What if you’re not sure whether you’re sexist and racist or just prejudiced and bigoted?

This post was inspired by a comment I received on my “What if you were Obama? What Cabinet would you build?” post.

In that post, I purposefully did not point out that my cabinet choices were all female, nor that they were racially and otherwise diverse, as I wanted to see how readers would react to this. As expected, one reader commented “wow such a racist and sexist post!! where are the men!?!??!?!?!”

Now, if someone had suggested an ALL MALE, ALL WHITE cabinet, would readers such as these react in a similar manner? NO WAY!!!!

All white male cabinets and supreme courts and juries and school boards and city councils and committees and etc, etc were the name of the game (without much dissent) until quite recently. Yet, when suggestions are made to make things all female, or all POC, people start screaming about racism and sexism. And, typically, it’s the same people who thought letting white males run the world was A-OK who cry “sexism!” or “racism!” when those in power begin to reflect the diversity of the world’s populace.

I have a real problem with these “reverse” ideas of -isms (such as reverse racism) as they discount the power dynamics and the institutionalized nature of socially sanctioned inequalities. In fact, I am of the camp that believes you cannot be “racist” against whites. You can be prejudice or discriminatory, but not racist. As explained so well in the following excerpt from Revealing Histories, racism is equal to prejudice plus power:

“An important alternative view is that, while anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be racist if it comes from the ‘race’ which over the years has been placed as superior and use their power to strengthen and enforce their prejudices. Many have argued that racism, then, equals racial prejudice plus power. According to this definition, while a Black person might be prejudiced against a White person on the basis of race, perhaps violently and unjustly, but this may not strictly be racism because the Black person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them. This idea of racism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support racism, and these support what was declared to be the ‘superior’ race.”

Now, one of the most common counter arguments to this argument tends to run like this:

“Well, what about Jesse Jackson. He has power as a black man. Why can’t he be a racist?” (For a post that argues that ALL people can be racist with this analogy, see here.)

Obviously, individual members of oppressed groups can have power – in fact this works to keep the system in place. By granting a FEW blacks power, a FEW woman powers, a FEW Latinos power, etc, people are able to point to a black woman in power and claim “See, our society really is post-racist and post-sexist! Look at Condi! Look at Oprah!” Yet, even though there are individuals in power who are not white or male, the SYSTEM of white male privilege is still in place – and racism and sexism are about this system, not about individuals.

Eric Zorn distinguishes between such differences in his article “Prejudice, bigotry and racism: Is there a difference.” He defines prejudice as thought based, bigotry as action based, and racism as systematic and institutionalized:

“I think of racial prejudice as a private thought — a personal response to an individual or situation that is based, fairly or unfairly, on experience and observation. It’s usually but not always a negative response; an invidious pre-judgment.

I think of bigotry as an act that is motivated by a negative prejudice —  those thoughts turned into deeds.

And I think of racism as a systemic application of bigotry and prejudice — the use of such sentiments to deprive group members of opportunity, dignity, safety and certain other rights based on their membership in that group and an inner belief that this group is inferior.

  • It’s prejudice when Mr. Smith feels unhappy when Mr. Johnson moves in next door because he doesn’t like Mr. Johnson’s skin color or ethnic identity.
  • It’s bigotry when Mr. Smith refuses to invite Mr. Johnson into his home or offer him friendly waves of greeting.
  • It’s racism when Mr. Smith uses threats and intimidation to attempt to drive Mr. Johnson and his family out of the neighborhood.”

Using these definitions, Zorn elucidates why one can be prejudice against whites, or carry out bigoted acts against us, but CANNOT be racist against us:

“Politically, institutionally, culturally and historically, bigoted acts motivated by prejudice against white people  have not been and are not significant roadblocks to the advancement, dignity and quality of life of white people.”

Zorn further points out that “any discussion of the problem of how to alleviate the problem of racism gets off on the wrong foot when it tries to start from the trivializing premise that we’re all guilty of it.” I agree with this sentiment – in fact, only white people can be racist according to this argument. POC can be sexist, bigoted, discriminatory, and prejudiced, but NOT racist.

Analogously, women can be prejudiced, bigoted, discriminatory towards men (or other women), but they cannot be sexist. To be sexist, one must be a male. Sexism, just like racism, is prejudice plus power. In order to elucidate, I will alter the paragraph cited above from Revealing Histories in order to make it specific to sex/gender rather than to race:

While anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be sexist if it comes from the ‘sex‘ which over the years has been placed as superior and uses their power to strengthen and enforce their prejudices…While a female person might be prejudiced against a male person on the basis of sex/gender, perhaps violently and unjustly, this may not strictly be sexism because the female person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them. This idea of sexism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support sexism, and these support what was declared to be the ‘superior’ sex/gender.

