The Reverse Racism Debate (Sociology Edition)

If White Americans are the targets of racial prejudice and discrimination, then that’s reverse racism, right? Well, while many people might agree with this logic, in this post Kim Cochran Kiesewetter discusses the differences between individual and institutional racism to help explain reverse racism from a sociological point of view.

I still remember sitting in my first sociology course in college – Race and Ethnic Relations – and hearing the professor introduce the discussion of racism. Immediately, my mind flew to an experience I had as a child where I had felt attacked for being White while staying with my grandmother in a neighborhood composed predominantly of families from minority racial backgrounds. As I shared my story with the class, the professor interjected that, even though I had felt discriminated against, I hadn’t been the victim of racism since I was White. A look of confusion crossed my face moments before I realized I was incredibly offended. How in the world could this person be telling me I couldn’t have experienced being the victim of racism?!

As a sociology teacher myself now, I regularly encounter the same conversation I had with my professor when I myself was a student… except now I am the professor trying to use that conversation as a gentle move into the discussion of individual versus institutional racism.

Learning to think sociologically takes time because, for many of us, it’s a dynamically different way of looking at the world. Sociologists look at trends for large groups of people to examine how a variety of social forces can influence the ways in which we experience life. This means that we don’t use individual, singular experiences as representative of whole populations. Instead, we have to look at the proverbial big picture.  Aamer Rahman, an Australian comedian, does a great job of using humor to explain how to view racism in a “big picture” manner, versus as an individual experience.

“…all I would need would be a time machine…”

Anyone can experience race-based discrimination (being treated differently) and prejudice (being pre-judged for a perceived trait) from other individuals. The story my mind jumped to in my sociology class was an experience of just such behavior and it definitely hurt my feelings. But – and this is an important but – it didn’t take away the privilege I have in American society as a White person. This is where the reverse racism argument breaks down from a sociological standpoint. Even though any individual can be prejudiced and/or discriminate against any other person or group, this doesn’t change the fact that Whites in our culture have never been the victims of institutional (also called “systemic” or “structural”) racism. From this standpoint, only racial minorities can be victimized by racism.

While I don’t condone running around hurting people’s feelings, from a sociological standpoint, we want to consider the broader social consequences of human behavior beyond how it makes individuals feel. Institutional racism is a better measure of the “big picture” because it allows us to examine how racial groups in society interact with one another and what this means in terms of each groups’ outcomes – their educational attainment, the state of their health, what kind of neighborhoods they live in, how likely they are to live in poverty, etc. In a truly equitable society the outcomes would be similar regardless of race; however, the US has dramatically different outcomes in all of these categories indicating we are not a racially equal society. At this point in time, we have a wealth of social research that points to a history of intentional, overt institutional racism in the US (think here of the legal segregation that ended during the civil rights era) that disadvantaged racial minorities in everything from where they could live, to where they could go to school, to where they could work. Today, these same systems still perpetuate different outcomes for different racial groups in the US (though not as overtly), with Whites continuously being the dominant group in most categories.

Being able to differentiate between individual and institutional racism can give each of us a better understanding of how racism works and its consequences for both individuals and society. I can look back now and see where my professor was coming from when she told me my story wasn’t representative of the type of racism she was discussing, but it definitely took me a while to wrap my head around the framework she was coming from. In order to address inequality in society, though, we can recognize our own personal experiences and stories as valid while still looking to the bigger picture to consider how social structures can shape and influence outcomes beyond only our feelings.

Dig Deeper

  1. If you haven’t already, read Peggy McIntosh’s article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. Write a definition of white privilege in your own words.
  2. Consider the list of daily effects of white privilege that McIntosh identifies in the article. Had you ever considered/noticed these effects before (regardless of what racial category you identify with)?
  3. Take a moment and identify 1-2 of your own examples of the effects of white privilege in society.
  4. How do you think whites should address the concept of white privilege in addressing institutional racism, if at all?