The word “racist” is getting a lot of air time lately. From Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter and the latest police shooting of an unarmed Black man, accusations of racism abound. But there’s an important distinction missing from these accusations that’s keeping us stuck and stoking anger: bigotry is not racism.
In my work as a diversity and leadership expert, I define bigotry as “individual, interpersonal acts of meanness” directed by one individual (or small group) to another. These individual acts can be intentional or unintentional. What makes them bigotry, not just meanness, is that they’re based on the recipient’s racial, ethnic or cultural identity (or what the bigot thinks is their identity). By this definition, anyone can be bigoted. Black people can say and do nasty things to White people because of their Whiteness, White people can say and do nasty things to Black people because of their Blackness, Latinos can be bigoted towards Asians, Japanese can be bigoted towards Chinese, and so on.
Bigotry doesn’t feel good to those on the receiving end no matter what their race or identity, and bigotry is not acceptable from anyone. However, bigotry is not racism.
Racism, using my favorite definition from Solid Ground is “the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are White and the exclusion of people of color.” This distribution can be intentional or unintentional, and these systems are largely unconscious and invisible to White people. But they are real, and they have meaningful impacts on people’s lives.
Some say that, by these definitions, anyone can be a bigot, but only White people can be racists. However, if racism is about systems that inequitably confer resources, power and opportunity, then no individual person can be racist. Only systems like education, health care, housing, the political system, the legal system and the financial system can be racist.
Not only can these systems be racist, they are. Examples and studies abound that show how people of color, particularly African Americans, are consistently viewed and treated by these systems as less intelligent and capable than they are, and granted less access to quality housing, education, healthcare, legal rights, personal safety and jobs than White people. In fact, to not acknowledge this reality in the face of mounting evidence is evidence of racism. Also, to equate the effects of bigotry (hurt feelings and occasional one-on-one violence) with the effects of racism (mass poverty, chronic health problems, incarceration and untimely deaths over many decades) isn’t only ludicrous, it’s cruel.
While bigotry isn’t the same as racism, bigotry causes and reinforces racism, and racism causes and reinforces bigotry. For example, while most acknowledge inequities exist between Whites and people of color in the U.S., where we differ is the reasons we give for these inequities. An increasingly vocal minority still believes that people of color and Blacks are inherently inferior to Whites – lazier, weaker, less intelligent and more violent by nature. This is the essence of White supremacy – a belief system rooted in the notion that inequities exist because people of color earned it, deserved it, or can’t do better because they’re people of color. White supremacist beliefs produce bigoted speech and behaviors which justify and reinforce inequities, and inequities reinforce bigotry.
However, a growing majority (typically people of color themselves and some White people) believe that the challenges in communities of color aren’t due to their inherent inferiority, but to the lasting effects of 364 years of slavery and legal discrimination plus current policies, practices and systems that reinforce those 364 years of abuse or maintain inequities. They see that brilliant and destructive qualities exist in every group, and good character and ability aren’t determined by a person’s race. They believe that White people aren’t inherently superior, and that given the same circumstances people of color have faced, Whites would have fared the same.
While bigotry is a problem, racism is a far bigger problem, and focusing only on “racists” perpetuates racism. Calling individuals “racists” fools us into thinking that if there’s no bigotry happening, there’s no racism. Disrupting bigotry may be easier to do and a good start, but the real work of dismantling racism begins with believing it exists, then rejecting the bigoted notion that it exists because people of color are inferior. Calling cruel individuals “bigots” and calling cruel and inequitable systems “racist” will help us do this work, and finally get it right.