I had a fight with my boyfriend this past weekend. Which isn’t exactly headline news for most people, but we hardly ever fight. And when we do, it’s usually over something so trivial it’s embarrassing to think about once we’ve both calmed down. Is Lady Gaga a truly unique artist or is she completely overrated? Is “American Idol” a reliable source of finding legitimate talent?

Those types of debates are not about pop stars or televised talent competitions. What is usually at stake is our egos. We both hate to be proven wrong so much that it borders on pathology. But this latest argument was different.

We were in my car, talking about a little bit of everything when the topic turned to race. I’m black and he’s white, so the subject comes up frequently. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it involves horrendously offensive jokes and hysterical laughter. This was the .01% when it did not.

The taboo topic du jour was whether or not something had to be intentionally malicious for it to be considered racist. I argued that of course it did not. I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. It was the “racism equals prejudice plus power” equation that is the corner stone of most sociological, psychological and academic anti-racist arenas. By that definition, only white people possess the ability to be racist because they are the ones that hold the power.

My boyfriend was having none of that. He was steadfast in his belief that for something to be racist, it has to have harmful intentions. And what did he use to prove the accuracy of “his” definition? The dictionary. Merriam Webster’s mobile website version to be exact.

I was livid. Actually, no, I wasn’t livid just yet. More like baffled. I’d been with this man for nearly two-and-a-half years. How was I just now discovering that he’s one of those white people? The kind that has no clue about racism yet has the audacity to try to debate about it. The man grew up in a nearly all-black neighborhood, has mostly black friends and possesses a full deck of honorary black cards. We even joke about how in some aspects, his degree of “blackness” is higher than mine.  All that and he doesn’t even know what racism is? How the hell did that even happen?

In my opinion, “my life” was enough to articulate why I was right and he was dead wrong. But when I told him that, he brilliantly countered with, “No, that’s not what racism is. It says it right here on my smartphone. See?”

The fact that he thought an 11-word definition had more credibility than I did was beyond insulting. It was hurtful and it displayed a level of arrogance and prickdom I didn’t think him capable of. Bottom line, neither he nor Merriam Webster are the authority on racism and the concept is far more complicated than either of them can capture in only a handful of words.

My definition came from countless collegiate classes on the matter, tons of books and papers, an advanced degree and working and volunteering for nonprofits whose mission is to offset the systematic implications of racism through tireless service. Oh, and from also being black for the past 28 years.

I’m the black one. We make the rules. Duh.

But later, during our post-argument argument, I realized that Merriam Webster isn’t the only thing that shaped his interpretation of what racism means. His definition of the word has been molded by spending a childhood getting his ass kicked for being the white boy in the mostly black neighborhood. My boyfriend begins to list his own terrible racially based experiences. These are things that I knew about, but had completely neglected to consider in the midst of my own anger. I was so busy being offended that I forgot he had reason to be as well.

So black people can’t be racist? How do I tell that to his scared 10-year-old self? The little boy who had to dodge and hide just to make it safely home from school? Ironically, he’s the one in our relationship who has endured hateful and violent encounters because of the color of his skin, not me. In his experience, racism has been nothing but malicious. He has little reason to believe otherwise.
I still know, not just believe, that racism can rear its ugly head without someone intending to do concrete harm, That’s how it has manifested in my life. But, I was wrong to think that I was the ultimate authority on the subject simply because I’m black. Actually, that shit’s kind of racist.
This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Shayla on XOJane! 
  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    i’m all about race. my race. if you cannot be real why are you in the relationship?

  • Yb

    I think it’s a good way to weed out the ignorant, racism, privilege deniers when dating interracially. Would you want to have ended up marrying a covert, clueless racist? Nope.

    IMO I find that for black people, when dating out your race its better to date another person of color. But even with them comes ignorance and anti blackness at times.

  • http://fromthoughtsintowords.blogspot.com/ rkahendi

    I like the article, but I’m not so sure about the title. It seems too broad.

