i have found that racism definitions can often create a bit of a problem…

Can a black person be racist? Yes, absolutely. And also, no, not at all! 

This question comes up a lot and i’m not sure i have actually answered it on my blog but i thought it might be helpful to at least give it a try. This is how i understand this question.

Two Definitions

The biggest problem which i have witnessed time and time again as far as the idea of who can be racist and who cannot be, is that we are dealing with two definitions of racism:

Definition 1: The definition most of us grew up with was this notion of hating someone of another race. If that is the definition of racism them of course anyone can be racist, because there are people of all races who hate or are prejudiced against people of other races. i don’t think anyone would seriously debate this.

Definition 2: However, a more recent definition, one that tends to be used by activists and academics, includes the notion of prejudice AND power. Even dictionaries were updated last year to reflect this shift in the definition of the term. Merriam-Webster updated their definition of racism to include: ‘the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.’

racism definition

Missing each other

The problem comes when two people, each holding a different definition of racism, come face to face without realising or acknowledging that difference.

So typically an activist will be saying ‘Black people cannot be racist!’ because they don’t see black people as a group having the same kind of power to be able to create a system like slavery, apartheid or Jim Crow laws and suppress white people in that way. So they would definitely admit that black people can hold prejudice against white people, but they can’t be racist.

Then you have a white person who sees racism as hating a person of another race and they have witnessed a black person who hates white people and so are adamant that ‘Black people can be racist!’

The irony is that they are both right. But until they meet each other on the same page with regards to how they define racism, they will continue to bump heads and think that the other person is completely misguided.

MLK quote on racism and power

Ignorance vs Stubbornness

This might be the unpopular piece of this post. And i am open to hearing alternative views. But this is mine right now.

When the two opposing views collide, it is typically ignorance on behalf of the ‘black people can be racist’ crowd as they are holding to the definition they know and grew up with and tend to not be aware that there is a different definition out there.

With the ‘black people can’t be racist’ crowd though it tends to be stubbornness. Because these are generally people who embrace critical thinking and thus should be aware that many people out there are holding on to an out-of-date or incomplete definition.

So when the two come face to face i would expect the academics and activisits to be more aware of the distinction and more able to pause and explain the difference to help get everyone on the same page.

But typically what happens is you have a ‘he said – she said’ kind of affair where both sides just end up saying ‘Black people can be racist’ or ‘Black people can’t be racist’ louder and louder and then eventually insulting the other person, dropping a meme and peacing out!

This is a difficult one to call because, once again, the onus falls on the person who has done more work or received more abuse to be the bigger person and take on the effort of explaining and bringing the other person up to speed. My only response to that is to say that it is unfair, but ignorance cannot be helped without education and stubbornness most definitely can be helped with grace and patience.

So i get why it escalates and i understand why the person with the power + prejudice definition feels like they shouldn’t have to be the one to explain, but i’m just not sure it can happen the other way because the person doesn’t have the means.

racism definition

This is another space for white people to take the initiative in terms of explaining these things to their white people so that the burden doesn’t fall on black people to do so. Something as simple as racism definitions being unpacked can really open up further conversation that might otherwise have been blocked.

The same applies to coloured and indian people as well with regards to this whole post. 

This feels like such an important piece for us all to get because so many longer, more valuable, and in-depth conversations get missed out on or lost completely because we miss each other in the opening statement.

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EDIT: Some helpful feedback on this post has caused me to think more deeply so i thought i would share it here for your benefit as well:

From @KaraboNkabinde6

‘Even on an interpersonal level.

Hate is normal if it has a valid basis (prejudice), but hate is abnormal if it has no logical basis (racism).

A Black person wud hate Whites because he associates them with oppression.

A White person hates Blacks, because he just hates them.’

From @CiandriZ

‘I think a big distinction is racism versus prejudice. Unfortunately even those faced with the updated definition, refuse to accept it, because it doesn’t fit for the way they want to express their views and the rhetoric they have framed their argument around.’

‘And I don’t think it’s entirely correct for us to say as white individuals “Well black people can be racist by the old definition!”. No. The definition has been updated for a reason, and updated by experts in the field, so we shouldn’t hold on to the old one in any form.’

[If you found this helpful, please feel free to share it around or tag white friends in it so that they might hopefully benefit, and also feel free to direct your white friends to this series i am doing on practical ideas as a response to white people asking: But what can I do about race?’]