This is for all the people who say: “So only white people can be racist? That’s ridiculous.”
Yes, only white people can be racist and I will tell you why.
Upon first glance, the statement “only white people can be racist” seems wrong. That is probably in part because the basic definition of racism goes like this: a doctrine or belief that one race is superior to another race based on biological or other inherent differences, and/or hatred of another race or races. This is the general definition if you look up the word “racism” on dictionary.com. This is the definition that people who reject the statement are working with, and because you can look it up in the dictionary, it seems that there is an objective truth to back up the position. Then the argument becomes: anyone can be racist. Which, according to the dictionary definition of racism, is correct.
However, it is false. The dictionary is not the authority on what racism is. And that is the reason people who doubt that only white people can be racist (in my experience, white people) get told by other people (in my experience, black people) to educate themselves. Or as one woman put it on twitter: “Pick up a fucking book.”
If you happened to pick up a fucking book, and if that book happened to be Cornel West and Philosophy by Clarence Johnson, you would find a chapter on how raciology became racism. This chapter outlines how during the Age of Enlightenment, the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a new focus on the sciences, with great advancements being made in many areas (especially astronomy—hello heliocentric solar system!). During this time, much of the natural world came under the lens of scientific curiosity, and many who would be scientists decided to turn their gaze towards man. This (white male) gaze saw varieties of man within the living species of man and set out to categorize them according to empirical differences, and results of this study were presented as legitimate scientific facts based upon observable data. Carl Von Linneaus published The God-Given Order of Nature, in which man is categorized as follows:
- Wild man. Characteristics: four footed, mute and hairy.
- American (i.e. Native American). Characteristic: copper-colored, choleric, erect. Hair: black, straight, thick; nostrils: wide; face: harsh; beard: scanty; obstinate, content, free; Paints himself with fine red lines; Regulated by customs.
- Fair, sanguine, brawny. Hair: yellow, brown, flowing; eyes: blue; gentle, acute, inventive. Covered with clothes vestments. Governed by laws.
- Phlegmatic, relaxed. Hair: black, frizzled; skin: silky; nose: flat; lips: tumid; crafty, indolent, negligent. Anoints himself with grease. Governed by caprice. (Eze 1997b, 13)
I’m sure you see the problem with raciology: it imparts personality traits to people based on flimsy empirical data. As Johnson puts it, “it is precisely because raciology, through its practitioners, imputes psychological characteristics to groups based on what it deems the physical; makes normative and aesthetic judgments about groups based on the practitioners’ judgments about those groups’ physical characteristics; and, most importantly, created a hierarchy of the groups—a hierarchy grounded on a supposed correlation between the psychological, normative, and physical—that it ceases to be a scientific enterprise and becomes instead a racist and White supremacist ideology” (152).
Racism therefore, is an ideology (or doctrine, or belief, to use the dictionary’s words) that has its roots firmly planted in raciology which specifically is NOT any race hating any other race or races, but is the notion that Europeans (white people) are superior to all other people naturally. How did it go from raciology to racism? Well you can see the hierarchy is built right it—it’s not much of a leap. Those writing contemporary to Linneaus, or using his work like Georges- Louis Leclerc, suggested that all non-Europeans were savages, and “incapable of thinking and inherently stupid and ignorant; hence they lack the arts and industry” (151). Toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, several philosophers and politicians used raciology to defend their racist beliefs and their racist activities, like participation in the slave trade. John Locke, one of the nation’s founding fathers, is one such case in point, however, he used the ideas in raciology to argue that black people were not people at all, and therefore they needed to be kept like animals. Hume, Kant, Hegel and Locke all formed racist ideologies with roots in raciology to defend chattel slavery. THAT is just ONE example of how racism becomes/became systemic.
The actual definition of racism is not an abstraction like we find in the dictionary. This is the case because the dictionary is meant to be a definition of general terms. What this means is that when you look up the word “car” there is a definition for cars in general, not a specific car, like a Rolls Royce. The same with “cat” and “color”—the definitions relate to these words in general, not specifically, and as such, are abstractions, which means that the definitions have a degree of separation from actual objects in the world, yet are specific enough that we can identity particulars. So if we see a particular cat that is a domestic short haired tabby with yellow eyes, white whiskers and a long, thick tail, we can call it a cat even though the dictionary doesn’t give that definite description of a particular cat, but a description of a cat in general. No cat in the real world is going to be the dictionary definition of a cat (any of several carnivores of the family Felidae) without any other particular properties (orange hair, yellow eyes, etc.).
Similarly, the dictionary doesn’t give a definite description of racism, being systemic, being white supremacist, etc. because the definition is about racism in general terms. The dictionary definition leaves out the particular features of racism as we know it, just like it leaves out particular features of individual cats.
Racism in general, as an abstraction from actual racism, is a doctrine or belief that one race is superior to another race based on biological or other inherent differences, and/or hatred of another race or races, but racism in particular, is in fact rooted in raciology and places Europeans superior to all non-Europeans. Therefore, if a person is racist, that person is white, and when we are using racism to describe a situation that is not involving a white person, we are using the word in error. The correct word is prejudice.
Anyone can be prejudiced, but only white people are racist.