While scrolling on my Facebook timeline, I came across a post that asked: “Can Black People Be Racist?”. I immediately took to the comments that were filled with dictionary definitions of the word “racist” and white people who shared stories of how they too were victims of racism by non-white people. Quite frankly, I found the entire discussion laughable, but after bringing it up with a few of my friends, who are Black, I saw that they too feel as though Black people can be racist. This made me dig a little deeper into the discussion which ultimately pushed me to write about it. Before we dive in, I argue that Black people cannot be racist in American society. Furthermore, I argue that while Black people can hold certain biases about other races but affirm the notion these biases stem from living in a society that perpetuates whiteness.
The first thing I heard when discussing this with my peers was the dictionary definition of the word “racist”. Dictionary.com defined “racist” as someone who ” believes that one’s own racial group is superior or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” Using this definition, in my opinion, ignores the greater context of the conversation. To understand who and what can be racist, we must first understand racism in an American context.
First, we look at the linguistic structure of the word. The suffix ‘-ism’ denotes a system of practices to perpetuate some ideal or belief. Racism, therefore, is a system of practices to perpetuate the idea that a particular race is superior to other races. In America, this ideology views whiteness and white people superior to all peoples who are not white. A certain power is granted to white people that are not afforded to other races. This manifests itself in white privilege, discriminatory practices in the workplace, and other societal barriers for non-white people. Since white people are the only ones to benefit from such a system, they are the only ones who can be labeled as participants. Understanding, all this causes us to disregard the Dictionary.com definition, as it does nothing to cast a critical lens on the history of racism in America.
Therefore, a racist in America is someone of the dominant race that further perpetuates the ideals of racism in their society. The white real estate agent who refused to sell homes to Black people in certain areas of a city, the white manager who tells their Black employees they must wear their hair a certain way, the white doctor who misdiagnoses their non-white patients, and so on and so forth represent a systematic initiative to disenfranchise Black people. If it were Black people doing this in today’s society, it would be a push back to the system not a perpetuating of racism. History and social circumstances give each scenario a different magnitude. However, some may argue, these are situations in which there is a clear power dynamic and the lines of race can easily be reversed to fit our earlier definition of what a racist is. What about the Black people who act in accordance with a dislike or hatred of another race? Are they not racist as well?
The definition we mentioned earlier debunks this as we understand that to be racIST, one must be a member of the dominant race and actively participating in racISM. Since racism on American soil presents itself as the uplifting of whiteness and the oppression of non-whiteness, Black people cannot participate in this system. Where Black people can be racially prejudiced, these ideals are found to be derived from the biases embedded in them through living in a white supremacist society. We become the environment that we are cultivated in. If that environment is hostile toward non-whiteness, then even the non-white members of the community buy into the ideology of the system. For the system to run, a majority of the system must also believe the ideology that the system perpetuates. This is where we find instances of self-hate, internalized racism, xenophobia, and colorism in the Black community emerge. Given that American society was founded on anti Blackness, it is not hard to see how the descendants of the first Black peoples in America believe in the very notions that justified the enslavement and genocide of their ancestors.
So, in it what context can Black people be racist? In American society, this can only be achieved if all races were considered equal and the systematic practices reflected that. If Black people were not hunted, hung, incarcerated, raped, or killed for merely being Black. If the judicial system did not have an inherent bias towards Black people. If workplaces did not seek to hire Black people to fill out a diversity quota to later make these Black people “tone down their Blackness” to be deemed workplace appropriate. If Black people could go into their own apartments without their neighbors threatening to call law enforcement if they did not prove that they do indeed live there. I can go on, but you probably get the point. Instead of asking if Black people can be racist, why not look at how racism came about in this country and see what the main culprits look like.