Visiting an online discussion with students about the concept of “Reverse Racism”

Visiting an online discussion with students about the concept of “reverse racism”

I’ve been teaching an online race class for over 10 years now and being able to see students from across our nation, who come from different parts of the world, have a thoughtful discussion about their experiences with race has been a wonderful education privilege. It has helped me to see, close-up, how race impacts their daily lives. And having this discussion, which I moderate, has allowed me to see the imprint of race in my student’s lives, and it calls me to use my own experiences with race, from both lived and those acquired from  the more than 30-year-study of the subject that has become a basic component of my life. I have been granted a wonderful laboratory through which to examine this social construction that has shaped my life.  What follows is the basics of a discussion that I had with a couple of students in my Race in America class. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and editing of some of the student’s words for meaning may have taken place. The jewels that are to be found from telling the stories of our lives, and then examining them through a filter of race, allows us to see things that we may not have thought of before. I present this discussion for your consideration.

This discussion happens in a section of the class called Capitalism and Race. We have talked about the connection between the creation of our nation, the creation of the concept of race and how those two resulted in the creation of capitalism as our national economy, with the examples of the land taken, and genocide performed on the Indigenous peoples of this land, and the use of enslaved free African people as a basis for the nation’s economy, the students were asked the following question:

Our discussion topic:  In what ways is racism profitable and for whom?

Students are required to log in and to participate in the discussion.  Students must

  1. Think of an action which you believe to be racist and then discuss the following:
  2. who profited from the action?
  3. what was gained?

Student Mark:  Racism, depending on the area can be monetarily and possibly socially beneficial for people based on the area, and conditions therein. The example is one from my own personal experience.

 I lived in Hawaii. A friend and I were in an area that was notorious for being full of local Hawaiians. We would usually hike all over the island of Oahu on our days off. One day, after we finished a hike near this densely local populated area, we decided to stop at a gas station and a drink as and a snack. Upon entering the gas station, we immediately were glared at and whispered about. When we went to pay for our snacks and drinks we were told that we weren’t welcome in the store. My friend and I looked at the attendant, surprised, and he automatically answered: “I won’t serve you, and if you don’t leave now, I’ll call people who will make you leave.”

Instantly my friend and I headed out the door, with the attendant shouting at us, “F*ck off Haole boys” (Haole being a racial slur towards white people from Hawaiians). As we walked to my friend’s truck, a truck full of people from the neighborhood pulled up to the gas pumps and we could see the hostility in their eyes

I would say that the gas station owners benefited from refusing service to us (as is his right to do) in a social way. There is a sign in the neighborhood that reads, “White Invaders Give The Islands Back Before We Take Them Back,” so I assume that the clerk experienced some personal gratification, the gas station owners probably got some sort of additional business when it became known that my friend and I (the student did not mention the race of he or his friend directly, which is white )were kicked out of the store. I would say that there was more monetary gain beyond what my friend and I would have contributed to his business, as well as some personal gain and recognition within the neighborhood.

Instructor Kim’s thought/notes about student Mark’s post:  When I read Mark’s post the first thing that strikes me is that he calls a native, Indigenous Hawaiian neighborhood “notorious.” The negative connotation is obvious in the word, but it may not be obvious to those who read this. The people of the island are ‘notorious’, and no such words are used to talk about the white student and his friend, who I am assuming is white as well. I know that both these people are white even though the student never identifies himself, or anyone else as white. It is fascinating that he has not problem identifying native Hawaiians as such, but does not recognize his own color, race, ethnicity or anything. Yet in order for us to understand the ‘reverse racism’ that Mark also does not name, is to understand that he and his friend are white.

White is the race that goes unmentioned. We never have to talk about it, because it is assumed; this student assumes his whiteness, and he assumes that we will also assume his whiteness; he never questions that we will recognize him as white. What also goes unmentioned is the fact that Mark and his friends are colonizers. They understand their whiteness without a filter of race. They are white; they don’t have to think about what that means. But they know the meaning of the race of those who are other. They live in “densely” populated neighborhoods that are notorious.

