Written by: Emmanuel Ferreira (pen name)
Can black people be racist? Popular discourse on the subject would argue that this depends on your definition of racism.
On one hand, you have those that define racism as a historic, global system of oppression that resulted in the perpetual subjugation of black people, and that it would be absurd to argue that the victims of the system could be capable of wielding this system against its perpetrators. Therefore, black people can’t be racist.
On the other hand, you have the dictionary. The dictionary defines racism as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
First of all, let’s note the word ‘belief’. Racism is a ‘belief’. Not an action or a system or a function of power or privilege. It’s an idea.
Secondly, note the word ‘especially’. That’s a strong but ultimately unnecessary qualifier. In other words, racism is a belief that people of a particular race all possess characteristics specific to that race. Period. But in addition to that, if that belief then leads you conclude that those characteristics make one race better or worse than another one, then that is very much a case of racism.
In other words, according to the dictionary, racism is a generalization about people that could result in prejudice. It’s faulty reasoning that leads to a distorted sense of relative human value based on superficial physical and cultural characteristics.
I prefer the dictionary definition to the modern reinterpretation because the former is more accurate and nuanced.
Racism is, fundamentally, bad judgment. At it’s most logical (which isn’t very logical), racism finds something bad or wrong with an individual and extends it towards everybody else who shares that person’s skin colour. That’s a classic racist trope. A good example is this tweet by Andile Mngxitama after the pastor of a church made some offensive comments.
Mngxitama tweeted: “I hear a white Pretoria pastor has [said] some stuff they normally say in private about blacks. is that not how they all think?”
Here is a man wresting with the compulsion to ascribe the thoughts of one person on an entire population group.
And you don’t even need to be negative or pernicious to have racist thoughts. According to the dictionary definition, it is racist to have positive or encouraging ideas that pertain to an entire race. (Not being racist is really hard!) So saying “Chinese people are good at mathematics” is just as racist as saying “Chinese people are idiots because they believe that rhino horns give erections”. Both of these statements are wrong because somewhere out there is a Chinese person who sucks at sums, and I’m pretty sure that many Chinese people are outraged by the slaughter of rhinoceros. But the derogatory thought is just as racist as the flattering one.
That’s because the essence of the definition of racism is before the word “especially” – it is the mistaken belief that all people who belong to a race are the same in some way or another. Whether this characteristic is good or bad is immaterial. It’s an erroneous and dangerous and stupid belief.
This is important to point out because the positive type of racist thought can very easily lead to the negative one. If a person is able (or allowed or encouraged) to think “all white people are industrious” then she is also able to think “all white people are greedy”. The two are the flip sides of the same coin. What matters is the logic, not the content.
Make no mistake, oppressive race-based systems exist, and they are abhorrent, but that’s exactly what they are: abhorrent, oppressive race-based systems and structures.
Racism is not the system. Racism is the mindset that justifies the system. Racist thinking says that groups of people deserve to be oppressed because they are inferior. Racism results in oppression if one group is able to exert power over the other.
Let’s examine the statement: “Black people who hate white people are not racist, they’re just prejudiced.”
Prejudice, like racism, is a mistake. Almost everyone is prejudiced against something or another. There are people who look down on the disabled, for instance. Or those who think that their nationality makes them superior. Or some people who are prejudiced against homosexuals. Or old people. Or Jews. Some forms of prejudice are not even so bad. There are people, for instance, who look down on fans of Justin Bieber. That is a form of prejudice. Somewhere out there is someone who is prejudiced against people who are left handed. Or short.
(Side note: bigots are people who harbor prejudices, and who feel righteous about their prejudices, to the point that they look down on or disdain others who do not share their beliefs. The dictionary defines bigotry as: “A person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.”)
So racism is a form or a subset of prejudice. It is one specific type of prejudice. One of many. Racism is a prejudice that takes skin colour as its criterion for vilification or, if there is power, discrimination.
Just as there are many forms of prejudice other than racism, there are also many other forms of oppression other than racial oppression.
For example, a member of ISIS in Syria is a bigot whose desire is to impose a system of religious oppression on other people. The ISIS fundamentalist in the Levant is probably not a racist, since her primary criterion for discrimination is not race but religion: she doesn’t care if you’re white or black, as long as you adhere to the rules of her religious denomination closely enough. So we call this religious oppression. We don’t call it deism.
There is a scientific explanation for racism and prejudice. It has to do with how our brains work. Our brains are remarkable, complex and brilliant machines that facilitate our survival by making decisions about our surroundings based on inductive and deductive reasoning.
Inductive reasoning looks at specific phenomena and makes broad generalisations from them. (I dropped this egg. It broke. If I drop eggs, they will break. Let me not drop my precious eggs.) Deductive logic concocts or invokes generalisations, and makes specific predictions from them. (Eggs break easily. If I drop this one on the concrete floor, it will break.)
Racism is a fault of inductive reasoning because the human brain is better at inductive reasoning than it is at deductive reasoning. With inductive reasoning, the human brain looks patterns, and creates rules that predict the future or generalize about the nature of the world. Deductive reasoning makes generalisations, and then tests them with specific observations.
Inductive reasoning is quick and dirty and good for survival. Deductive reasoning is slow and difficult and good for scientific endeavour.
If the human brain was as good at deductive reasoning as it is at inductive reasoning, then there would be far fewer racists in this world. Racist reasoning says: “White people are selfish.” And this is confirmed by the fact that many white people are selfish. But some white people are not selfish. According to deductive reasoning, the statement is then false. But our weak brain, which favours inductive reasoning, says, “Okay, maybe some white people are not selfish but to protect myself from those that are, I’m going to stick with this theory. Better to be safe than to be taken advantage of by a selfish white person.” Science versus survival. Science abhors falsehood; survival selfishly accepts a margin of error if it results in self-preservation.
If we accept that under some circumstances the human brain makes errors in judgment, it’s not that much of a stretch to posit that under some circumstances racism is understandable – even expected.
If one race consistently oppresses another, then the oppressed race will view the oppressor as evil. Is that a racist reaction? Technically, yes. But it is also an excusable one. Does that mean that racism is right? No. It can’t be. But if it is a matter of survival, then your brain is probably justified in coming to that conclusion.
Perhaps a better question than “can black people be racist” would be “are black people justified in being racist towards whites?” And the answer to that would be: absolutely.
If your race has been consistently, systematically and chronically oppressed by another, then it’s perfectly understandable why you would become a racist against your oppressor. It’s justifiable to create a notion of ‘whiteness’ and rebel against it.
The real saints in this world are the black people who aren’t racist. Each black person who is not a racist is a small walking miracle. Black people have every right and reason to be racist. It takes an almost superhuman amount of wisdom and generosity to not become a racist in the face of oppression. It’s like an abused child breaking that cycle. It is very difficult, and very admirable.
But if black people are told and believe that they are incapable of racism then that conversation and self-examination will never be able to happen. But the effects of that are another conversation altogether.