Is there such a thing as reverse racism? Can black people be racist, specifically against white people? Until one day in my twenties, I had absolutely no doubt that black people could be racist and no awareness that people thought otherwise.
It was at some sort of conference for black lawyers that I was enlightened. A cocky but articulate teenager was speaking (she’s probably secretly running the world now) about a black barrister who she obviously considered to be a bit of an Uncle Tom. Her main complaint was that he refused to acknowledge that racism existed at the Bar. It’s not that he expressly denied it, but he didn’t mention it and was, in her view, deliberately opaque even when prompted. I think when asked how he ‘made it’ at the Bar – a question which was supposed to prompt a discussion of black inclusion at the very middle/upper class, very white Bar of England and Wales – he said something like ‘Well, how long is a piece of string?’ – not sure why – ‘people go to the Bar because their fathers have done it and their fathers’ fathers have done it.’ The teenager was most unimpressed with his answer.
Because I had, by that time, met one or two black male barristers that seemed, for whatever reason, to be unusually unfriendly towards me, I was nodding enthusiastically at her speech until she said something followed by “with his WHITE wife!”. I stopped nodding and started shifting around in my seat probably thinking of the string of white boyfriends and crushes (well, a couple), I had left in my wake at Bar School more than anything else.
I can’t remember if it was I or someone else who raised their hand to protest what we felt was racist language. In response to our objection, someone from the audience said “Excuse me! Excuse me! Can I just say….?” (in an ‘excuse me, excuse me, can I just say’ voice) “Black people cannot be racist because we lack the power as a group to be racist.” One or two people clapped. Others disagreed. The chair eventually encouraged us to move on.
At the time, I thought I’d never heard such gibberish in my life. By the very definition of racism, which is regarding one race as inferior in any way (intellectually, morally, physically or otherwise), of course black people could be racist against white or any other group of people. As time passed, my indignation expanded to cover the term ‘reverse racism’. Racism was racism and as a black person, my racism was as good as anybody else’s, thank you very much! It was not ‘reverse’.
I think I spent an entire decade railing internally and externally against this stance before I realised that it was the other part of the definition of racism that this person was talking about. Not the assumption of any kind of inferiority but the bad, unequal, unfair treatment that followed – the persecution, discrimination, denial of rights and benefits and antagonism directed at members of the degraded race.
A friend explained it to me quite well. Black people, where they are the minority, can be racist because racism is a state of mind but they often lack the power to implement real prejudice. It’s not that anti-white racism necessarily has no effect, it’s just more difficult to sustain a longer term prejudicial effect. A white man is likely to find racist insults and bad treatment difficult and traumatising. However, unlike a black person and perhaps in a more racist society than the UK (despite recent goings-on), he may also find it easier to report and have dealt with racial prejudice at work, . It may be less likely that he will be accused of playing the race card or being over-sensitive; he may find it easier to find another job; it’s more likely that the people managing the racist person of colour will be white and therefore find the racist behaviour as alien, incomprehensible and bizarre as he does.
This may explain the irritation felt when a black person makes a point by saying white people do this unfair thing or the other and and receives the response is “But isn’t what you’re saying just as racist? You said ‘white people do’. You actually just said that. Isn’t that just as racist as, say, Jim Crow??”. Presumably the objection is based on the view that any statement starting with the words “white people always…” is always racist because of its generalised nature but equating it with institutional and historical racism will naturally grate.
As always the position isn’t clear cut. The drive, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s after the equality legislation of the 1970s had had some time to bed in, to tackle racism sometimes failed to have a basis in eradicating inequality in general or the realities of economic distribution. Also, in some parts of the UK, there has been a failure to tackle racism beyond people knowing what not to say to avoid ‘trouble’ and who to avoid saying it to – gypsies, for instance, remained fair game long after racism was decried as something only cowards and stupid people do.