The student can see how the race of the Indigenous people impact their own lives, as well as how their race impacts his life. It is not Mark and his friend’s whiteness which gets them kicked out of the gas station; it is the ‘Hawaiian-ness’ of the locals that is the problem. Whiteness cannot be the problem for Mark, because it does not exist; he cannot ‘see’ his or his friend’s race.

But Mark sees the ‘local-ness’ of the clerk, and it only through the language of native Hawaiians, ““I won’t serve you, and if you don’t leave now, I’ll call people who will make you leave.” “F*ck off Haole boys!” By the way, a Haole, is not a term for all white people. It is a term for white people who have colonized the Hawaiian Islands and continue to benefit from this act of oppression.  It is important to understand the limits for the power of the word haole, because there is no way to say that all white people are bad. There are ways for different groups of white people to be bad, but the idea that whiteness may be something undesirable is inconceivable.

The importance of the voice of the clerk cannot be overestimated. It is only through the voice of the clerk that Mark and his friend begin to understand that there may be places on this island where they are not welcomed. This concept is as foreign to Mark and his friend, as they are to the island. We are told that the two, “We would usually hike all over the island of Oahu on our days off.” The friends never question if they belong on the island; it is theirs to explore, after working at jobs, that many of those who are born to the land have difficulty being hired for.

What seems most problematic for these friends is the fact that there is a sign in the neighborhood that declares the intentions of those who were born to the island, ““White Invaders Give The Islands Back Before We Take Them Back”. It is the voice of the island that calls Mark and his friends White Invaders. Without this voice, Mark and friend’s race would never have been spoken, noticed, would never really exist.

Without this sign, there would have been nothing in Mark’s analysis that spoke of the fact that white people did invade and colonize the islands. These are facts that are not part of Mark’s consciousness, so it is easy to ignore. If these facts are not acknowledged by white voices, then the impact of their truth does not have to be part of the story that Mark gets to tell his classmates about the ways that people of color benefit from treating he and his friend in an unfriendly manner.

Student: Isabelle: Thank you for sharing a personal story with us! I don’t have a deep understanding of Hawaii’s history besides knowing that the U.S. annexed it illegally in the 1900s at some point. Based on Johnson’s definition of racism, was that what you guys experienced? It just sounds to me more like prejudice on the part of the shop-owner- based on the island’s history of imperialism and violence, he saw you two and immediately felt animosity. 

Instructor Kim’s thought/notes about student Isabelle’s post:  I love that Isabelle is asking Mark about the history of the Islands! I love even more that she is reminding him of the class definitions of racism: The Patterns of Privilege and Power granted to one group over others based in race. This is something I can work with.


This is what I posted into the student discussion:

Hey y’all what a great discussion y’all are having about the differences between racism and prejudice and the concept of ‘reverse racism’ that seems to be at the base of Mark’s story.  I, too, would like to thank you for sharing this story Mark.  It is brave to talk about the ways that we have experienced the impact of race in our own lives.  This may take a while, LOL!

So Isabelle asks if what Mark experienced on the Island of Hawaii was prejudice and not racism.  Mark has told of his experience of not being served by indigenous peoples (native Hawaiian descendants) and being physically threatened and forced to leave the area.  Mark spoke of the financial reward that the shop owner would receive in terms of having other indigenous people spending their money in his store, and the ‘recognition’ he would get from the community.

 And the history of the Hawaiian Islands is complex; while it is a U.S. state, statehood came at a high price for the Pacific Islanders who were the victims of the horrors of colonization, plantations, occupation and all of the other things that being treated as a conquered people entails, including having your homelands taken over by others for their profit and pleasure (tourism) and leaving little ability for indigenous people to even make a living, except in service to those people who use the islands for their own pleasure.

So what, in terms of the ways that we are going to use the vocabulary in this class, are we talking about here.  The following are the ways that we will use terms in this class.

