In black and white: defining racism

The thought might have run through your head: “Wait, was that racist?” Whether it was an eye roll at a nonwhite driver or an offhand comment about somebody’s race, the question often fades away within a few minutes. But what racism comprises is something to consider.

Cameron Cook

It’s popular to say that racism in America is still alive and well–but what does racism mean, and what does it entail? The answer: It depends.

“It depends on how you use the term ‘racist,’” said Dominic Iannone, social studies teacher. “But if you’re talking about racism at an institutional level, disliking someone because of their skin color is different than when we talk about institutions of racism.”

When it comes to whether reverse racism–non-white people being racist toward white people–is real or not, the answer depends on an individual’s definition of race; whether it’s limited to prejudice and discrimination based on race and ethnicity or is institutional in nature. 

“Racism isn’t just limited to hating someone due to their skin color and so on, it’s a form of access and privilege . . . and how you can use the system to your benefit. Black people can’t be racist. They don’t have the ability. Why? Because the system is built against them to the point where they cannot access those sorts of privileges, and [because of that] they are the people that are oppressed,” Said Michael Cho ’17.

Ally McKeone ’16 agrees that people of color cannot be racist, and states that it is because there has never been a point in history where whites have not held the power.

“I would say reverse racism will never exist in the United States, simply because of our history of white power and how it has continued,” McKeone said.

Suha Suleman ’16 is of the same mind; she believes only white people in America can be racist.

“I think that racism is a system of disadvantage based on race. Because the concept of race was created by white people,” Suleman said. “I feel like, during the time of slavery, whites wanted to feel [superior] . . . the idea of race was ‘created’ to divide the people between the white and colored.”

This interpretation of racism disallows non-white people from being racist, but others understand racism as broader and not power-dependent.

Mason Hanson ’18 is one student that defines racism more loosely.

“So many people say ‘Oh you can’t be racist towards white people,’ but yet you can. The definition of racism is racial prejudice,” Hanson said.

Tim Gomendoza ’16 agrees.

“The definition of racism is just instituting any sort of discriminatory values upon another person solely because of their race,” Gomendoza said. “There’s nothing about merit; there’s nothing about who these people actually are aside from their skin tone.”

Gomendoza cites racial slurs against white people as well as African Americans, and says that if a crime is committed against someone solely because of their race, it’s a hate crime and it’s racism. He feels differently about the police actions recently in the news.

“It’s not racism if a cop shoots a black guy because the black guy started beating on a white cop, like you see in Ferguson,” Gomendoza said.

Suleman contests to this.

“In cases where the suspect of a similar crime is white, you could see how they were treated differently,” Suleman said concerning the events in Ferguson and analogous situations. “In their case, they are alive and not lying dead on the floor before they are even convicted.”

Ultimately, the solution is to come to a decision on exactly what racism is. That way, debates over race issues can take place effectively.

“We argue about racism without ever taking the time to make sure we’re using the same word the same way, and so we just argue past each other,” Iannone said. “If we have different definitions of racism, then we’re never going to agree on whether something is racist.”