“Can Black people be racist?” What an odd and silly question, most would point out. Of course Black people, just like White people and people of all races, can be racist. However, some people actually do believe that Blacks are incapable of racism. Confused or surprised? Understandably so.
There is a narrative embraced by a minority of Blacks that Black people cannot be racist. In a South African context this belief is expressed most plainly by the Black First Land First organization and its founder Andile Mngxitama (1). According to Mngxitama “Obviously black people cannot be racists… People who are still asking whether or not black people can be racist are still behind, the real question should be how to get justice” (2). However, as we will see, Mngxitama it in fact blatantly racist which would seem to highlight his hypocrisy and irrationality; we shall return to this shortly. That Black people can’t be racist is also not a belief only found within South Africa (3). It is evidently promoted by some Black Americans, one of which we will refer to shortly.
To begin with we should look at definition. Well, “What is racism?” Turning to the standard Oxford dictionary we are told that racism is “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Most of us would agree that to say, for example, that White or Black people are superior to people from Asian or Pacific countries would be racist, and vice versa. Though this is fairly straightforward, and arguably what most people would think of when it comes to the word “racist,” not everyone accepts this definition. For instance, Michael Eric Dyson, an American MSNBC pundit and professor, redefines the term, “racism presupposes the ability to control a significant segment of the population economically, politically, and socially by imposing law, covenant, and restriction on their lives. Black people don’t have the capacity to do that” (4).
It is clear that on this redefinition racism cannot apply to those without power. Thus, to Dyson, Blacks have never had economic, political, and social power. All of which would be the basis from which “law, covenant, and restriction” could be conjured up to oppress a particular race or races (Apartheid in South Africa, and 17th and 18th century slavery in America being the most apt examples). And because racism is defined in this way it would follow that it is something that can only apply to White people, at least in their respective contexts (for instance, it is not as if the people in the world who have had power have only been Whites. Non-Whites, given this definition, can also be racists).
But we should question this thinking. Firstly, racism doesn’t require power, nor does it “presuppose” economic, social, or political power. In truth, racism and power can, and very often do, go hand in hand. However, racism is both an ideology and a practice espoused and conducted by a collective group of people or on the part of an individual. In other words, you needn’t wield power to be racist. Secondly, this claim that Black people cannot be racist is itself a racist remark. And here I credit Hlonipha Mokoena, a associate professor at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), on his succinct observation, “Racism is any attitude or behaviour that is premised on the assumption that one group of people is superior or inferior to another… This question whether or not black people can be racist is itself a problem. I believe it is itself a mask for another kind of conversation we should be having but aren’t… I’m not sure why black people are being exempted from these prejudices as if there is a hierarchy of prejudices and racism has somehow become the worst thing that a person can be. Bigotry is as bad as racism because both cause harm to others. Black people can certainly be bigoted since they have the power to cause harm to others. To say that black people can’t be racist is to say that black people are superhumans who are incapable of engaging in anti-social behaviours” (5).
So, for Dyson and Mngxitama to elevate the Black race by exempting them from having to be held accountable to the same standard adhered to by other races is itself a manner of distinguishing Blacks as superior, or as “superhumans” to use Mokoena’s terminology. It is through-and-through a racist belief and statement, and those claiming it should be held accountable in the same way all racists should be. The other problem with Dyson’s redefinition is that we all end up talking past each other. In South Africa, racism hits the headline media fairly frequently to the extent that it is no longer a big surprise. This is a problem and it is one that needs to be discussed in a country with an incredibly sore history. However, if some Black people keep redefining racism in such a way as to exclude them from being racists then it will come to the detriment to discussion, and progress will not be made. We need honesty, and we need to be on a level playing field in these debates. We can’t have Blacks, Whites, or anyone else for that matter, distinguishing themselves as superior within the debates themselves. Perhaps Ernst Roets, the CEO of the AfriForum rights body, in a “debate” with Mngxitama (quotation marks are intended given that the debate turned out to be little more than racial mudslinging and threats from Mngxitama to Roets on live television), best elucidates this point,
“I don’t mean it disrespectfully in any way but I honestly find it laughable that we can have a discussion about whether Black people can be racist. I mean that’s ludicrous. Racism is if you hate another person or if you inflict ill will on another person. But the level of debate in this country [South Africa] has strayed so far from a sane debate so that we [in reference to Mngxitama] are now saying, “No, Black people can’t be racist.” That is absolutely ludicrous, and it is something we need to address” (6).
1. ENCA. 2016.WATCH: Black people can’t be racist, says Mngxitama. Available.
2. The Daily Vox. 2017. So can black people be racist? Available.
3. Shapiro, B. 2016. Racist CNN Host: Impossible For Black People To Be Racist. Available.
4. YouTube. 2012. Michael Eric Dyson Shares Why “Black People Can’t Be Racist” Backstage At Don’t Sleep! Available. [00:20-00:30]
5. The Daily Vox. 2017. Ibid.
6. AfriForum. 2016. Ernst Roets in debate on racism and white privilege in South Africa. Available. [13:08-13:40]