Is it possible to be racist to white people?

9 Mar 2024
Can you be racist to white people

NB: I’ve been sitting on this draft article since last year just slowly fine tuning both the article and my thinking on the subject, but in a week where we have people debating whether a person of colour can be racist to an Indigenous person and whether or not an Indian person can be racist to a white person, I figured it was worth moving it to the front of my very long and ever growing to-do list.

One of the more interesting topics that comes up in delivering our anti-racism workshops is the question of ‘can Indigenous people be racist to white people?’.

Many of the people in our workshops who answer ‘YES!’ to this question are generally imagining it through a lens of personal prejudice in social interactions. That time an Aboriginal kid was mean to them in school, or when someone called them ‘white’, or some other individual act or belief. They are imagining an abstract and static definition of racism that can operate from any place and in any direction. In other words, they are not considering the dynamics of racism and the disparities and privileges it creates and maintains. 

In response, I often ask them how Indigenous people can use racism to significantly reduce the average life expectancy of white people? How could we increase their likelihood of incarceration, chances of having their children removed from their care, or otherwise impede their ability to freely access essential services within society? How could we use it to deny them their human rights or to take away their supposed sovereignty over our lands and waters? 

That is what racism does to us, so if we can be racist to them, why doesn’t it have the same impact on them? Why doesn’t racism benefit us in the way it benefits white supremacy?  

First, racism doesn’t really work like that

It’s not surprising that so many people have such a simple understanding of racism. Australia has worked hard over the past 40 years at ensuring people have  very low literacy when it comes to issues of race and racism largely centred around trying to redefine racism as an individual issue rather than a societal one. As John Howard said, “I don’t think there is underlying racism in Australia. I think there are racists in Australia.” e.g. individual racism exists, but institutional and systemic racism do not. 

The standard definition of racism is usually something along the lines of ‘The belief that different races have distinct qualities, attributes and characteristics, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another’.

Given the broader social, historical and institutional contexts of racism we see this definition becomes inadequate fairly quickly when we try to apply it to the complicated world in which we live. It is not a useful definition for considering issues of personal accountability, discussing power dynamics, exploring positionality and relationships to racism, let alone for considering how to eliminate racism, improve outcomes, and dismantle racist systems. 

Racism isn’t just a ‘belief’, and we don’t exist within a vacuum or on a level playing field for this abstract definition to operate the same way with the same impacts on everybody equally. 

Racism is more than just personal beliefs or hurt feelings. It is more than just ignorance and apathy from an individual. Institutional racism has always been about power, profit and control. To ignore this and frame racism as solely an individual issue on a level playing field is to dismiss the very real impacts of racism over the past 500 years as a means of justifying systems 

Key white people in government and media have spent the last 40 years or so ignoring, denying and dismissing the impacts of racism as merely being about ‘hurt feelings’ in order to undermine or redirect legitimate conversations about racism. Denying the existence of institutional racism and the very real impacts of it in key social indicators has been strategic. 

The irony of this is after they have spent years complaints of racism as hurt feelings and therefore irrelevant, white people started to co-opt the language of the oppressed to complain about their hurt feelings anytime someone called them ‘white’, or did anything to name or challenge white supremacy. 

The problem with questions like, whether white people can experience racism, or a question like ‘Is Australia racist?’ is that it is pointless if you do not have at least a basic understanding of what racism is, where it comes from, how it has changed over time (or not), how it operates today, what it justifies, who it benefits, and who it harms.

Not only does Australia not have a good collective understanding of what we mean by ‘racist’, we also don’t have a good understanding of what we mean by ‘Australia’. Do we mean a majority of individual Australians, or do we mean the systems of government? Do we mean dominate social and cultural norms, or do we just mean ‘white people’? It’s also worth considering how, within the dominant media norms in this country, a term like ‘Australians’ or even ‘people’ can so commonly be used synonymously with ‘white people’ – which is probably pretty hard to do without a decent understanding of racism. I think this is probably why we can trot this question out every year for the annual media circle jerk around January 26th without actually ever seeming to get anywhere closer to answering the question, let alone actually abolishing the date. 

Racism is embedded in our institutions

Rather than thinking about racism as an abstract concept with a fixed definition that can be applied equally in all directions, it is perhaps better to think about racism first as a story. A story with an origin, with key players, one that, over 500 years and after spreading to every continent on Earth and becoming codified in laws, media, politics, religion, and social norms, has become increasingly convoluted and harder to keep up with all of the different elements. Despite its seeming intractability and complexity, it is also fairly simple and straightforward. Injustice and inequality are never that difficult to recognise. Just identify the status quo and see who is benefiting from it and who is being harmed by it.

