On Reverse Racism: Three Thought-Experiments

[cross-posted at BHL]

For some, especially on the right, reverse racism is just as serious and problematic as regular racism. For others, especially on the left, reverse racism is impossible; a black person, say, may be hostile toward or prejudiced against white people, but cannot count as racist toward them.

This disagreement is due, in part, to a further disagreement as to whether racism, and/or the badness of racism, is essentially a matter of individual attitudes and actions, or essentially a matter of systematic power relations. And the same issues arise with sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and so on.

I think both sides are wrong. That is, I think reverse racism (along with sexism, etc.) is a) possible and real, but b) less seriously problematic than the regular sort. Let me say why.

I’ll start with a thought-experiment designed to convince those who already accept the existence of reverse racism (etc.) that it is less seriously problematic than the regular sort.

Thought-Experiment #1: Bobby Shafto’s Burger Shack

Bobby Shafto has an odd obsession with freckles, specifically facial freckles. He likes people with an even number of freckles on their face. (That includes people with no freckles on their face, since zero is an even number.) But he has an aversion toward people with an odd number of freckles on their face, and he refuses to allow them into his Burger Shack, either as employees or as customers. In his world, which we’ll suppose to be ours as well, Shafto’s particular prejudice is of course highly unusual. But on Twin Earth, let’s say, the same prejudice is widely shared among the even-freckled, and as the even-freckled command the lion’s share of economic and political power, they are able to make their prejudice effective.

Suppose Bobby Shafto and his odd discrimination policy really exist somewhere. We might well disapprove. But how concerned would we be about it? Not very, I suspect. And the reason isn’t hard to find: Shafto’s prejudice is so rare that it causes very little overall harm; it’s easy enough to find other places to work or to eat.

By contrast, when we consider the Twin-Earth scenario in which Shafto’s prejudice is the norm among those with economic and political power, then the life-choices of odd-freckled people would start to be systematically constrained, and the prejudice in question would begin to look like something in need of being condemned and combated in a serious and organised way. (Such combating need not necessarily take the form of legal coercion; but that’s a distinct issue.)

When I say that prejudice against odd-freckled people is a worse evil on Twin Earth than in our world, I don’t just mean that it has worse consequences (though that’s part of what I mean). I also mean that it evinces a worse motive and character – since it involves knowingly contributing to ongoing oppression, as Shafto’s does not.

So discrimination against the odd-freckled is a serious evil on Twin Earth; but our world is not Twin Earth. And considering Bobby Shafto in our world – Bobby Shafto the isolated eccentric weirdo – I ask those who think reverse racism is as seriously problematic as regular racism whether they also think Shafto’s discrimination policy is as seriously problematic as regular racism. If – as I predict – they mostly don’t, that would seem to show that they’re committed to acknowledging that the badness of racism is at least in large part a matter of the systematic constraining of people’s options – of their oppression, in Marilyn Frye’s sense. But that means that reverse racism – i.e., racism by an oppressed group against a non-oppressed group – cannot be as serious an evil as racism by a non-oppressed group against an oppressed group.

My argument presupposes, of course, that blacks are an oppressed group and that whites are not. (And ditto mutatis mutandis for women vs. men, etc.) Obviously some of the people who worry about reverse racism will deny that supposition. I think they’re crazy to deny it, but that’s a debate I’m not getting into here. For purposes of this post I’m addressing those who grant that blacks are oppressed while whites (quawhites) are not, but who nevertheless regard regular racism and reverse racism as equally bad. The point of my comparison between Bobby Shafto and Twin Earth is to convince holders of that position that they can’t hold it consistently.

Let me now turn to the second group – those who deny the possibility of reverse racism, on the grounds that racism is essentially about systematic , institutional oppression, not merely individual attitudes. The usual criticism of this view is that it conflicts with ordinary usage. That criticism is, I think, a strong one, but not quite as strong as its proponents suppose.

Why is the appeal to ordinary usage strong? Because the standard use of the word “racism” in ordinary language does treat individual attitudes as sufficient (even if not necessary) for racism. People are of course free to give the word “racism” a special sense as a technical term referring exclusively to institutional racism; but if that is all they are doing, then they are not entitled to criticise others who use the term in the ordinary way. By analogy, the term “trope,” as used in my profession, means something radically different from its use(s) almost everywhere else (whether in rhetoric, in literary theory, or in ordinary language); but it would be silly for me to criticise those who don’t use it as analytic philosophers do.

