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Racism against white people & sexism against men

September 11, 2016

One touchy subject is whether racism can be against white people, sexism can be against men, and so on for other analogous types of prejudice and discrimination. A lot of white people think they face more racism than black people, and a lot of men think they face more sexism than women. Are they deluded because they can’t even suffer from prejudice? If they were right, would that mean black people couldn’t suffer from racism at all?

Regarding systematic and institutionalized racism and sexism, I can understand why people would say racism can’t be against the most privileged in that regard (white people and men). This issue is somewhat complex because stereotypes can be positive and negative, but there are arguments that stereotypes against men are a result of a system meant to give men unfair power. When it comes to who is being given unfair power from prejudice overall, some groups are privileged (tend to have more unfair advantages) and that is a reason to be very concerned about those who are oppressed (tend to have more unfair disadvantages) due to a system of discrimination. Who benefits or is harmed overall seems to be important rather than merely the irrationality of it.

Everyone agrees that white people and men can be harmed by people who have negative views or unintended prejudice to white people or men. Whether it counts as racism or sexism is the issue. Unintended (or “implicit”) bias is identified through hidden bias tests, and some people do have such biases against white people and men, even when the person has no beliefs against those groups, but unintended bias is much more common against black people (and some other racial groups), women, and other gender identities. I personally see no reason to say such biases against white people or men don’t count as racist or sexist, but that is partially determined by success at communication.

It is possible using language that accepts racism against white people and sexism against men can cause miscommunication. For example, they might think you are saying that bias against white people is bad, and it’s just as bad against bias against black people. Bias against black people contributes to systematic oppression against them, and bias against white people is almost never enough to take away their unfair advantages from several other interactions that privilege them in unfair ways.

On the other hand denying racism against white people and sexism against men can also cause miscommunication. Many who hear this denial think it is being denied that there’s bias against white people and men, or that harming white people or men because of disliking those groups is wrong. Almost no one actually thinks either of those things. We know bias against white people and men exists. We know there are stereotypes against them. We know harming them due to bias is wrong.

How all this applies to affirmative action is complicated and I don’t want to discuss that in detail here. There are likely a lot of other intersecting related issues beyond that as well.

What do you think?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2016 4:22 am

    Interesting post. It touches on a lot of salient issues throughout the landscape. My thesis is that many (or at least some) of the objections white conservative types have on accusations of racism can be acknowledged without downplaying or dismissing the primary historical importance of racism and discrimination against women and minorities (insofar as identity politics is more warranted than class based explanations, ala Marxism, but one topic at a time).

    It’s unfortunate, but in conversations and debates people tend to view even relatively harmless assertions from the other side as a threat that might take necessary attention off what they view as a more important problem. It’s not that there’s no validity to the concern in the abstract. There are stalling tactics, tactics that seek to create a false equivalency, changes to what falls in or out of the Overton Window, etc. But, denying the obvious claims of your interlocutors lowers trust and ensures that they’ll continue to cling to their claims, and the late Antonin Scalia said that targeted concession is the most powerful move one can make in argument.

    You point out the obvious – that white people and men can be discriminated against on the basis of their race and gender. And you point out that some attempt to define racism so that no one in the relatively privileged group can be subject to it. That’s the thing about definitions – on the one hand, they’re not that interesting. If racism is eventually defined that way, then it follows tautologically that members of the relatively privileged group cannot be subject to it. But it’s more interesting to focus on common usage, and that actually favors the idea that white people can experience racism against them. Further, when mainstream liberal politicians (or even someone like Martin Luther King) decry racism and point to a society that might overcome it, they do so in very universalist-inclusive language, not in the language of the leftists who believe it’s impossible for a white person to experience racist discrimination. “Power” is virtually never included when we talk about the necessary injustice in judging and discriminating against people on the basis of their race and/or gender. Should it be? Maybe so, but it seems like that should be an open conversation, rather than a covert linguistic cold war.

    Now, on the subject of white people facing MORE racism that black people, on the general level I think we have to just admit that this is a completely and utterly unjustified view. But, what about in specific cases? When picking teams in pick up basketball? Surely pick up basketball isn’t very important, but once the tendency is admitted, then we can start talking about other cases that might, in individual cases, warrant our sympathy. And if we think racism and discrimination is bad, then what better way to show it that by conceding and then bringing up even worse examples at least historically speaking? Of course, on many liberal and lefist blogs this comment would be dismissed as concern trolling, but then again denying the obvious is perhaps why we’re still having this conversation.