  • Lucy Lucy

    I tend to believe racism is more of a systematic issue. I mean, being picked on for being a white boy in all black neighborhood can’t compare to black men (with no record) not being able to get a job over a white convicted felon or black people not getting called back for a job because of their name or black people not being able to get housing or people of color being stigmatized constantly and we can’t even play our own race in movies, instead, they’ll hire a white guy to play an Asian. I could go on and on.

  • Skegeeace

    Ahhh! That was clever of you to name the article one thing, but end up saying another. I think two people in an interracial relationship should be able to discuss anything at anytime, so when I saw the title of the article I just had to read it. Thankfully, I didn’t see an argument against open communication between people of two different races, but an example of how NOT to think we have a monopoly on being victims of racism. Kudos.

  • a

    Minorities can’t be racist because they are the minority. Its a systematized state of oppression instituted by the majority group. So you lost me towards the bottom of your article.

  • hz

    I feel like the words are getting confused here. In the structural view of racism, yes minorities do not have the power to be racist because of systemic oppression and a unequal power dynamic. But we most definitely can be prejudice in our attitudes, which is what she seems to be addressing.

  • http://valsotherblog.wordpress.com Val

    I wonder if sites for White women have this many posts about interracial dating. Okay, I already know the answer to that.

  • Wills

    Ha HA!!!!

  • MimiLuvs

    (grabs a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of water)

  • http://Scott Lorna

    I take issue with that “racism equals prejudice plus power” equation that says minorities can’t be racist. Ask any black person that’s been in an Asian-owned convenience store. Those owners have a lot of power and some of them use it in anti-black ways. And as your boyfriend pointed out, there are racist black people out there too, who will beat u somebody for the color of their skin. I’m a social scientist and maybe your equation would have worked pre-Civil Rights Era, but it certainly does not now.

  • JC

    Not sure. Racism equals power plus prejudice. If my group is a minority, but we own all the means of production, then we can be racist by making sure that only our race is a part of the managerial class.

  • JC

    It still works. You just have to remember two things, power does always require numbers. (1) Power is complex and has many roots. If have a gun, I can have power over an entire room of people. If people believe that I am wise or the rightful leader over a group, I can have power over an entire community. All this power I can have as just one person. Think of colonial Africa or India, those Africans and Indian were super-majorities, yet they didn’t have any power.

    (2) Also racism is defined over a sphere. If I am a black teacher, within my classroom, there can be subtitle anti-white racism t. I can choose to grade white students more harshly. But a white principle can choose to project anti-black racism towards the teachers. So within that same school there are different forms of racism operating at different levels.

    So the definition still stands, you just have to specify the form of the power and sphere, whether spatial or institutional, over which the racism operates.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    “there are racist black people out there too”

    we oppress white people? who knew?

  • Laugh

    Uh, not even sure if I should bother responding since it seems EVERY TIME there is an interracial type article it gets shut down for no apparent reason.

  • Anthony

    The writer needs to respect her boyfriend’s experience. It seems she was not being realistic about her man. Sure, he likes black people, and he hangs with black people, but he is not black! I think about someone like Kid Rock, who I suspect genuinely likes black people, and he certainly loves his biracial son, but the man is a white Republican.
    It’s just a fact that different people just see things differently. Clearly, your boyfriend is a decent guy, or you wouldn’t be with him. If you want someone who pretty much sees race your way, you need a brother.

  • Maria

    I understand your definition of racism, I really do, but it doesn’t go far enough, especially when you think of your boyfriend. The Black kids he grew up were racists because since your boyfriend was the minority, those ignorant kids had the power. Sure, you can argue that those kids acted as a rebellious response to systematic racism that whites put it in place, but that’s doesn’t counter what they did.

    White people are not the only racists. Black-on-black ethnic genocide in Africa is still racist. When Black people talking shit about Mexicans= racist. Asians hating on black people = racist too. Everyone can hate on everyone.

  • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2


    Exhibit A: Apartheid

  • KitKat

    To add to your comment, I find that it’s best to take your time and become friends first when dating outside your race, there are things that will come out in friendship, that often time stay hidden during a relationship.

  • Kam

    The “racism equals prejudice plus power” definition is an academic definition of racism not a colloquial one. I agree with you and have been on the end of racism from many races. I call it racism plain and simple. I’d only have to worry about calling it prejudice if I was writing an academic paper or talking in an academic setting. I really wish people would differentiate between the colloquial definition and the academic definition when talking about racism and realize that the two can coexist.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Agreed! Not trying to take anything from the boyfriend terrible experience growing up or trying to undermine his pain but his experience is a dropped in the bucket sort to speak. The ending of the article lost me him stating his experience doesn’t negate his thinking towards racism. So yeah….. he experience discriminated/prejudice not racism and ALL IT ENTAILS per se. Sorry but this articles reeks of individuals who push and debate the magical unicorn of “reserve discrimination” instead of checking ALL discrimination and fight it as a whole but seperate and specialize it.

  • igbokwenu

    I do not understand your position. To be racist, that is to consider a race as inferior to yours requires power, especially economic power. Her boyfriend was susceptible to violence because of the antedated racism the black students and their parents and the parents before them suffered (and probably still suffer). Her boyfriend simply represented the system. Because the black students knew they could not fight the system, they used HIM who looked like the system to voice out their frustrations with their fists.

    Black and other minorities cannot be racist if they continue to suffer injustices from a system the insists on their inferiority. If blacks are racist, why are white people not suffering from blackening (not the same as tanning …tanning implies economic power, because those who appear tanned shows that they could afford to travel where the sun is) their skin, kinkinizing their hair or wearing afro wigs/afro human hair, or having more black models represented in the runways, or having their names mocked, or being called ghetto, or driving while white, or imprisoned for anything, or the list is endless. RACISM IS INDEED WHERE PREJUDICE MEETS ECONOMIC POWER. If you have money, you dictate the direction of societal values and beliefs.

  • Marisa

    I have my opinions on life in general and it doesnt change no matter whose in my presence. I’m not sugarcoating anything race,religion,gender,sexual orientation,politics,sports whatever. Race especially in this country is still dysfunctional in many ways and I’m going to speak in injustice rather my man is black,white,latino,asian,indian. Thats one of my issues with interracial dating/friendship there is this idea that everybody should be all kumbuya,thats why we never can get to the root of issues because people wanna pretend like oh just cause we cool,so is the rest of society um no doesnt work like that. Your man sounds like just because its not the Jim Crow days everything else is harmless

  • justjones

    The author of this article draws the following conclusion: “But, I was wrong to think that I was the ultimate authority on the subject simply because I’m black.”

    Right. The ULTIMATE AUTHORITY on RACISM is WHITE PEOPLE. They’ve perfected it down to a science. If anyone is ignorant about racism it’s BLACK PEOPLE.

    In fact, I suspect the boyfriend was practicing racism when he pulled out the Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of racism knowing that white people wrote it so of course it isn’t going to illuminate any truth about this white supremacist system.

    So-called interracial relationships are just S.A.D.D.:

  • http://theironiclifeofafatkid.wordpress.com theironiclifeofamommy

    I always find it interesting when people of color give white people “honorary membership” into the people of color club. Often what we end up doing is giving these white people a pass on recognizing and accepting their privilege in the larger system. While your bf may not have realized the full “potential” of his privilege as the lone white kid in the black neighborhood it existed nonetheless and it sounds like until the other day he has not had to recognize that because he has been told he is “one of us” “honorary black”. I grew up around white people and was often accused as “acting white” by black people, but never assumed that I knew what it was to be white because I wasn’t and would neve be. My experience would always be different.