Why is the appeal to ordinary usage not necessarily decisive? Because a term’s ordinary use can legitimately be rejected if there turn out to be something wrong with that use – as I’ve argued is the case with, for example, the term “capitalism.”

But is there anything wrong with the ordinary meaning of “racism”? It allows for the possibility of reverse racism, of course, but is there anything wrong with doing so? One might think so, if one thought that acknowledging reverse racism as a category committed one to regarding reverse racism as comparable to regular racism either in extent or in moral seriousness; but no such commitment exists. (That the existence of reverse racism does not entail its being comparable in moral seriousness to regular racism was the moral of my Bobby Shafto thought-experiment above.) Of course the sort of people who tend to bang on about reverse racism do typically regard it as comparable, both in extent and in moral seriousness, to regular racism; but we do not need to deny the existence of a category in order to deny that the category has the significance that those who are most invested in the category generally attribute to it.

Another reason one might have for rejecting the ordinary meaning of “racism” is simply the need for a term that conveys the systematic, institutional dimensions of the problem; if “racism” as commonly used doesn’t do that, maybe we should change it so that it will. But in fact we have terms that do the trick, such as “oppression,” “white privilege,” and (mutatis mutandis) “patriarchy.” Those terms are all asymmetric; “racism” doesn’t need to be (nor, e.g., does “sexism”).

In any case, insisting that nothing counts as racism unless it involves systematic, institutional oppression has some consequences that even those who take that view ought to find awkward. This brings me to my second thought-experiment.

Thought-Experiment #2: Unfrozen Caveman Owner

Take someone you think is an obvious racist; presumably Donald Sterling will do (he’s also a sexist, so this example can do double duty), though pick someone else if you like. Now suppose that while touring a cryogenics facility he falls into the vat and is instantly frozen. When he is revived, many years (decades? centuries? millennia?) have passed, and he wakes into a world in which true racial (as well as gender, etc.) equality have finally been achieved. But all of Sterling’s attitudes remain the same as they were in the early 21st century. Is Sterling no longer a racist (and ditto for sexist)?


If racism necessarily involves society-wide power relations, then Sterling in my example is not a racist once he wakes up, since the power relations in question are gone. But it seems bizarre to deny that future-Sterling, with all his attitudes unchanged from those of present-Sterling, is a racist. I don’t just mean that it seems bizarre to me. Rather, I’m predicting (subject of course to falsification) that even those (or most of those) who are attracted to the denial of the possibility of reverse-racism will find it plausible to think of future-Sterling as a racist. But if he is a racist, then racism does not essentially depend on systematic oppression (even if much of racism’s moral interest stems from such oppression), and so the chief case against the possibility of reverse racism must be abandoned.

But perhaps it will be said that future-Sterling counts as a racist only because his beliefs and attitudes were formed in a social context of white privilege and so are still defined by their origin. Well in that case let’s consider a final thought-experiment.

Thought-Experiment #3: The Red and Yellow Peril

Two distinct ethnic groups, the Winkies and the Quadlings, live in adjacent territories. Each side regards the other as racially inferior degenerates who deserve to be either subjugated or exterminated. The two are at constant war with each other, but as they are roughly equally matched, neither side has succeeded in subduing the other. Are the Winkies and Quadlings not racist?

The mutual race hatred between the Winkies and the Quadlings seems like the kind of situation that the concept of “racism” is tailor-made to describe. But while each side seeks domination, neither has it. There’s no inequality, no privilege, no oppression. So racism, I suggest, need not involve these. In which case reverse racism is possible. Though not necessarily that big a deal.

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11 Responses to On Reverse Racism: Three Thought-Experiments

  1. blacktrance November 28, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    “When I say that prejudice against odd-freckled people is a worse evil on Twin Earth than in our world, I don’t just mean that it has worse consequences (though that’s part of what I mean). I also mean that it evinces a worse motive and character – since it involves knowingly contributing to ongoing oppression, as Shafto’s does not.”

    I agree that it has worse consequences and is thus worse for that reason, I don’t think it’s indicative of a worse character – in fact, it’s closer to the opposite. For example, it takes a special kind of vicious and evil person to seriously advocate for slavery today, but if you were to travel back 300 years, you’d see normal people advocating for it as well.

  2. Brandon November 28, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    I’m not sure if the recent Russell Wilson “not black enough” dustup would be considered reverse racism, but if so, the consequences were discussed by Charles Barkley, and he concluded that it’s a problem exclusively in the black community and a problem for blacks, not whites.