Overall, immeasurable good has been done by diversity programmes, not least in allowing people of colour to feel less like intruders in a country that often times is the only one they know. While I can’t take seriously attempts by some white people to directly apply anti-racism campaigns to themselves, completely ignoring historical context, as if it was formulated to protect them first and foremost instead of people who have actually suffered institutional racism over the last few centuries, I can’t deny that swathes of working class people have been or feel left behind by the drive for diversity or multiculturalism.
It has in fact left some people seething with resentment because no one bothered to address or consider class-based inequalities and ripe for encouragement by main and fringe political parties alike to blame all their problems on ‘immigration’. These people appear to have come into their own post-Brexit but that is another article.
Another point is when does such a statement (“white people do this…”) cross the line from complaining about a genuine social problem, albeit in generalised language, into racism. For instance is a statement that white people in the U.S are oblivious to the fear of police brutality and make silly statements because of that oblivion racist or is it a false and disingenuous equivalence to say ‘well if I said that about black people, won’t you say I’m racist.’? Is it different from another disparaging (and to my mind definitely racist) remark I’ve heard to the effect of ‘well white people are quite unhygienic anyway’?
It’s also (as depressing as it may seem to someone who thinks that reasoning in this article has been crap so far) somewhat of a false equivalence to say, well if a black person is in a majority black country said something generalised about white people, would s/he be racist then?? Unfortunately because of colonial history, African ‘poverty porn’ favoured by charities and post-colonial economic and social upheavals, inhabitants of those majority black countries are likely to have been indoctrinated into the thinking that being white is somehow superior, so it doesn’t quite have the same effect as anti-black racism in Western countries
Having said all of the above, I’m not sure I agree that because of history, a black person can never be racist. I agree with my friend that racism is a state of mind although expressing despair at stubborn anti-black attitudes can just be that rather than proof that the person is just as racist as some club swinging policeman and his paymaster in apartheid South Africa (on that topic, it’s clear that the late Winnie Mandela was no saint but people bemoaning the fact that she was racist because she hated the apartheid regime and lashed out at its beneficiaries shows how far we are from understanding this issue. According to these people, it was her duty – duty no doubt! – to forgive her oppressors and show them the kind of love, empathy and respect that they spectacularly failed to show her. How dare she not!?! Monster.).
Even in terms of prejudice (depending on your definitions; I may have got these the wrong way round), if we are working to eradicate inequality, isn’t one of our ultimate aims, a rather depressing one admittedly, that one day every group will have enough power to be equally prejudiced against each other, so that institutional prejudice/racism will be eradicated? Kumbaya.
Has the push against cultural appropriation gone a teensy bit mad, like some of the fringe elements of trans rights activism? Or is it just on Twitter?
It used to be related to the general complaint that if a white person copied another group’s art, they were generally more accepted and rewarded for it, I think. I recall a taxi driver’s rant about Pink’s recently released debut r’n’b album which was playing at the time . “They steal our music and get all the rewards for it while black singers get left behind”. He moaned “It has to be in a white package to be acceptable.” Unfortunately, I haven’t got the restraint to resist the urge to crow that yes, Pink used to be an r’n’b singer, you know….
I at least understood his points and didn’t disagree sufficiently enough to challenge him in his own cab. I asked which radio station it was that seemed to be playing Pink’s songs on a loop. I really shouldn’t have been surprised when he mumbled that he had bought the album himself. In fairness, he seemed equally angry with himself.
Now, fast forward 20 or so years and it seems, according to some, that Bruno Mars can’t pretend to be Michael Jackson anymore and Kim Kardiashian is not allowed to wear her hair in braids.
Twitter has to be a world of its own when a picture of a white person wearing a kimono and arguing about crunchy peanut butter elicits the comment “Well you are appropriating someone else’s culture so you’re cancelled!” To which the equally bizarre response is “WELL TELL BEYONCE TO GIVE US OUR HAIR BACK THEN!!!!!!!!!”
I’m doing it again. I’m oversimplifying and assuming everyone else is an idiot. I will discover in 10 years’ time that I have missed a huge and important point so perhaps I should take the sarcasm down a notch and do some reflecting.