  2. September 12, 2016 11:52 am

    My understanding is that racism is not just prejudice against someone because of their race, but specifically prejudice against them because of the notion that their race is inferior.

    So while of course a black person can be prejudiced against a white person, it seems much more likely it will be due to a reason like their stereotyping all white people as racists than their believing that black people are superior to whites.

    On the other hand, while a white person might be racist without an explicit belief that blacks are inferior, their prejudice can be seen as part of a cultural attitude that lingers from history, since it was previously common in white culture to see black people as inferior.

    Hence, it would not be impossible, but would be very unlikely for a black person to be racist.

    The same could be argued about sexism.

    • September 12, 2016 6:09 pm

      I don’t think I fully agree that racism has to be like that, but I think there is something very attractive about that view. There is something intuitive about it. Dictionary definitions are notoriously bad when it comes to these issues and can lack the needed nuance. There is evidence that implicit bias does correlate to real world behavior, but people who show a strong bias against a race or gender often claim that they think the races are equal. Even people in the Ku Klux Klan claim they think the races are equal. So, it would seem to many like racism almost doesn’t exist at all or only very rarely, and it is counterintuitive to think the Ku Klux Klan members aren’t racist. However, you could add that a bias that causes unintended discriminatory behavior against a gender or race also counts as racism because there is something like a the view of superiority or inferiority involved there. Some people do show an implicit bias against men and white people.

      One other issue is that an implicit bias does not seem like enough to make a person a racist or sexist in all cases. For example, feminists who care deeply about women and want to end oppression against women could still have an implicit bias against women. Such a person does not seem to be a sexist in the sense we tend to have in mind.

  3. September 13, 2016 9:05 am

    Yes, I think if an implicit bias at least partly originates in an historical culture of inferiority/superiority relations then that counts as the racism that people refer to when they say black people “can’t be” (I’d rephrase as “are very unlikely to be” racist.

    I’m not sure what the KKK would say is motivating them if not that? I’d have to judge whether they have a plausible other reasons.

    On your last point, personally I’d say I am racist and sexist, due to my implicit biases. The difference is that I’m both aware of being and try to catch and counter those biases immediately when the occur (when only in mind as motivations, before any behaviour is produced).

    Short version: I think racism and sexism have to originate in ideas of superiority, whether or not that origin is internal/explicit or external/implicit.

    I would also claim that the definition of the word has always been very clear, meaning not just ‘racial prejudice’ but a specifically motivated prejudice. Personally I think attempts to attempts to redefine to word and thus hoist racism on to black people too are often just for political purposes, specifically resistance to liberal progressive change. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

    • September 13, 2016 8:29 pm

      Black people are probably more likely to have implicit bias against black people than white people. They could show biases against other non-white races or hispanic ethnicities as well. It is a complex issue. Do we want to say they are racists for having those biases?

      • September 15, 2016 9:01 am

        If black people have implicit bias that black people are inferior I want to say they have a racist implicit bias

        For me personally there’s a difference between saying that and saying someone “is a racist”. I would reserve that term for people who have explicit racist biases.whatever their colour, the reason being that I think it’s unhelpful to couch implicit bias in those terms. But strictly speaking that’s probably just my own distinction.

      • September 15, 2016 10:25 pm

        I think being a racist has to be somewhat nuanced and complex. Again, I mentioned how members of the KKK don’t realize they are racists and often say how they don’t think black people are inferior. I think they are still racists, but it takes a more nuanced view. I’m not sure the best way to define it, though.

  4. September 13, 2016 6:00 pm

    No matter how carefully created an ideology, once it has passed through the thoughtless masses, it becomes warped to serves their, often sociopathic, motives. This is merely the price of freedom of speech.

    • September 13, 2016 8:28 pm

      Same goes for anyone who is not using critical thinking about any general philosophical views or theories, but people’s views are often not as bad as many think as well.

      • September 13, 2016 9:07 pm

        People’s views are meaningless, when they do not enact them. The religion love to talk about how moral and peaceable they are.

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