    BTW, I would like to travel to Twin Earth and set up a burger joint which accepts the odd-freckled, because I think there’s a lot of business to be had, but unfortunately, the Justice League of Twin Earth is actually an Injustice League which goes around beating up innocent people for fun, those bastards. Anyway, continuity is so screwed up we have to retcon Twin Earth out of existence ASAP.

  3. Ayrton November 29, 2014 at 4:37 am #

    I had a teacher in middle school who had, so far as I can tell, a very unique definition of racism: He claimed that racists are individuals who advocate the systematic oppression of another group (even if such a system does not currently exist). Those who simply dislike other people based on some specific trait were, according to him, prejudiced.

    Using these definitions, and weighing in on another popular topic this side of the internet, a “thin” libertarian could be prejudiced but not racist. A “thick” libertarian could be neither.

    While this is outside how the words are normally used, I’ve found it helpful under certain circumstances.

    Brandon: I heard Grant Morrison is working on “Crisis on Twin Earths” as we speak. Apparently, Bobby Shafto is going to embrace kabbalism and attain Godhood, simultaneously ending his racism and alienating comic book readers.

  4. Irfan Khawaja November 29, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    I actually find this whole discussion so puzzling that I can’t quite comment on it without asking for some clarification.

    (1) First, it’s obviously not the case that “racism” (as you use it) and “reverse racism” (as you use it) are exhaustive of racism as that term is ordinarily used. So the intended scope of your discussion is unclear. Are you talking about black-white race relations in the US, or are you talking about racism as such?

    Example: Imagine a Uighur Muslim anti-Semite named “Umas.” (Uighurs are a persecuted ethnic group in China, many or most of them Muslims.) Umas, who hasn’t actually met any Jews in his life, believes–on what he takes to be Scriptural grounds–that all Jews without exception are “the descendants of apes and pigs,” that they are congenital “prophet-killers,” and that, in generaly, they are congenitally sneaky, greedy, and evil. He’s read translations of “On the Jewish Question” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and believes every word of them.

    On that basis, Umas–a poor, illiterate manual laborer–starts a local chapter of Al Qaeda in Western China (AQWC). Eventually, Al Qaeda’s Central Command hooks up with AQWC, and promotes Umas to a top position. Umas later launches a quixotic suicide attack on a group of Jewish-American capitalists investing in various industrial projects in Shanghai. Alas, Umas dies in the attack–an ill-conceived affair involving a hang-glider and a supposedly well-trained flock of God-inspired geese. Absurdly, none of his targets die. The intended victims wree rich American capitalists with vaguely Jewish-sounding names–5 of them white, 2 black, 2 Hispanic, and 1 Chinese American. (Well, the names sounded Jewish…to Umas.)

    The point here is that Umas is neither black nor white, and neither clearly powerful nor powerless, but in some ways better described as powerless than powerful. His targets are more white than anything else, but they include non-whites. He is in some ways highly marginal, but despite this marginality, he gets his 10 minutes of fame. In the larger scheme of things, one failed hang-gliding/goose flock terrorist attack might be dismissed as an eccentric absurdity, but the attitudes that motivate it are sinister.

    Is Umas a “reverse racist” or does the category not apply here? I think the latter. I certainly don’t think it’s obvious that Umas is less morally culpable than a rich powerful white American who commits a racially motivated “micro-aggression” simply because the latter enjoys “white privilege” and Umas does not.

    In fact, once we get away from black-white race relations in America, I no longer see how the concept of “reverse racism” has any clear or consistent application. But I’m not sure it’s supposed to. Is the whole discussion intended to apply exclusively to black-white racism in the US? In that case, it’s not even clear how the terminology applies to black-Asian relations in the US, or to black-Jewish, black-Hispanic, or black-Native relations, much less to cases beyond the US.

    (2) I don’t understand the cash value of the claim that reverse racism is “not necessarily a big deal.” The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) spend a fair bit of their resources paying close attention to very marginal racist groups (e.g., neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc.)–groups that have no power, and don’t stand a chance of getting any. Would their “reverse racist” equivalents be “making a big deal” if they monitored reverse racism by the same methods?

