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‘Reverse -ism’

01/10/2011

Recently, I’ve heard the term ‘reverse racism’ or ‘reverse sexism’ making the rounds again. It is the stupidest phrase I’ve heard since ‘politically correct’.
Racial prejudice is bad, as is sexual discrimination. Duh. However saying that racism or sexism can be somehow ‘reversed’ implies the group normally on the receiving end of discrimination making prejudicial assumptions about the group normally in power is somehow backward. Prejudice is prejudice, sexism is sexism. Calling it ‘reverse’ is such a privileged call to make that I am shocked to hear people making it unaware of the irony.

I recall an incident from my childhood:
I was about 12 and was sitting outside of my friend’s house in Sacramento. As I waited for her to get ready to go out, I watched a boy riding his bike in the street. When he noticed me looking at him, he turned to me and shouted, accusingly, “Why are you looking at me? Because I’m black?” It hadn’t even registered to me that he was black. To me, he was just a boy on a bike and I was watching him because he was moving across my field of vision, nothing more, nothing less. I was shocked and insulted at the accusation that I was somehow racist just by looking at him. His assumption that because I was white, I must be a racist, was so completely new to me that for years I thought of this as an incidence of ‘reverse racism’.
It was only later that I realised his assumption was based on his experience, that maybe, wherever he went, white people locked their car doors, stiffened their backs when he sat next to them on the bus, that strangers had perhaps called him ‘boy’ or worse. It’s likely that members of his family lived through the pre-Civil Rights era and carried the baggage of that into the present, and shared their stories with him. What I hadn’t considered was that his experience of the world was different from mine. My experience was only as ever seeing people as equals. I had the privilege of growing up in a mostly white, upper middle class town. I grew up watching the Cosbys and Webster and Different Strokes, and the black people I knew were basically real life versions of these shows (upper middle class or adopted by white upper middle class families). My progressive parents taught me about the history of racism but because of my privilege, I’d never seen it first hand. As far as I knew, it was a thing of the past. I was ‘race blind,’ which sounds like a good thing, but it made me blind to the racism that still existed in the world all around me.
This is why Stephen Colbert’s constant assertion that he ‘doesn’t see race’ is such a hilarious gag. The only people who can grow up blind to racism never experience it first hand, and when they do, it’s ‘reverse racism’.
The biggest privilege of the privileged is to be unaware of one’s privilege.
I guess the second biggest is being unaware of the irony in getting angry when someone makes a snap judgment based on your race or sex.

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One Comment
  1. 02/10/2011 12:09 am

    A really good article! The possible reasons as to why the black boy made such an accusation(without generalising too much) is so difficult to explain to people who are not black. Thanks for this!

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