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! 

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46 Comments

  1. 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

      ITA

      Exhibit A: Apartheid

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    • 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!

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

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  3. Wills

    Ha HA!!!!

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  4. MimiLuvs

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

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  5. 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.

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    • 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.

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    • “there are racist black people out there too”

      we oppress white people? who knew?

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    • Chika

      No. But sometimes we oppress each other.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.

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    • @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.

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      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!

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