  1. Prejudice-is a bias, either for or against someone or thing, often based in stereotypical social understandings about the behaviors and natures of others because of group memberships.
  2. Racism is the patterns of privilege and power granted to one group over others based in race.

There are two (2) important things to notice about these definitions.  There is no mention of hatred, or intention.

So let’s begin this analysis at the beginning of the relationship between the U.S. and who can be citizens.

  • In 1790 the first naturalization and immigration act said that there were only 2 requirements for one to become a U.S. Citizen. The first is that one had to be free. The second is that you have to be white.
  • This is one of the clearest places to see how early whiteness and U.S. citizenship have been linked.

In 1922, Hawaiian born Japanese descendant, plantation owner and farmer Takao Ozawa took his petition for citizenship as an ‘all-american’ successful business man to the Supreme Court where he was denied based on race. With the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 and then this, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Asians were allowed full citizenship, after World War II and the U.S. internment camps for Japanese. With all of this history and so much more that relates directly to the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii, involving the violent inhuman treatment of indigenous peoples on the Islands, there is a long history of white American cultural based U.S. benefits much more from statehood than have many indigenous Hawaiians. This is racism.

When I look at the story that Mark so graciously shared with us, I see a situation that happened between individuals (Mark and his friend and the shop owner and people present). I see a hurtful situation where the prejudice of the indigenous peoples that Mark and friend dealt with was awful. It was real, and it hurt.

The next thing that I want to address is profit, because the connection between profit and racism is what this lesson is about. Mark’s experience is that there are two ways that the Shop owner profits/gains from not serving people (Mark and friend) because they are white. But it is obvious that he actually doesn’t personally profit monetarily; the shop owner loses whatever money that Mark, and friend would have spent. This has happened on the individual level, and once again, there are people here who have done the hurting—the Shop owner and the indigenous community. And there are individuals who have been hurt (Mark and friend) because of their race, in this case, because of their whiteness. This is real and is seen by some as an act of racism, but as the instructor and a person who has been studying racism for years, this is all an example of the hurtful ways that prejudice hurts others.

For the purposes of this class, when we talk about racism, we will be using the larger, systematic definition that is suggested by our textbook, Privilege, Power and Difference, which focuses on the patterns of privilege and power. The Patterns of Privilege and Power granted to one group over others based in race.

Because of the impact of race in colonialization, the Shop owner was actually really risking having no business at all or having the dominant culture (whites who live on the island (power)) never doing business with him again, and having violence done to himself (shop owner) for not doing business with and for threatening white people. And what makes this systematic and not individual, is that from what happens to you is that most of the business opportunities, jobs and the like are tied to white owners, (especially in tourism airlines and hotels, etc.) and those with power will have a greater influence over a wide number of indigenous peoples.

What happened to Mark will not determine how all white people will be treated across the island.   I hope that this is clear. Feel free to ask questions.

The power of story. We all have stories to tell, and it is only through telling our own stories that we can begin to deal with the trauma of race in our lives as individuals and this is important. And what is vital to our society is that we tell the stories through a filter of race. Mark’s ability to divorce his story from the political social and historical situation that he lived when he was in Hawaii is one of the reasons that talking about race across racial groups is so difficult. Often when white people talk about their experiences, they are doing so from an individual experience; the stories of people of color may be individual, but they are always about an entire people. What an essential difference!

Telling our stories validates our experiences and that is healing for the individual; examining our stories through a filter of race helps us to heal for a society. If we want to heal, we must find places and times where we can tell stories, and listen to those of others. And then we must do the hard work. We must listen to the voices that have been silenced. We must add the parts of the story that are missing; and only then will healing be possible.


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Cultural Expressions

Hey, y'all, my name is Kimberly Pollock. I have been professor of Cultural and Ethnic Studies at Bellevue College, and an Equity Consultant, outside of Seattle, WA for the past 25 years. Born on the South Side of Chicago, after having lived in Louisiana, I have settled in the Pacific Northwest, where I teach, think and wax poetic about the state of our world.

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