I’ve heard it used in class by my students. I’ve heard it used in arguments about affirmative action. I’ve heard it used by frustrated whites who feel their rights are being trampled in some way. But, every time I hear someone use “reverse racism” I cringe, and the same thought pops into my head—“reverse racism” is not a thing. First, let’s break down the term itself and try to glean some sort of meaning from the words. Reverse means that something is going back in the opposite direction from which it started. Racism is a complicated term that people use to mean a variety of things. To be clear, when I use the term racism, I am referring to a system of oppression that is infused within institutions, laws, policies, and practices in the United States. Racism is not the same thing as prejudice, and it’s important to start by making that distinction. Everyone has the potential to have prejudices (and, therefore, be prejudiced), but everyone does not participate in and benefit from the system of racism equitably. So, if one puts the terms “reverse” and “racism” together, one is essentially referencing a system of oppression going back in the opposite direction from which it started.
Let’s break that down a bit further. In simplest terms, the system of oppression in the United States dates back to the 1600s with those who were able to declare themselves as “white” oppressing anyone and everyone who was not considered “white.” This system infiltrated U.S. laws, policies, institutions (like education and government), and common practices. So, if racism started as the oppression of people of color by whites, then the reverse would have to be the oppression of whites by people of color. Using semantics and logic, that must be what anyone using the term “reverse racism” means. So, why do I argue that “reverse racism” is not a thing? Simply put, the system of racism in this country has been operating for over 400 years and cannot just be “reversed” by policies like affirmative action or whites becoming a numerical minority in some parts of the country. Being denied admission into a university over a student of color, not being hired by an organization over a “minority” candidate, or being one of a few white students in your school/neighborhood and being treated differently is NOT the same thing as oppression. Additionally, equating policies and practices that have been put in place in an effort to bring people of color to the same starting line that whites have stood on for hundreds of years to racism is just false and completely illogical.
To put this in another way, Fish (1993) argues in his article about “reverse racism” that “when the deck is stacked against you in more ways than you can even count, it is small consolation to hear that you are now free to enter the game and take your chances.” Systemic racism is a part of the very fabric of the United States and whites have benefited from this system for hundreds of years—and we continue to benefit from it today. Therefore, as whites, we cannot simply claim that the entire system has been reversed every time that we feel we’ve been disenfranchised in some minor (or major) way. It sucks that you didn’t get that job or didn’t get into that school or were treated badly by your colleagues/neighbors—but you’re not being systemically oppressed, and to claim otherwise is offensive. Please eliminate the term “reverse racism” from your vocabulary—it’s just not a thing.
If you'd like to check out Fish's article, click here