There is a quote I remember from my younger days that I have unfortunately never been able to track down since, it said something along the lines of ‘Europeans didn’t become slave traders because they were racist, they became racist because they were slave traders’. It always stayed with me and took me a long time to really understand and appreciate.

Maybe it’s a bit chicken and egg-ish, but it’s important to understand that systems of racism didn’t spring from racist ideas and beliefs, but rather racist ideas and beliefs were created to justify emerging systems of profit, power and control that quickly shifted to target specific racialised groups. 

Racism is, and has always been, an effective means of providing moral, legal, social and scientific justifications for policies and practices that would otherwise be unjustifiable.

There are only two ways to justify profiting from the denial of human rights to a particular group of people – either deny your own humanity and embrace the reality that what you are doing is evil and inhumane, or, deny the humanity of those you are oppressing and exploiting. This is critical to understanding the formation of white superiority and systems of white supremacy. 

Since racism arose around the Enlightenment, when white people were positioning themselves as the superior race, with not just superior cultures, superior intellects and superior institutions, but also superior morals and ethics, they chose the latter. They created and employed racism as a means of justifying inhumane and highly profitable practices such as slavery and genocide, and justified these beliefs and actions within social, legal and scientific frameworks. Basically, this provided the necessary framework to allow them to do terrible things for power and profit while still believing themselves to be good people. 

Rather than thinking about racism as an abstract concept with a fixed definition that can be applied equally in all directions, it is perhaps better to think about racism first as a story. A story with an origin, with key players, one that, over 500 years and after spreading to every continent on Earth and becoming codified in laws, media, politics, religion, and social norms, has become increasingly convoluted. Despite its seeming intractability and complexity, it is also fairly simple and straightforward. Injustice is never that difficult to recognise. 

This does not mean that all white people benefit from racism in the same ways or to the same extent, just as not all other racialised peoples (or individuals within these groups) are harmed by racism in the same ways or to the same extent. This does not change the overall narrative, it is just the inevitable consequence of a story that is so vast and involves so many people and places over such a long period of time.

Some contexts to consider

Intention, interpretation, impact

When it comes to examining racism in Australia we spend a lot of time considering the intention of individuals (especially white people) when they do something racist. But we spend much less considering the interpretation of those who experience it, and even less time considering the impacts of these acts of racism on the people it affects. 

When racism happens at work, we typically define it by what the accused person “believes.” We often view racism as either outright evil (like Hitler or the KKK) or accidental or unintentional (like unconscious bias). So, when a colleague, someone we chat with about everyday life, like our kids or the footy, is accused of racism, we tend to lean towards believing it was accidental. This bias in favour of assuming innocence is a built-in benefit of the doubt that whiteness affords itself, even before a thorough investigation begins.

This means if you chose to raise concerns about this person’s comments or actions, you’re likely not to receive any benefit of the doubt, since there is no doubt about the other person’s intentions. “Because they’re not an evil person, and only evil people can be racist.” And because racism is defined by what racists believe, their intent, the interpretation, experience and impacts of racism are barely factored in, or viewed through a lens that automatically assumes they are trumped by the ‘good intentions’ of the person who said or did the racist thing. 

Maybe you just took it the wrong way? Maybe you are being oversensitive? Or even worse, maybe you are playing the race card?! Maybe you just don’t want to do their job, and so you are calling ‘racism’ in order to get out of doing actual work?

This is why I have long stated it is still much more damaging to your career to be the victim of racism and call it out than it is to be accused of being racist.

White people often don’t want to be racialised because they think being called white is a form of racism. Yet they don’t seem to acknowledge that all other racialised groups are still commonly referred to in racialised terms. I’ve already written about this, but the short version is that whiteness has maintained its belief in the racial superiority of white people not by asserting themselves to be the top of an imagined racial hierarchy, but by imagining themselves to have evolved beyond issues of race, ethnicity and culture – this is why when we say ‘Ethnic’ in Australia we mean everyone who isn’t white, when we say ‘multicultural’ we mean every culture except white people’s, when we say ‘diverse’ we mean everyone who isn’t white, when we say ‘people of colour’ we mean everyone who isn’t white, and white people are the only group who can refer to themselves as just ‘people’ without feeling a need to add a racialised adjective before it. This has allowed people to maintain white supremacy without needing to acknowledge or name it. They are just ‘people’, the norm by which everyone else must position themselves as different from and implicitly within this framework, different from becomes synonymous with ‘less than’ or ‘inferior to’. Even white people who ‘love other cultures’ still view them as inferior when they fail to acknowledge they too have a culture. If you believe that you have reality and I have culture, no matter how much you profess to love and respect it, it is still positioned as inherently inferior to your own by virtue of it ‘not being real’. No matter how much you profess to love and respect people of other racialised groups, if you believe yourself to be the norm from which all others deviate, you cannot ignore the parallels with the history of racism which used this normalisation to enforce racist ideas, beliefs, policies and practices. 

