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. Keep reading!