And, you can accuse me of splitting hairs, but I believe the difference between terms such as prejudice, racism, sexism, and bigotry is important. When we act as if ANYONE can be racist or sexist, we deny the systematic, institutionalized arrangement of our society and act as if these attitudes and inequalities are coming out of a vacuum. In sum, anyone can be a bigot, or prejudiced, but racism and sexism are the PRIVILEGES (and, yes, they are privileges, although very horrible, insidious, damaging ones) of the white and the male.


21 thoughts on “What if you’re not sure whether you’re sexist and racist or just prejudiced and bigoted?”

  1. Great post. I do wonder what happens to those at the margins of identity, though. What if you’re of color, but can pass for white? Is it internal identity or external identity that determines sexism/racism? Are those categories mediated in any way by other identities – for example, can gay men be sexist, or is their lack of power and the way they’re associated with women in mainstream socialization more important? Do trans men gain the power of sexism when they pass, when they transition, or never?
    I also wonder about those who are entrenched in the power system, even when she or he is not a white male. Would it be possible for Condi to be racist (say, in her dealings with Pakistan or Korea)?

  2. Often the terms racially prejudiced and racist are used fairly interchangeably, which is seems is not necessarily correct. I would imagine this factoid would escape the majority of socially aware and political correct thinkers.

    As to Anita’s point about gay men, isn’t it the power given by the male privileged position that makes them sexist? And that presumably a transsexual gives up that power class or enters into that power class ( if the trans is convincing enough). Exceptions to that rule?:Ann Coulter!

  3. I’m afraid the dictionary does not support your thesis. I don’t have a Webster’s on me, but here’s dictionary.com

    1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    See 1 and 3. Racism, properly defined, is simply the belief that there are inherent, significant differences between different racial groups. Institutions created to further this belief is aside the point.

    Even aside from that, in order for you to be right there would have to be no areas on earth where whites don’t have institutional power over non-whites; an absurd proposition when you consider China, India, Japan, and Zimbabwe.

    You also imply here that it’s somehow worse for whites to wield this sort of power than non-whites. Sorry to break this to you, but beatings, murder, and rape are equally wrong by any moral code, apart from who’s doing them.

  4. Nihilunder – Come on now. The dictionary? Need I go down the path of “who wrote the dictionary? who defines the terms?” But for argument’s sake, let’s take this dictionary.com definition. The first one, in specifying “usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others,” and the second one in its entirety imply the need for institutionalized power in order for something or someone to be called “racist”. But I guess it’s all in the interpretation of the reader, right?

    Also, this post seems to me to be in an American context, though if you want to take it into a global context, we can see racism, ethnocentrism, imperialism, and colonization enacted all over the globe (past and present) by white, western societies. Does this mean that there aren’t other power dynamics in play? Nope. It means that this is one part of a larger system of power, and that we’re not talking about a strict hierarchy of oppressions. Power is dynamic and shifts according to geography, political context, identity, and many other things. Simplicity is not possible in conversations such as this.

    Institutionalized oppression works in different, arguably more detrimental, ways and effects a greater number of people than individual acts of prejudice. It also contributes to the ways in which these individual behaviors are enacted. Though both are morally reprehensible, killing someone in a fit of road rage isn’t the same as killing someone because they’re black. And there is a difference in two men getting into bar fight and a husband beating up his wife. The difference is in the way that power is institutionalized, therefore allowing immoral actions to be rewarded and go unpunished.

  5. Anita,
    Thanks for your comment. You make great points about those at “the margins of identity.” I suppose passing is a key issue here — can you pass as white? Do you internalize this ‘passing identity”? This, as your comment also points out seems key. This is a tricky area — but it seems IF you can pass as white and IF you internalize that white privileged identity, then you could presumably be a racist POC — but if you do both of those things, are you a POC? Does what we pass for and what we internalize become the “real” identity so in this case the person wouldn’t be a person of color for all intents and purposes. Difficult stuff — and rife for philosophical debate.
    Can gay men be sexist? Yes, I think so. In fact, I know a couple of gay men I would classify as sexist.
    As for the trans questions — now those are really tricky. Again I would go back to the power issue — if a F2M can ‘pass’ and internalizes that passing, they could presumably be sexist…
    I don’t think there are cut and dry answers here and I know my post suggests that racism and sexism have very specific definitions — I still believe though that these terms are often used in the wrong way and usually to justify continuing oppression or excusing one’s bigotry — as in “well blacks are racist too!”
    As for Condi, I think she is “entrenched in the power system” but she is an individual black woman with power — her power does not equate to black women in general having power. So, I would say she could be prejudiced against Koreans, but not racist.


    Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree that the distinction would escape many socially aware thinkers. With “political correct thinkers” are you referring to the notion of “political correctness”? If so, that is an interesting link, but I think political correctness has been given a bad name — being more careful with language is important, yet the “cult of pc speak” has made such carefulness something to be derided. I do imagine that certain trolly types would see my arguments as “pc nonsense” though.

    And thanks for the Ann Coulter joke — that was a good one. (Although a feminist friend of mine got very mad when I joked AC wasn’t really a woman.)

    Thanks for the heads up – I now realize that for all theoretical arguments I should merely turn to the dictionary. I will burn all my philosophy and theory books pronto and merely rely on dictionary.com from here on out. Question: will dictionary.com explain the color hierarchies that occur around the globe — or colorism — and how such systems link to white privilege? Further, will dictionary.com be able to give me the term for what you are doing when you flatten out all complexity and situated knowledge and take away context — as in “beatings, murder, and rape are equally wrong by any moral code.” I don’t think murdering someone who has been brutally beating you for years OR murdering a stranger for their wallet are “equal.”

    Feminist Review,
    Thanks so much for the rebuttal to the dictionary argument! Thanks also for pointing out that careful reading is key – something that led you to ascertain this post is indeed written from an American context! Yet, I have noticed whenever I write on white privilege, troll-esque comments bring up China, Africa, India — as if just by mentioning those countries they are somehow proving white privilege does not exist.
    And, this is just brilliant: “Simplicity is not possible in conversations such as this.” Do you think I could make that some sort of comment warning? I could follow it with “As such, no trolls allowed.”
    As for clarifying why not all wrongs are “equal”– double thanks — you give a superb rebuttal to the simplistic “murder is murder any way you slice it” argument.

  6. Having lived in a country where whites are a minority, I can assure you that colonial white privilege is not dead abroad. It is alive and well. (There are other power structures at work, too, but the clarity of white privilege was so clear that it was really striking to me in a way that I have to work to see in American society.)
    And there are plenty of shades of grey in many moral codes – even the traditional Judeo-Christian law, and certainly our current law, recognizes distinction between killing people accidentally, killing people at war, killing people on purpose (but not planning ahead of time), killing people with a lot of forethought but some cause, killing people with no cause but lots of forethought. The same is more true for “lesser” crimes like stealing.

  7. The fact is that racism simply does not mean what you are claiming, either in the dictionary or in popular usage. Racism is a worldview which holds, as I earlier pointed out, that there are inherent, significant biological differences between races of people. This usually correlates with the view that one’s own race is superior to others, though there are exceptions. As such, anyone can be a racist simply by holding this belief.

    Even using your definition, however, your assertion only applies to the western world and territories controlled by it. In Japan, non-Japanese will have institutional disadvantages simply because so many Japanese people, especially those with political power, look down on those outside their ethnicity, including other Asians. The same holds largely true in China, where being white won’t give you any advantages.

    There are also places even here in America where being white will prove a detriment; there are certainly far fewer black racists, but racially motivated attacks against whites in majority black schools and neighbourhoods do occur. To downplay the moral severity of these events as anything other than racism is, to put it bluntly, rather callous. Racially motivated violence is evil regardless of who is perpetrating it. The idea that it’s somehow acceptable, or even less bad, because of the color the perpetrators is itself racist.

    I think the correct term what you are describing (and I don’t deny that it exists) is *institutional* racism. To ascribe the meaning to the term you have in this post strikes me as being akin to Ayn Rand re-defining “sacrifice” and “altruism” to the point of linguistic mutilation.

    And to answer Anita: No, you don’t need to explain who wrote the dictionary. Professional lexicographers in universities write them.

  8. And professional lexicographers are immune to the racist, sexist, heterosexist, trans/bi/homophobic, classist and ableist oppressions that permeate the rest of society? Right.

