What people mean when they say all white people are racist

Differing definitions.
Differing definitions.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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As you may have heard, L’Oréal hired a black transgender model to be the face of its diversity campaign. Then the cosmetics giant fired her—for delving into the messy politics of racism.

Munroe Bergdorf, the brand’s first transgender model, wrote a Facebook post in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, blasting “the racial violence of white people.” She said she had lost patience white people who “don’t even realize or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of color. Your entire existence is drenched in racism. From micro-aggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this s***.” (The post has since been deleted but has been widely published).

Bergdorf’s comments sparked backlash and some rather overwrought press coverage. L’Oréal—which had described Bergdorf as “the face of modern diversity” when she was first recruited as part of its #allworthit campaign—quickly distanced itself, saying the model’s views were “at odds” with the brand’s values and announcing it would end its partnership with her.

So, was Bergdorf saying that am racist?

It’s complicated. In a follow-up statement, Bergdorf said she was addressing society as a whole and a system “rooted in white supremacy—designed to benefit, prioritize and protect white people before anyone of any other race.” She argues that white people are socialized to be racist, just as men are socialized to be sexist. The onus is on each person to “unlearn” that socialization, she adds.

There’s more than one kind of racism

What Bergdorf appeared to be talking about is systemic racism—the kind based in historical inequities that has ongoing wide-reaching effects, from economic marginalization to daily microaggressions to unequal treatment in the criminal justice system—as distinct from individual racism.

Both forms of racism exist, of course, and they’re easy to conflate. The cultural commentator Jay Smooth explains the difference between individual racism and systemic racism in this video, pointing out that “When we constantly focus only on individual stories, it distorts our sense of how racism works. It encourages us to see racism only as the product of overt intentional racist acts by individuals that can be fixed simply by shaming and correcting those individual defects.”

What’s wrong with saying “not all white people are racist”?

The topic is still as controversial today as it was in 1971, when the boxer and activist Muhammad Ali’s responded brilliantly to the argument that “not all white people” are racist. “There are many white people who mean right and in their hearts wanna do right,” Ali told the BBC. But, he went on:

If 10,000 snakes were coming down that aisle now, and I had a door that I could shut, and in that 10,000, 1,000 meant right, 1,000 rattlesnakes didn’t want to bite me, I knew they were good.

Should I let all these rattlesnakes come down, hoping that thousand get together and form a shield? Or should I just close the door and stay safe?”

Bergdorf wasn’t the only person publicly pilloried for making such an argument even just in the last month. Cambridge University student Jason Osamede Okundaye was also slammed for supposed anti-white racism. Like Bergdorf, Okundaye said his comments were stripped of context, and he explained that he was making a rhetorical point about institutional discrimination.

I simply meant to observe that racial prejudice, where it exists, transcends gender, class, sexuality and age. Hence my statement that “white middle class, white working class, white men, white women, white gays, white children” are racist, while rhetorically hyperbolic, was a clear reference to the fact that racism is not an exclusive characteristic of any one demographic. My experiences as a black gay man facing racism from white gay men have taught me this.

So, can black people be racist too?

At the heart of the issue is the definition of racism. One school of thought defines racism as “prejudice plus power”—a definition used since the 1970s in American academia to describe a society’s structural racism. By this definition—one that many balk against—for one to be a racist they not only need to be prejudiced, but need the backing of institutional power.

In the US, white people hold that power. Black Americans are still significantly behind white Americans in terms of wealth and educational attainment; are poorly represented in major democratic institutions, and are severely discriminated against in the criminal justice system. And the US has a long and ugly history of slavery and discrimination against black Americans.

It’s this definition of racism that is used when people claim that black people can’t be racist, and to dismiss claims of “reverse-racism” (when minorities are prejudiced against the majority).

There are obvious limitations to the privilege-plus-power definition. Critics suggest it’s unclear what the formula means by power (do a blue-collar worker and a CEO wield the same power if they’re both white?).

The formula is also focused on race relations between white people and minorities in the West—it sheds little light on race relations to the global south (what of the UAE citizen and their Asian maid? Or the black Israeli soldier and the Palestinian?). This definition also ignores racial dynamics between ethnic minorities in the West.

For many, however, the privilege plus power definition of racism is an important foundation for discussion of structural racism in society. It’s an important stepping stone to debate ideas around identities and the privileges it can afford us.

Real diversity requires engagement with the messy politics of race

L’Oréal’s decision to drop Bergdorf has caused its own backlash. Those angered by Bergdorf’s firing are calling for a boycott of the beauty brand and have shown their support with the hashtag #IStandWithMunroe.

Bergdorf has described her firing as a stark example of companies wanting to build on black activists’ and influencers’ cultural capital, without being willing to change the status quo. The message her firing sends, Bergdorf wrote, is: “Sit still and smile in a beauty campaign ‘championing diversity’. But don’t actually speak about the fact that lack of diversity is due to racism. Or speak about the origins of racism. It’ll cost you your job.”