2.13. Why There’s No Such Thing as “Reverse” Discrimination

Racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic discrimination aren’t the same as the usual, garden-variety kind of group favoritism we can develop.

Just about everyone agrees that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are a big problem.

But we don’t all agree on what exactly racism or sexism is. And that’s a big impediment to dealing with it.

There’s a big misunderstanding at the heart of these disagreements. And that’s when folks confuse racism, sexism, and other forms of systemic discrimination with the usual, garden-variety kind of group favoritism we can develop.

Anybody who identifies with a certain group can develop feelings of pride, preference, superiority, or bias. We do it with all kinds of group affiliations, even our favorite sports teams.

This kind of “my-group-is-better-than-your-group” favoritism can happen to anyone, in any group. It can go both ways.

If you confuse racism and sexism for this kind of favoritism, then you can start to believe in “reverse” racism or sexism, or that there are unfair “double standards,” or that all you have to do is not think mean thoughts or factor race or gender into your decisions, and then all is good.

But that’s not the case. Because racism and sexism are about way more than ordinary favoritism.

Racism and sexism are woven into the very fabric of our society. Racism and sexism are embedded in our laws, our norms, and our values. Racism and sexism are about hundreds of years of institutionally sanctioned subordination of women and people of color.

They’re about how the people in those groups aren’t treated fairly under the law, are prevented or discouraged from voting, don’t receive as good of an education, are paid less for their work, and are discriminated against in housing, employment applications, and job promotions.

Yes, we all have our struggles. But women and people of color have additional struggles, built into how our institutions are set up. And they have to overcome the stereotypes of inferiority that have resulted from centuries of being made inferior.

We who aren’t women or people of color benefit from this arrangement. No matter what we think or feel about marginalized people, there are things we never have to worry about or contend with that they do.

So when white men like me say or do things that perpetuate those systems of discrimination, our words and actions hurt more, have a greater impact, and we’re more likely to get away with them. They have more oomph—because they have the oomph of systemic discrimination behind them.

The difference between a white person hating a black person and vice versa is like the difference between going with the current or against the current.

It’s the difference between having the wind at your back and trying to go against the wind.

It’s the difference between being a bully…and standing up to a bully.

So there’s no such thing as “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” There’s no such thing as “double standards.” It’s silly to claim that you “don’t see race,” and to pretend that somehow absolves you from racism.

I’m not saying group favoritism isn’t an issue too. But that’s not what racism and sexism are about. And so, to a large extent, when we try to talk about those things, we’re talking past each other.

If we can clear up this misunderstanding, and get on the same page about what systemic discrimination is all about…hopefully our conversations will become more productive.


This is the 41st in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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