Can people who aren’t white be racist to each other? 

Considering racism as a story, one that very much still holds unimaginable levels of power, also helps us to frame questions about whether or not, for example, a person from another racialised group could be racist to an Indigenous person.

It is possible for individuals to perpetuate the same racist ideas and behaviours of white people and reinforce, justify and exacerbate the racist experiences and outcomes of other racialised peoples, or the systems which oppress us, even within their own racial group. They may or not directly benefit from this.

It is possible though for certain individuals from outside the dominant group to exploit racism for personal gain. Imagine an Indigenous person who builds a political or media career from denying the existence of racism or the ongoing impacts of colonisation on other Indigenous people. They can directly benefit from racism for personal and political gain, compound the racism experienced by others, while still suffering the impacts of racism in other contexts or situations. 

As discussed, racism is not just a personal matter of ‘belief’ or ‘intent’. It is institutional. It is both systemic and systematic. This means that it is both deeply embedded within our systems and that it is methodical in how it plays out and continues to produce a disparity of outcomes.

So, no.

Collectively, only white people as a group benefit from racism within Australia (and other white dominated countries). Within the current systems of power that we exist in, white people are not the victims of racism. 

If an institution, following its normal policies, procedures and practices, continues to produce a disparity of outcomes for racialised groups, that is in and of itself, institutional racism. Same goes for the nation as a whole.

Individual beliefs and actions cannot be viewed or considered without an awareness of this power imbalance, in ignorance of the disparate levels of outcomes and privileges that racism affords or denies. 

In this light, an Anglo-Indian person calling a white police officer a ‘stupid white bastard’ cannot be seen in the same light as a white person using a racialised insult against an Indigenous person or a person of colour. Also, in a situation like this my first thought is not ‘Is that a racist comment?’ it’s ‘What is the inciting incident that led to her making that comment?’

Similarly, anyone who calls an Indigenous person a ‘monkey’ cannot ignore or be excused from perpetuating a racist belief and causing racist harm. Experiencing similar or even identical harm does not excuse someone from causing it to others. 

The definition of racism might be centred on what racists believe (for now at least, it certainly doesn’t have to be – looking at you Macquarie Dictionary!), but anti-racism must be centred on experiences, actions, and outcomes and, in order to do this, we need to be looking at alternatives beyond a status quo that benefits white people and allows their beliefs or intentions to take precedent over the impacts of racist words or actions or the racist policies they support or justify.  

The biggest issue though, is when we are talking about racism, the question should not be centred around questions of belief and intent of those who benefit from racism, It should be focussed on how we dismantle systems of power, profit, control and privilege and how we improve outcomes and empower those who racism works to disempower, exploit and oppress.

Individuals have a role to play in this, but it is not in white people co opting the language of the oppressed and reinforcing their sacred right to racial invisibility or pretending that being called white is in any way comparable to the racism experienced by everyone else. The role of individuals is to be accountable for their own actions, speak up against all forms of racism and injustice and, crucially, to oppose racist policies and practices and to work towards dismantling systems of racism.

When I was coming up, I remember being told that if I was lucky enough to climb over the wall it was my responsibility not to build the wall higher but instead to throw a rope over to those still on the other side… There is a truth in this but the one thing I add when I’m talking to young ones out there doing their thing is that it’s not enough just to throw a rope over, it’s also to do everything in your power to knock the wall down.

And as Ijeoma Oluo reminds us, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” 

Also, in case you just skipped to the end because this is way too long (fair cop) and you wanted to read the conclusion hoping for a TLDR summary, here’s a video from Aamer Rahman from a few years back which basically says the same stuff but is much shorter and funnier:

Back to Stories
Related posts

Impact statement from Nathan Booth’s family

Nathan Booth was reported missing in July 2019, and after months of inaction from the police, his body was found in December that year, in the Murrumbidgee. After five years of waiting, the inquest into Nathan’s death is continuing this week. Yesterday Nathan’s family made a statement, which we have published with their permission.

Sorry Day: “I don’t want to stand here in 10 years-time doing the same thing”

Disclaimer: Readers please be advised this article mentions the historical and ongoing Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children being taken from their families and contains images of…

The Royal Commission Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody shows a history of no police accountability

Readers please be advised this article mentions harm against Aboriginal people, deaths in custody, names of people who have passed away, and racist terminology. In…

Enquire now

If you are interested in our services or have any specific questions, please send us an enquiry.