How Racism Is Different Than Prejudice

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
jacoblund / Getty

The dictionary defines the word racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed at someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” As a result, white people, especially white Americans, have taken this textbook definition of racism and twisted it in their minds to assert the fact that other racial groups are “racist” against white people. And while it might be true that many racial groups dislike white people, it’s NOT because they are racist.

Because contrary to the dictionary definition of racism, believing that you’re the superior race is not enough. If you as a group don’t have a substantial amount of power, then you cannot be the superior race. Other racial groups can certainly be prejudiced against white people (and many are for good reason) but they cannot be “racist.”


“But why? Why can only white people be racist?”

Well, the dictionary definition of racism lacks nuance and understanding of power structure. I mean, just look at who was creating language. The dictionary was literally created by white men. Considering that whiteness and colonialism are the center of the spread of the English language, is it really a surprise that these men would define the word to try and shift the blame onto others? By creating the language for a concept that they also created, they have given themselves the power to create the narrative.

Here’s the thing about language though: it’s an ever evolving concept. Just because a word meant one thing 40 years ago, doesn’t mean it’s never going to change. Take for example, the word gay. Its dictionary definition is “lighthearted and carefree,” but if you ask just about anyone, they will tell you it means LGBTQ.

The concept of race, and therefore racism, dates back to the 17th century, at the start of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Race was used as a means to give white enslavers (the oppressor) power over those who were deemed lesser class than them (the oppressed.) That’s why you have racial hierarchies — they had to use skin color to justify what they were doing. And racism and racist behavior have consistently evolved since then, which brings us to where we are today.

In the past five years or so, racism and racist ideology have become something that people will call out. By now, we all know that most white people don’t like to be called out on their racism, so instead, they will try to say that calling them out as racist is in and of itself a form of racism.

Of course, anyone with half a brain knows that this isn’t how it works.


There is no such thing as reverse racism, because the oppressed cannot oppress the oppressor. And in most of the world, white people are without a doubt the oppressor, even in places where they may not be the majority. Because of colonialism, white supremacy and white power reach the farthest corners of the world.

But since I’m American, let’s keep it focused on white Americans, shall we?

Because whiteness is the default in the United States of America, even if you don’t actually believe that white people are the superior race, you’re speaking from a place where they are. So if you, as a white person, say, “I’m afraid to walk in a black neighborhood at night,” you’re being racist. Because you’re assuming that simply because the neighborhood is inhabited by mostly black people, you are in some sort of danger.

Truth be told, you’re probably going to be fine. Someone may ask you if you’re lost, but you’re not going to get stabbed or raped. However, if a black person says, “I’m afraid to walk through a white neighborhood in broad daylight,” they aren’t being racist. First, because they know that they don’t have any power in this situation. And second, because if the news is any indicator, they aren’t actually safe at all.

That being said, people of color can absolutely be prejudiced towards white people. Prejudice is more of a broad disliking of someone based on their race, so really, anyone can be prejudiced. When a black person says they’re not inviting their white co-worker Susan to the cookout, or to a Thanksgiving potluck because she’ll do something weird like make carrot raisin potato salad, or put brussels sprouts in her macaroni and cheese, that’s not being racist towards Susan. That’s being prejudiced against Susan because she, as a white woman, can’t leave a perfectly good side dish alone.

Or how about this, when white people say that names like Daquan or Shaniqua are “ghetto” and “unprofessional,” that’s racist as fuck. Because those names are of an alternate culture that isn’t centered around whiteness. Simply dismissing someone because their name isn’t something super white like Brixley or Daxton is r-a-c-i-s-t. If Daquan punches Daxton in the face because his name is Daxton? Well, that’s mean and maybe prejudiced, but it’s not racist.

Some people will also argue that affirmative action is reverse racism. You know why that’s dead wrong? Because if whiteness wasn’t the default, affirmative action wouldn’t need to exist. It was only created as an attempt to dismantle systemic racism and to acknowledge that people of color have just as much to offer (if not more) as their white counterparts.

Thinking that white people aren’t all that special isn’t racism. Period. The end. If a white person gets their feelings hurt by seeing a person of color saying, “white people ain’t shit,” by definition, they cannot cry reverse racism. Because reverse racism is NOT A THING.

White people are viewed as the superior race by pretty much every facet of the law; hence the reason white people can kill black people all willy-nilly and get away with it. We live in a country built on the sheer idea that whiteness was the only way to be great. Now that people (white people included) are beginning to realize that these concepts and ideologies may be, you know, wrong, the people who don’t think so are getting their feelings hurt.

But instead of getting upset and crying racism, maybe — just maybe — those white people should take a step back and examine why people are beginning to feel more comfortable with voicing their displeasure.

And perhaps you should begin to examine why you’re feeling defensive. Is it because you realize things are changing and you’re scared that your way of life may become compromised? Or because you realize that deep down, even though you don’t want to admit it, you are racist?

Either way, the fault lies with you, not with others.

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