Can Racial Minorities be Racists?

This issue has come up a few times for me in recent days. Apparently, there has been an argument advanced saying that only those in a majority group can be racist/sexist/etc. because these -isms require power. Someone in the audience brought it up when I saw Keith Boykin (Keith Boykin's Site/Blog) speak last week. And one of my readers, Simoney, made the following comment:

Any -ism only works one way: the majority or the stronger party someone downing on the minority or weaker party.

This is why I can tell 'racist' and 'sexist' jokes; I'm a black female. So it's not >really< racism if I say "those crazy white guys, always tryin' to dance with their DDR. aren't they so goofy and funny?!" And that's why Wanda Sykes is successful. ...But if Jeff Foxworthy started telling jokes about black women, it would be on like Donkey Kong.

Our society is retarded like that. :)

There might have been some sarcasm in that comment - I'm not always the best at noticing. But it's the position I'm interested in, so I'll consider this as an example the attitude some people have that I'm dealing with.

The Argument?

In simple form, it goes something like this:

  • (1a) To be a racist, a person must be in a racial group with power over other groups.
  • (2a) Person-Y is a racial minority,
  • (3a) So Person-Y is not in a racial group with power.
  • (4a) Therefore, Person-Y cannot be a racist.

  • If we accept (1a), the rest does indeed follow. So the question is whether or not we should accept the claim that for a person to be racist, they must be in a racial group with power over other groups (the groups they are racist against, at least).

    Another Shot at the Argument?

    It doesn't seem that being racist has this requirement. After all, isn't racism just about having a prejudice against members of a certain racial group because of their race?

    But let's be generous to this argument and try to make it as plausible as possible. There is, I think, a missing premise in the argument as I gave it before. So let's give it another shot:

  • (1b)Racism has two parts: racist attitudes and particular racist actions
  • (2b)The particular racist actions required for racism are oppression
  • (3b)In general, members of less powerful groups cannot oppress members of more powerful groups
  • (4b)Racial minority groups are less powerful than the racial majority
  • (5b)Person-Y is a racial minority
  • (6b)Person-Y, then, cannot oppress members of the racial majority
  • (7b)Therefore, Person-Y is not a racist.

  • This argument seems to better explain the position I'm interested in. So now the question is this: are racist actions (oppression) required for a person to be a racist?

    Do Racists have to Oppress?

    I think the answer to this is clearly no - racism is the having of racist attitudes simply, regardless of whether or not this leads to actions that actually oppress a racial group. But for those who are inclined to disagree, I'll motivate it with a thought experiment:

    The Back-Water "Racists"?
    There is a very small and very isolated town deep in the woods. The region in which this town is located has an almost entirely caucasian population - no racial minorities. This particular town has a completely white population. The few hundred people who live there rarely leave town - there are occasional ventures into the next town for farming supplies and other goods, but other than that the townspeople keep to themselves.

    No one in the town has ever encountered a black person (or any racial minority). There is no way in which their actions could be said to affect, directly or indirectly, any racial minority - aside from the people in the next town, no one even really knows or thinks about them.

    But the townspeople do have televisions and radios, so they know black people exist. And they don't like black people because of the skin color difference. They dislike them so much that hold anti-black rallies, burning effigies of black people and chanting racist slogans. Of course, no one knows about this but them, and since they never come into contact with any black people, it doesn't cause any oppression or harm.

    Are they racist?

    If anyone doesn't think so, feel free to tell me why. But I find it hard to imagine how a person wouldn't consider the people in this town to be racists. And if they are, since they do not actually oppress any racial minorities, that means that racism does not require racist action in the form of oppression.

    So What Does 'Racist' Mean?

    Another way to support the view that racism only requires racist attitudes is simply to look at how the word 'racist' is used. Wordweb says:

    Racist - Noun: "A person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others"

    Racist - Adjective: (1) "Based on racial intolerance" (2)"Discriminatory especially on the basis of race or religion"

    Racism - Noun: (1)The prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races (2)Discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race

    The second definition of "racism" does mention behavior. But the behavior it mentions is not necessarily oppression - a person of any racial group might discriminate against people of other races by refuses to talk to them or associate with them, and might abuse them through words or actions. But if we accept the claim that oppression can only be carried out, in general, by those in power, this type of behavior is not oppression when carried out by minority groups. But you would be hard pressed to argue that certain actions are not discrimination or abuse even when done by a minority.


    Nothing in the meaning of "racist" or "racism" requires that the person who is a racist is in a majority group with power over minority groups. While this might be necessary in general for a person to oppress another, I've shown that racism does not require oppressive actions. The question of whether or not racism requires any racist actions in the form of discriminatory or abusive behavior is open for debate - I would consider an individual with prejudiced attitudes toward another race to be racist even if she did not engage in discriminatory or abusive action based on those beliefs. But regardless of whether or not this sort of action is required, it still is not necessary that a racist be in a majority group with the power.

    Racial minorities can be racists too. And there are in fact racial minorities who are racist - probably a good many. Racial minorities who hate white people for being white are racists too, and the fact that particular white people have in the past oppressed people of other races is not a justification for this racism. That is the same sort of 'justification' many white racists use - some racial minorities hurt society by rape, robbery, and murder, and white racists make judgments about entire groups of people based on those few examples. That's no different than racial minorities judging all whites based on actions that not all whites performed.

    What do YOU think?
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