  • cupcakes and shiraz

    I agree with you. It seems like people use the “racism = power + prejudice” argument to justify abusive, hateful behavior by those in marginalized groups.

  • Anthony

    I agree with you totally. I posted earlier and I suppose my comment was not allowed, but what I was trying to say is that I am sure the author’s boyfriend is a decent guy, but he is white and he sees the world through the eyes of a white person. This is something he will do no matter how many black friends he has, or if he takes a black spouse.
    If a person truly wants someone who can identify with her outlook, then looking for someone from one’s community makes the most sense. I am notsaying this out of any sort of disdain for interracial relationships, I just think that we need to approach anything with our eyes open. We also need to accept and embrace difference if we do get involved in interracial relationships too.

  • Anthony

    What the racism equals power argument fails to answer is the pain of a lone individual who has suffered violence or a personal slight. Of course, black people sees the bigger picture since we suffere from racism at so many levels, but we cannot make someone else see the world through our eyes.

  • paul

    @justjones and theironiclifeofamommy and smh

    “I always find it interesting when people of color give white people “honorary membership” into the people of color club.”

    This ^^ was a shot warnin em to back off. They didn’t listen so -

    “Time and time again, we get articles from clownish black folk who in their clamoring for acceptance, flight from self-resentment, or both; fight through negative tide to be in the arms of their masters. Yet, when they get butt-hurt, they come whining to black people instead of taking up their case to the actual perpetrators.”

    – they ate a jab ^^ that softened em up. They still kept comin

    and -

    “Right. The ULTIMATE AUTHORITY on RACISM is WHITE PEOPLE. They’ve perfected it down to a science. If anyone is ignorant about racism it’s BLACK PEOPLE.”

    - got knocked the f – ck out ^^.

    One of the most comprehensive and accurate conclusions about racism I’ve ever seen.

    Wow just wow -

    sheer brilliance.

    tilts hat, bows to my superiors.

    and leaves.

  • SS25

    This is a wake-up call for all those black women who think white men are better. Most will never culturally understand how black people view race and that’s when they pull out Merriam Webster to define what racism actually means. I love and believe in a good black man. Disagree if you like.

  • can

    I don’t think this is a clearly black or white matter. It is a matter of how one sees race. When I was in college I was talking about racism with another black lady and she gave me the blankest look. Finally, she told me that she couldn’t relate, because she’d never experienced some of the things I had. In high school I would have said the same thing because I hadn’t yet moved to the racist area where I lived. It caused me to realized that there are so many factors that determine how one sees race and racism. So rather than needing a brotha, I think Black women need someone who will listen to and respect their experiences, and they need to do the same.

  • Nic

    Sorry, but sleeping with a black person doesn’t make you an expert on racism, and I personally think that you need to avoid the white people who think they can whitesplain everything to your ignorant black self.

    White people do a good job of shutting down discussions about racism (thereby allowing it to flourish and grow) by acting like it’s only racist if someone is swinging from a tree or a cross is burning. And since they love to absolve one another of personal responsibility (notice how often they claim someone who goes on racist tirades is mentally ill?), they will attempt to gaslight you into believing that nothing is racist. I mean, we do have a black president. America is color-blind *smirk*

    And no, getting picked on as the one white kid is not an example of racism. It’s prejudice, but it’s also born from the fact that those kids know you are someone who is part of the most privileged segment of society. They are releasing their aggressions on the white guy (and no I don’t condone it) because it one of the rare times in their lives that they will ever have more power.

    How does someone think they are an expert on something they cannot experience. So many white people love to say “but I never see that.” Why would you? You don’t have black skin. You can’t EVER experience the world the way that we do.
    Ladies, do yourself a favor and don’t date white men who can’t listen to you. Full stop. There are some who can, but seriously, I can’t believe this writer is with a white boy who wants to tell her what racism really is, and claim that as a white male, he is immune from racism (but not bigotry).

    So sad that writer let her white man whitesplain her silly black self. Good luck with that.

