A columnist at the Harvard Crimson recently wrote a column titled “Who Can Be ‘Racist’?” The columnist explores the question of whether minorities in the United States may make comments such as “I hate white people” — and whether such comments may be labeled as racist.
This debate has recently surfaced at our own University. In response to a recent Tiger Confessions post, which argued that racism towards white people does indeed exist, commenters shared varied reactions, ranging from support for the anonymous submitter to claims that only “prejudice,” not racism, can ever exist against white people.
Yet, distinctions between “prejudice” and “racism” towards white people are often irrelevant, at least on an individual level. Such labels do not change the content of what we say — and the content of “prejudiced” comments, such as “I hate white people,” is something we should still try to avoid.
Before delving into the technical distinctions between what constitutes “prejudice” and “racism,” we must first ask ourselves whether these “prejudiced” orientations are politically conscious. If, by making such comments, we gain some kind of political benefit, such as obtaining more rights for minority groups, perhaps one could argue that offending white people is “worth it.” But this is not the case — more frequently, we say such comments out of frustration, and they rarely advance productive political purposes.
As someone who is interested in social movements and hears anti-white rhetoric frequently, I believe that such comments significantly harm, rather than benefit, social justice movements. They unnecessarily drive many white people, especially those who could have been potential allies, away from the movement. Logically, people would not be willing to join a movement that perceptually shuns them, and that is exactly what we are doing. We cannot expect those in power to wholeheartedly support a movement that hurls personal attacks at them — it’s simply unrealistic.
Moreover, regardless of the pragmatic benefits of abandoning the practice, distinguishing “prejudice” from racism, at least on an individual level, is merely rhetorical play. Many who disagree with this notion often claim that only white people can be “racist,” because only they have the institutional power to tangibly impact other racial groups. I partially endorse this view; on an institutional level, American society is heavily tainted by white supremacy, and we must criticize it.
But what difference does that make in everyday interactions? Just because you believe that someone can only be “prejudiced” against white people does not mean that you can use this justification to attack white individuals in everyday contexts. There is no identifiable link between that fact that white people are institutionally in power and attempts to interpersonally justify generalized comments against white people.
Perhaps there is a distinction. Perhaps white people’s “racism” can later translate into them being in a position of power and implementing racist policies, whereas my “prejudice” cannot in any significant way impact white people’s lives. But independent of the differing levels of impacts of our orientations — which are, arguably, still difficult to articulate — it does not change the fact that we are still attributing hateful, arbitrary stereotypes to an entire group of people. Whether I have the institutional power to impact white people is irrelevant to this reality, and the prejudice-racism distinction cannot justify these biases.
Simply put, it is hurtful to make these overgeneralizing comments. Many minorities — admittedly, myself included — often hide under guises of phrases such as “white fragility” to defend ourselves in making comments such as, “I seriously despise white people.” But on a fundamental level, we are hurting others, and regardless of their race, we are still denying their abilities to socially define themselves independent of the labels placed on their skin color.
We can all condemn racism. But more broadly, we also know that stereotyping groups of people and identifying individuals with those stereotypes is also a bad thing. There is no reason for us to abandon that principle when it comes to white people — especially when there are more compelling reasons for us to stop doing so.
Jae-Kyung Sim is a first-year from Sejong City, South Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.