A White woman wrote to an advice column in the Guardian, asking whether people of colour could be racist and if racism towards White individuals was “a real thing”. The response she received was not only extremely passive-aggressive, which makes one wonder why she bothered to ask the question in the first place, but also reflected a prevailing trend where questions from White individuals on race are often dismissed or met with accusations of insensitivity.
The columnist responded by stating that the woman’s question “lacked empathy” and was too self-centred. She then went further to claim that Black people cannot be racist because they lack the social power to act on their prejudices.
Indeed, racism can exist when prejudice intersects with power, but power manifests in complex ways and can shift based on the context.
Black people, like any other racial or ethnic group, can have social power in various ways. Power dynamics are complex and multifaceted, not singular or static, contrary to the misconceptions held by some. From cultural influence to social activism, Black people have played a crucial role in shaping societal conversations around specific issues such as race and identity. We have successfully challenged many long-held social norms. Black individuals possess significant social influence to the extent that others often attempt to leverage “the Black struggle” to legitimise their own specific causes.
To assert that Black people have absolutely no social power is dishonest, and it’s a wonder why some individuals insist on denying this reality. Perhaps this denial allows one to continue capitalising, both socially and financially, on a victimhood narrative.
Nevertheless, there are specific instances where it is accepted that Black people (or people of colour) can indeed exhibit racism. Quoting a recent article by writer Michael Deacon, “the notion persists that non-White people cannot be guilty of racism, except in one very specific circumstance: when the non-White person is a conservative”. According to Deacon, since progressives argue that all conservatives are racist, it implies that non-White conservatives must be racist too, and, in fact, the “most shocking racists,” as they are seen to betray their race to fit into or appease a “White system”.
It’s utterly bizarre that there are still arguments about who can or cannot be racist. Employing the rigid and often dishonest notion of power dynamics, it becomes evident that such ideas are manipulated as tools, distorting definitions to align with specific agendas. What is even more disconcerting is the perpetuation of the false belief that only White individuals can be racist, which continues to establish an environment where discrimination and racism against White people are wrongly justified.
This misguided belief frequently results in the adoption of separate and exclusionary policies or the endorsement of segregationist practices, all masquerading as efforts to redress so-called societal imbalances. If racism is defined such that White people alone can be perpetrators, that provides cover for manifestations of discrimination, oppression, or abuses targeting them. It creates a separate set of rules and a climate of division where attacking people for their ethnicity is condoned if those people are labelled privileged or oppressors. Racism in any direction should be condemned, not excused through faulty rationale.
The notion that people of colour cannot be racist inherently denies their full autonomy and humanity. Portraying minority ethnic groups as fundamentally incapable of racism promotes an infantilising view of people of colour and removes their moral agency. Racism, in any direction, should be taboo. Compartmentalising entire racial groups as either helpless victims or inherently racist villains is both factually dubious and ethically questionable.
Productive discussion about race relations demands nuance, mutual empathy, and honesty regarding the complex historical and societal forces at play. We must be willing to understand contrasting experiences, acknowledge difficult truths, and analyse how prejudice manifests across various situations. Seeking consistency in our ethical principles often requires moving past selective ideological positions or viewing such dialogues as competitions where one side “wins” at the other’s expense.
Racism lies on a spectrum and stems from complex social dynamics between all ethnic groups. No single racial group maintains a monopoly on virtue or vice regarding prejudicial behaviours. Setting one group’s suffering against another’s in a zero-sum rhetorical competition inevitably stokes conflict rather than healing and progress.
Ada Akpala is the senior content officer of The Equiano Project.