    White men are not the answer to anyone’s man woes, but if you date one, get one who doesn’t dismiss your experience as a black person. That is the ultimate in white privilege and arrogance, and not anyone you should be marrying and having black children with.

  • Chika

    No. But sometimes we oppress each other.

  • http://flightymusings.wordpress.com Simpli

    Okay nerd moment, please excuse me:

    there are two forms of minority. There is the social minority, where a group of individuals is afforded little power in the greater society, the actual size of the group does not matter(i.e. women, blacks). The other form is demographic/quantitative minority (I can’t remember the actual term) which is based on the actual number of a certain group, so there are, for example, 20k blacks and 50k whites; in this instance blacks are the minority.

    In the U.S. minorities are both social and quantitative, so sometimes it blurs the differences. In the situation you described the “minority” group is actually part of the majority because they hold the social power.

    /end of nerdiness!

  • http://1stamend-kisa-kisa.blogspot.com/ kisa

    #deep. I was touched by how you closed up this post.

  • luvlife289

    FYI @ XOJane…

    Black people are not the only ones brainwashed.
    White people are too; especially Americans.
    So please don’t be surprised that your BF can be racist.
    We’re all programed…

  • ?!?

    @cupcakes and Shiraz – I agree. Racism = power + prejudice is an argument that folks use and then turn around and make offensive, prejudiced, and essentially racist statements. Some black people use this we can’t be racist argument as a reason for why we are spiritually superior to white people lol. Racism is a mentality and way of thinking to me. I think adding power to the mix is a more powerful form of racism institutionalized racism. You are able to enforce your racism.

    And this power is not on a global level. Black kids in an all black neighborhood have more power than the lone white kid. Also black people in other countries have more control than African Americans. Idi Amin kicked the Asians out of Uganda. If a Native American calls me the n-word, I’m going to think he’s racist. If an Asian person calls me the n-word, I’m going to think he’s racist. If an Australian aborigine calls me the n-word, he’s racist. These people have no power over me in America. They do not shape culture or societal values, but they still think black people are inferior. This is when you all go off talking about people of color and kumbaya. People of color can be racist. So when an Indian gas station owner calls you the n-word, he’s racist because he has money and power, but if he were poor, he’d just be prejudiced. What?!?!

    But I know you don’t believe that. I have seen many comments on here about other non-white groups of people being racist towards black people. Why is it that you all think every other group of people can be racist towards us but we can’t be racist towards them. Because we have no power over other groups of people? I think black people like this definition of racism so they can paint us as the poor victimized black people that have been taken advantage of by others.

    When a black person goes on a tirade about killing white babies, calling white people evil devils that need to be exterminated, what is he? Prejudiced and crazy? But if a white person did this he’s racist……If a Native American goes on a tirade about killing black people, he’s a racist to me. Am I wrong? Are these people only prejudiced? Native Americans have no power over me. They are not doing so well economically, and they shape American society less than African Americans do.

    So….I disagree with this definition of racism. Racism has many different definitions. We are arguing about what racism means to us. Why? So we can say white people are the only racists. It’s still the same idea. Black people can be prejudiced and hateful and pick on people because of their race too. It’s still a horrible thing whether you want to call it racism or not.

    But white people have privilege, and it can be annoying to hear them complain about the little incidents they have with black people saying offensive things to them. This past four years has involved a lot of white people whining about being oppressed. There was an article on this site about a white woman who wrote a book where white people were oppressed lol. I can understand that white people can go through being bullied and picked on for their race in certain settings. The author’s boyfriend was picked on because of his race. I think denying his experience is similar to the way black people on this site got angry at light skinned or biracial black people. Some of you all went into the oppression Olympics mode saying that their experiences didn’t matter and they don’t get to whine because they have light skin privilege.