    Actually, the ADL is itself the perfect example here. It monitors and condemns the racism of marginal racist groups and of marginal reverse racist groups, regarding both activities as aspects of the same overall anti-racist project. But if I’m understanding you, your interpretation of thought experiment 1 entails that the ADL ought to ignore the activities and beliefs of reverse racist groups and focus only on neo-Nazi and skinhead-type organizations. Once the ADL stops monitoring the marginal reverse racists, no one else should bother to monitor them. They should just be ignored, by analogy with the Bobby Shafto case. Correct?

    (3) I think there’s a subtle fallacy of division in thought-experiment 3. Two groups could, qua groups, be at war and remain in a kind of non-dominating equilibrium. But that’s compatible with there being local domination within that equilibrium. In fact, local domination is more than “compatible” than a larger equilibrium; it seems to me an inevitable consequence.

    Suppose that the W’s and the Q’s are at a kind of stalemate, but that the W’s win a single skirmish somewhere against some of the Q’s. For the time-being, some W’s dominate some Q’s, and there you’ll have oppression, inequality, and privilege. Strictly speaking, that violates the parameters of the thought-experiment, but as long as the W’s and Q’s are at war, I don’t see how you can realistically eliminate this possibility, unless you (very implausibly) imagine a war in which no side ever gets the upper hand over the other in any respect, despite each side’s trying as hard as possible to do just that.

    But that’s very hard to imagine. It doesn’t even capture the situation of trench warfare in World War I, much less, say, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given that, I doubt it’s possible to devise a plausible thought-experiment of the W/Q sort that cleanly eliminates inequality, oppression, etc. from the equation. I think it’s more plausible to find cases of reverse racism and pick out their obviously racist features than to devise thought-experiments that somehow “isolate the relevant variables” and thereby “prove” that it exists.

  5. Irfan Khawaja November 29, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    Sorry, a mistake in the second paragraph of my Umas scenario: the quixotic suicide attack was on American capitalists perceived as Jewish, not “Jewish-American capitalists.”

  6. Irfan Khawaja November 29, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    Ugh, another typo in item (3): “local domination is more than compatible with a larger equilibrium.”

    Obviously, I’m finding grammar and punctuation highly oppressive today.

  7. Irfan Khawaja November 29, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    One last thought on whether reverse racism is a big deal or not:

    Imagine a guy named Brellig. He’s of very indeterminate race. Because of that:

    White racists think he’s black.

    Black racists think he’s white.

    Anti-Semites think he’s a Jew.

    Anti-Arab bigots think he’s an Arab.

    Anti-Hispanic bigots think he’s Hispanic.

    Those who hate the Japanese are sure that he’s covertly Japanese.


    Racially, let’s say, he’s all of these things, so they’re not entirely wrong.

    One week, he meets a bigot from each category–one a day, every day, in sequence. Each one abuses him with racial epithets in the most disgusting conceivable fashion. But none manages to outdo the others in the vileness of his comments; each racist comment directed at Brellig is as bad as the others. Suppose that each bigot has roughly the same income, social status, etc. as the others, and is motivated by the same sort of malice. Now suppose that Brellig has the same emotional reaction toward each bigot, both in kind and in degree, regardless of what he is called and by whom. The emotional reaction follows from the judgments he makes about each situation–fundamentally the same in each case. He feels the same outrage, and experiences the same depressing sense of being disrespected and demeaned in each case. (Ignore the possibility that Brellig’s emotional reactions are additive; treat each reaction as separate from the others.)

    Doesn’t your view entail that Brellig’s emotional reactions are inappropriate? Wouldn’t an appropriate emotional reaction require a differential response to the racism/reverse racism of each bigot he encounters–more intense for the “racists,” less intense for the “reverse racists,” even if they enjoy the same power/wealth and even if they’re motivated by the same animus? In fact, on your view, it seems to me that he’d have to regard one set of comments as a big deal, and the others not so, and re-structure his emotional reactions accordingly. But that strikes me as a reductio for the view, or close.

  8. Enopoletus Harding December 13, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    How can Umas be both illiterate and have read translations of the Protocols of the Elders?

    • Irfan Khawaja December 13, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

      Yes, that was a mistake on my part–you’re right, he can’t be both illiterate and a reader of racist texts. (I had trouble editing my comment; it was really too long for a combox.)

      But the mistake is easily fixed. Most of the thought-experiment can be retained by either making Umas literate, or by keeping him illiterate but having heard claims based on the “Protocols” or “On the Jewish Question.” What I really wanted to capture was the idea that Umas was poorly educated, not that he was completely illiterate.

      I’ve discussed some real cases in the comments of this post at my own blog:



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