Racism: Beyond Black and White

17:34Ciaran McCormick

Guest writer Rhianna Whitwell offers a deeply personal perspective on racism:

The racism debate often feels like it focuses solely on the experiences of black people. Recently, this has been challenged by the idea that there is ‘reverse’ racism experienced by white people. Other races are conveniently left out of the picture.


In particular, I am referring to Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, and those of mixed race. They have all suffered similar injustices. However, they are not usually the focus of campaigns for change. It may be the case that blacks have gained a louder voice when debating
matters of race. They have the weight of their historical oppression to make their story compelling. Regardless of your own race, we can agree on one thing. The treatment of blacks by whites during the transatlantic slave trade was shocking. It presented racism in its most striking form, where white traders assumed superiority over their black slaves. They treated them as property rather than as fellow human beings. For these reasons, it is understandable why the black people of today speak out against racism. Continued disadvantage in areas as diverse as employment, health, education and poverty give power to their cause.

But what about laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act? This was the only U.S. law to prevent immigration based on race. What about those of Japanese heritage who were interned in American War Relocation Camps during the Second World War - despite being American citizens? What about sinophobia (fear of China/the Chinese) or hispanophobia? Of course, racism should never be a competition of any sort. But I find it unjust that the debates rarely seem to find time for those who are neither black nor white.

For those who were wondering, I am half-English and half-Filipina. I have suffered racism in several places. Both my mother, who is Filipina, and I have received looks of disapproval from elderly citizens on buses. The stereotypes I face at university, whilst laughable and usually simple to ignore, are inadvertently racist in their own way. People assume that I eat nothing but rice all day. Whilst I do love rice, it’s a bit like assuming every single British person eats nothing but fish and chips and roast dinners. Of course, I don’t take offense to these sorts of stereotypes. I know people aren’t serious about them. But what is the boundary between stereotyping and racism? What is the borderline between overreacting and feeling legitimately offended?

Sites such as Engrish.com perpetuate the stereotype of the Chinese and Japanese mixing their ‘r’s and ‘l’s and having broken English. Are the images displayed on this website truly offensive or racist, or simply amusing? For me, they are amusing. It would be the same for me if something had been mistranslated from Tagalog into English. I would know that the site is not attempting to make the race in question appear inferior. They are just highlighting silly mistranslations for comedic effect. If the website were trying to convey the message that all Chinese and Japanese people should go back to their home countries, then I would find that offensive.

Some may assume that other races beyond our black-white binary do not face racism.  What needs to be realised is that there are many different races. There are more than I could even begin to mention in this article. Through their differences they experience different kinds of prejudices from people of all backgrounds. For instance, Asians cannot be stereotyped as one race. You only need to look at the differences between Indians, Koreans, the Chinese and Filipinos to realise this. That doesn't even comprise the entirety of Asia. Racism exists within these communities. For example, Brunei law favours ethnic Malay through positive discrimination. Sinophobia is still present amongst a minority of the Philippine population. And similarly, discrimination and racism can be exerted by both blacks and whites onto these other races, and vice versa. Indeed, even the labels of black and white neglect the rich heritage and cultural variations across different countries.

The central conflict in ‘simple’ black and white racism is the question of what precisely defines the term racism itself. Some may argue that racism can only be truly experienced if both prejudice and oppression are present. They argue that racism is about power. This argument naturally comes from oppressed ethnic minorities. Even if this is the case, surely it is still wrong for a black person to exert their prejudices onto a white person. It is true that they have a ‘white privilege’ that pervades their entire lives. However, this does not make racism targeted  at whites any less offensive. White people are often called ‘crackers’ and ‘whiteys’ by black people. However, white people are often made to feel nervous about calling a black person ‘black’. Instead, the politically correct label is ‘person of colour’. This label feels like racism by excluding white people who themselves have a colour. It treats people of a different ethnicity as the 'Other'.

The differences in what is acceptable amongst and between races is striking. For example, one of my Indian friends mentioned that she was permitted to call one of her Pakistani friends a 'Paki'. She said that a person from a different race would not be allowed to do so though. They would be shunned if they did. The complexity of these social relations emphasises that race cannot be reduced to the black and white debate. People use words as a tool to liberate themselves, making them charged with personal significance. This is especially the case when they have been re-claimed from oppressors.

At heart, everyone is a little bit racist. This cannot be helped. We lack a complete feeling of empathy. We cannot fully see the world through one another’s eyes and undergo the same experiences and oppression. Everyone is entitled to feel that racism can be directed towards them. The idea of ‘reverse’ racism does not exist because it is simply racism. Whites can be racist, blacks can be racist, Asians can be racist, Latinos can be racist, Arabs can be racist. All can be recipients of racism. It takes on a particular severity when they are already disadvantaged in society. Most claims of reverse racism are attempts to resist a levelling of the playing field. However, we must expose the full picture of racism beyond just the black and white binary.

This post reflects the views of the guest writer rather than Politics Beyond Politicians. Image courtesy of Flickr/thivierr. What is your view? Tell us in the comments below.

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