those who seriously use the term reverse racism, Specifically, oppressors choose to ignore the reality of racism in contemporary society today, and conceptualize race relations as a zero-sum game. For example, a 2012 study from Harvard found that white respondents rated racism against white people as a larger problem than racism against black people and linked decreases in racism towards black people with increases in racism towards white people.
The phrase reverse racism itself is very telling of this attitude. The use of ‘reverse’ implicitly acknowledges the very real racism that disadvantaged groups experience now. Yet, the misappropriation of the term racism reveals itself as a rhetorical tool to derail, and discredit, anti-racist equity initiatives — in fact, the term originated in opposition to the civil rights movement and associated affirmative action programs.
So instead of simply declaring that reverse racism doesn’t exist, we should go further in exposing how the rhetoric is used to manipulate and decieve. In turn, we can continue to accurately discuss modern manifestations of social inequality and the continuing effects of racism.
Sasha Boutilier is a third–year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and ethics, society & law.