  9. I’d like to add to what Anita write about colonialism. As a white person who lives in India, I think this is much more complicated than just race. In fact, I think that class is a much more significant factor here as far as privilege goes because money will get you just about anything that you want here, regardless of race, in a way that it wouldn’t in America. This isn’t to say that there aren’t particular privileges that may be afforded to me because of my white skin (e.g., being able to enter fancier restaurants wearing ‘street clothes’ instead of fancier clothes – though I wear salwar kameez so this isn’t a white skin privilege that I take advantage of), but there are also prejudices that exist that make my white skin a disadvantage (e.g., the assumption that I am a walking ATM, that I can afford to pay double or triple or quadruple what an Indian person pays for any given thing because I’m always (incorrectly) viewed as a tourist, or that I am sexually promiscuous and readily agreeable to men’s advances, even when I am with my male partner). Yes, we could have a theoretical conversation about how my identity as a white American seemingly puts me closer to the top of the global power hierarchy, but we’d also have to factor in the ways in which gender and social/religious/political ideology and geography and history effect this hierarchy as well. Like I wrote earlier, simplicity is not possible here, a point that Nihilunder still fails to understand given his latest response.

  10. Nihilunder,
    I think the word you are referring to in the first paragraph of your comment is “race” not “racism.”

    As you bring up Japan, I am wondering if you have heard the idea that “the Japanese are the whites of the Asian racial heirarchy”? I note you still are not considering ‘colorism’ but mainly making black/white arguments.

    And, I do not indicate that racially motivated attacks are “less bad” if you’re not white. Careful reading shows that I claim nothing of the sort. Instead, I indicate such acts are not “racist” though they can be “racially motivated.” It’s about power – this is the aspect you seem not to be getting.

    Well, of course! Language is just a way to reflect and respond to the world… You are not trying to claim language SHAPES the way we think and promotes racism, sexism, homophobia, etc are you? Now that would be just crazy. Say something like that and people might call you a feminist.

    Feminist Review,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment. Your points reveal the importance of taking an “intersectional lens” and how, when we try to focus in on a certain aspect of identity (say race) we tend to over-simplify and generalize… Yet, I do think these more snapshort considerations are useful to ponder. However, as the feminist movement is STILL learning, when you focus on one aspect of identity it usually works to silence or put other aspects under erasure. Hence, as you note, simplicty is not possible — the ‘snapshot view’ is sometimes useful, but to really examine social justice issues, one needs a wide angle lens.

  11. I say that whether there’s a vast population of people out there who don’t have direct contact with people of European descent (white) on a daily basis, that the system of white supremacy is global and extends through other channels such as the concept of the ‘global village.’ That the media transmits ideas of women, races, and ethnic groups by as much of what they do show and what they do not. By placing groups of people in a vacuum of how to think and act not only about themselves but about others.

    That prejudice and racist ideas are marked by incidents where a black woman in Japan will have her ass grabbed out on the street or in a store because the black women in MTV Jams videos just love the physical vilation of their backsides (true story).

    Do not forget the vast history of colonial imperialism, manifest destiny, and European parliments that have created plans of action on exactly how they were going to impede on countries and people unlike themselves.

    Sorry to break it to you, Nihilunder but you are missing the critical piece of distinction that people conveniently overlook when discussions like these arise, and that’s the definition, examples,and use of power.

    Discerning bigotry and prejudice from power (racism) is pivotal to our understanding of racism as well as sexism.

  12. “And professional lexicographers are immune to the racist, sexist, heterosexist, trans/bi/homophobic, classist and ableist oppressions that permeate the rest of society? Right”

    You know why not put all those listed above in concentration camps and gas those who refuse to come around to progressives of the new master race!

  13. Wow this post shows that you far lefties have more in common with Nazis then I thought. I’m a progressive, but I find the whole “can’t be racist to whites” absolutely abhorrent.

    In a few generations time whites are going to be a minority. Demographics is the future and we can’t stop it. Over those generations if disgusting dirtbags like yourself keep pushing the “you can’t be racists to whites” cultural view, then we are going to have a very ugly future indeed (a future many of you here would welcome with open arms, as two wrongs make a right, right?).

    I actually could sense the glee that the far left has when I mention “whites will be gone in a few generations.” It’ll be like the rapture of the marxists (funny that too, considering Marx was a racist as well).

  14. Wow,
    You seem to be confused about the meaning of the word “progressive.” It comes from the root. I will give you a hint: the root of the word progressive is “progress.” Progressives want to progress society and make it change, not CONSERVE society and its power stuctures as conservatives do.

    If the definition of “progressive” was someone who name-calls and makes ludicrous unsupported claims, you would fit the bill perfectly. Alas, that is not the definition.