    I don’t know about some black folks who date interracially sometimes. You said the race talks you have are usually offensive jokes. Hmm…let me guess. These are offensive jokes about black people aren’t they? Him pretending to be a stereotypical black woman while you laugh hysterically because you’re not like that lol. Black folks have to check their interaction with their non-black friends. You think they are making fun of Sheniqua, but when they’re with the friends of their group, they’re making fun of you!

  • http://gravatar.com/shayboo1 shayboo1

    well written, it actually is a good thing that you discuss race, it is apart of life

  • Houston

    I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. Said Malcome X’s daughter…

  • Houston


  • Ravi

    poor white guys, It’s so hard out there for them.

  • http://twitter.com/Cognorati001 Colette Marcheline (@Cognorati001)

    Gosh. This was one of the most incoherent and confusing articles about interracial relationships I’ve ever read.

    The picture and caption is pretty bad: it seems like it’s confirming the angry Black woman stereotype and it’s worse because we don’t know who the woman is (I’m assuming it’s the author?). Did XO Jane do this deliberately to exploit a stereotype?

    Also, about the caption: if men have to “watch what [they] say” to her, why is she in a relationship with anybody? If you’re that angry and defensive you need therapy, not a relationship.

    The other troubling thing was the line about constantly talking about race and racism with her boyfriend. I’ve been in relationships that were interracial or inter-ethnic all my life and I’ve never had that sort of relationship, particularly with White men; I’d take it as a red flag that we weren’t relating to one another as people but their was some “jungle fever” fetishization ish going. My last relationship was six years with my ex (Italian) and years into the relationship we realized we’d never had an argument about race. The only conversations we did have about race were to say that White Supremacist Southern types are insane, etc…

    If I’m dating someone it has to be pretty obvious from the start that we’re on the same page about racism and White supremacy; I don’t have time to waste debating racism or tip-toing with anyone.

  • http://gravatar.com/chanela17 chanela17

    THANK YOU! maria i did a video on this subject (which somehow ended up on bossip.com – _ -) and so many people attacked me for bringing this up! they even titled the video “black girl goes in on black people” all i was saying was how black people can be racist as hell too,yet people don’t believe it’s possible.

    i couldn’t believe the nasty things people were saying to me simply for asking why it’s okay for black people to say racist things to others and not have any consequences. SMH


    Nice codified response

  • http://twitter.com/VerbalTiye VerbalTiye (@VerbalTiye)

    Yes. Also, in a system of racism white supremacy why would any white person tell any non-white they are being mistreated due to color? @Xojane you were dating a racist white supremacist. Would a pickpocket convince you that they were stealing your wallet? No. It’s his job to make sure you think racism white supremacy doesn’t exist to the point were he say’s he is the victim of racism. A racist will do anything to make sure the topic is off of white people. Distraction is the key and it works on a majority of non white people. You most def need to follow the logic of the situation. He should be doing everything to stop racism white supremacy.

  • http://gravatar.com/rastaman1967 Rastaman

    I think what the author has written is healthy and valuable for bringing into the public forum how people view sensitive issues like racism. For him getting is ass whupped on the regular for being a different color is how he thinks racism operates. I may not agree with him but I understand how consistent ass whuppings can frame things in a person’s mind. Her experience as a black person in America informs her that racism can be more covert, more subtle and more insidious. I am hopeful that there exchange is educational.

    As to the commenters who want to scold her about her choice of friends or lovers, you all need to chill. Stop with the segregation forever speeches…. they never worked for George Wallace and they are not going to work now. The reason we are living in a world where racism is waning is that people are interacting, loving and talking. That more than anything helps to overcome the ignorance and fear that belies so much of the racist POVs that have shaped our society to date.

    Most people who enjoy privilege are really not that aware of the privilege they enjoy until it is put up in stark contrast to the lives of those who are not so privileged. Even then they may be resistant to that exposure has it may call into question their owwn sense of themselves. It is very easy to take pot shots at the people who enjoy the privilege of color but please know that the difficulty of life is relative.

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