I know very little about the history of all this but it seems to me that cultural appropriation is somehow related to the earlier form of entertainment that was taking the piss out of black people. Blackface is an entirely different topic but I think there’s some correlation. White people who were contemptuous of or uncomfortable around black people were wildly entertained by ‘blackness’.
I also think the black band/white crowd combination you see in old films or new films about old times is also another related point of reference. My completely unsubstantiated theory is that there has always been a challenge of selling black art without selling the whole black experience. I think this has been mostly commercial rather than a cynical attempt to exclude black people (the exclusion of black people being habitual and therefore only collateral).
The first idea was selling a more palatable version of black people – the sanitised Diana Ross’s, Whitney Houstons and sharply dressed, soft-toned, tip-toey dancing r’n’b male groups (I’m ignoring the more overtly black acts like James Brown or Aretha Franklin and hip hop for the moment because I’ve discovered that if you are willing to let every single fact get in the way of your essay, perhaps informal, unpaid, no-one-really-asked-for-your-opinion blogging is not for you). Then they managed to just have white singers who sounded traditionally black and the public seemed to eat it up.
There is of course no real crime of ‘Being White While Singing Black’ nor should there be. I for one want every single one of those records – from Elvis Presley to Pink to Jamoroquai to Amy Winehouse to Iggy Azalea (yes!) – to have been made. I have however been irked by complaints of oversinging against the likes of Whitney Houston and Beverley Knight which instantly morphed into cries of ‘genius!’ when Christina Aguilera and Joss Stone did it.
Then there are things like Gwen Stefani’s affinity for South Asian dancers and Katy Perry’s experiments with different cultures which I’m more ambivalent about. I can understand how someone can interpret it as reducing cultures to a backdrop to a white pop singer but again there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it does not descend into caricature or mockery. What would be great is if people from those cultures could take centre stage in popular music more often.
Now, according to some gatekeepers of the cultures, it seems there can be no sharing or sampling of cultures by a white person in any form – whether it’s a prom dress or a music video – without accusations of theft or ‘appropriation’. Groups are falling over themselves to accuse each other of cultural appropriation – presumably the top prize goes to the person who can accuse a black entertainer of cultural appropriation and make the accusation stick. This is a competition that the ‘original oppressors’ – white Christian groups – will never win by the way. Somebody tried to accuse the participants of the Catholic-themed 2018 Met Gala of it and in a tweet that impressed and exasperated me in equal measures, someone else droned that ‘when you violently impose your culture on other groups, you can hardly turn around and complain about cultural appropriation….’
Also, only black people are allowed to ‘dance or sing black’ no matter how times Bruno Mars says he admires black culture.
Incidentally to appropriate some phrasing from David Mitchell’s memoir ‘Back Story’, anyone who thinks I’m going to cancel Bruno Mars because of cultural appropriation needs to find something more tangible to place their hope and faith in. Perhaps if you showed me a picture of him in full blackface – although some people seem to take his appearance and failure to wear a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘I’m Filipino (& Things) By The Way, Not Black’ as an attempt by him and his team to trick us into enjoying his music.
Black people are the only ones allowed to profit from their culture, according to the gatekeepers – despite the fact that black culture is not a homogeneous thing and that an African rapper is as much appropriating African American culture as is a white rapper – and the role of others is to pay them do it. It’s fair to say that the more racial injustice and tension in society (like the re-energised wave of police brutality against black people in the U.S), the more extreme and exclusive these gatekeepers become.
It is now very, very mad. Also, few people seem to be paying the slightest bit of attention to the new rules and regime – people continue to appropriate merrily.
It was never the sharing of the cultures that was bad – it was the inequality, the pushing of black artists to the background, the insistence that only white sells, the public’s racism in griping and complaining about black art only when it was delivered by a black person, the already ingrained idea that any culture which is not Western white culture is a bit of a freak side show. These ideas play out in every part of of society and unlike what the record companies say, it is not inevitable. Address the actual problem and Beyonce can keep her blond wigs.
In Part 2…..My Windrush Story.