  15. professor, there is a difference between progress and reverse-racist violence, which is what you are supporting. The black panthers in the 60s rejected black nationalism for the same reasons: that whites and blacks CAN get along and have coexisting egalitarian power structures, but not without first rejecting mutual racist policies and institutions.

    If you want to support racism against whites, then go ahead. I can tell you right now that your “progress” won’t be progress at all. It’ll end in a bigger mess than we have now. Whites in the US (and the world in general) are going to be a minority within a few generations. If you support a zeitgeist of racism towards whites it’ll lead you into the same vicious circle.

    And I say this because I speak as a person brought up in China where I was in the majority, then lived in Indonesia for quite some time, where I was a minority in a society that does not trust the chinese at all (long history). The majority of javanese in indonesia HATED us and even went as far as trashing our shopfronts, because of crappy justifications like yours that it is ok to take it out on their perceived enemies.

    Your reverse racism isn’t helping. All it is is revenge. If there is a conservative in this discussion it is you. Because you want to keep the violence in this world going.

    Good luck on your hatreds, I’m sure at the end of your life you’ll regret your decisions now.

  16. If you need to change the meaning of a word to make a statement valid then the statement was initially untrue. Saying something that one would take as meaning one thing and then rationalizing to mean something else is equivocating

  17. Also, if one could not be racist toward whites because whites maintain the position of power then since only whites have the historical institutional in power in western society it follows that only whites could be racist. So what about asian and black dynamics. An asian person could not be racist toward a black person because the asian does not have the power to institutionaly back up their prejudices. The actions taken by an asian toward a black would not be considered racist.

  18. yeah, zorn doesn’t know what he’s talking about. he needs to look up the original coinage of the phrase and realize that racism is institutionalized/structural power, and the example given isn’t an example of structural/institutionalized racism.

    i’d note that Clinton think she’s a progressive — and her policies and Obama’s are a far cry from what any “progrossive” would have supported 40 years ago. To thos e progressives both are rightwingers. Sad.

  19. Wow,
    nowhere in the post do I support ” reverse-racist violence.”

    You are missing the main point — the DIFFERENCE between racism and prejudice.

    I do not want to support racism — your indication that this is the case indicates a complete misreading of the post. More prosaically, I am white — why would I want to support racism against whites?

    The whole “whites are going to be a minority” scare argument has been circulating for years. Whether true or not, this would not matter if our society was post-racist. Your fear of this happening indicates that you are the one suffering from a racist mindset.

    Again, you are entirely misreading the post as NOWHERE to I indicted that violence/racism is ok on ” perceived enemies.” Why you insist on reading hatred into a post where there is none, I don’t know.

    The “asian and black” dynamics you mention would be based on prejudice, not racism, as clearly indicated in the post.

    Great point about Clinton — yes, claiming one is progressive does not make it so! Nor, I would add does having a vagina make one a feminist, although many claim Clinton is a feminist but many of her policies are also a far cry from a feminist vision of a better world.
    Thanks for reading.

  20. While I fully agree with you on the subject of racism vs. racial prejudice, I’m shocked that you would dismiss trans people so easily, laughing along at the Ann-Coulter-is-a-tranny meme (which is obviously offensive to transsexuals). Please remember when discussing one minority issue not to shit all over another minority.

  21. KZ,
    My intention was not to dismiss trans people and I regret that it came off this way. Although the comment I replied to brings up the meme you mentioned, I was thinking of her as “not really a woman” not in terms of her being trans, but in terms of her not seeming human/female as she seems so heartless – kind of in the same way Bush doesn’t seem human. However, I can see how this still comes off as offensive to transsexuals and I regret my lack of thought here. I am sorry.

    Also, I see that even the “not really human” point I make can be construed as an anti-trans comment, but that is not how it is intended. It also can be seen as being “essentialist” — as in, if she is not ‘traditionally feminine,’ she is not a ‘real woman.’ However, what I am trying to get at is that she lacks emotion, heart, empathy, and seems to shit all over other humans, and especially other women.

    The comment I reply to was also being read in the context of the thread that questioned “Do trans men gain the power of sexism when they pass, when they transition, or never?” The joke the other commenter made about Coulter, that she was “an exception,” I read in terms of her still having a certain sort of “male privilege” even though she is not trans, is not trying to ‘pass,’ etc. Rather, she seems to take on male privilege by exuding the sexist attitude that often accompanies unexamined male privilege.

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