I have concluded that part of the problem with talking about racism is that the word “racism” can be interpreted to mean about four different things.
Some people use “racist” to mean “having explicit beliefs about someone based on their racial background, particularly if those beliefs are derogatory.” (We can call that Racism-1.) Other people use “racist” in a broader sense, which encompasses subconscious, unintentional racism and systems that tend to treat people of different racial backgrounds differently (even if nobody means to treat people differently based on their race). (We can call that Racism-2.) At the same time, some people use “racism” to refer to an individual’s beliefs (Racism-A) and some people use “racism” to refer to an overall societal structure (Racism-B).
This causes much confusion, because anti-racists are usually working under the Racism-2B definition and ordinary white people are normally working under the Racism-1A definition (or maybe 1B). So you get a lot of conversations like this:
Anti-racist: You’re racist!
Ordinary white person: (checks beliefs, still doesn’t believe that black people are inferior) No, I’m not. I’m not racist at all; I’m colorblind.
Anti-racist: Of course you’re racist, all white people are racist.
Ordinary white person: …That’s really racist.
Anti-racist: No, it’s not, you can only be racist against people of color.
Ordinary white person: …
I tend to use the Racism-2B definition myself, so I would like to say some words in its defense. Most white people don’t explicitly believe that people of color are worse than white people; we’ve had a very successful forty-year propaganda program explaining that people of color and white people are equal and Martin Luther King is great. However, most white people do get more scared when they walk by a black person late at night than they do when they walk by a white person, we do feel more comfortable living in a majority-white neighborhood than in a majority-POC neighborhood, and we do all kinds of other racist things we don’t explicitly know about.
Because the non-explicit-belief racism is more common, it’s also more damaging. Most of the hiring discrimination against black people isn’t because people believe black people are terrible. It’s because they want to hire someone who fits in, you know, is like us, is in tune with the culture of the company, who seems competent and together and smart, and what a coincidence all the people who are like that are white.
And the thing is… it’s totally possible that some majority-black company will not hire me because of my race. (Although people of color can be biased in favor of white people too– it’s not like people of color live in a Magic Not Picking Up On Cultural Racism Bubble.) But I’m in a much better situation than a black person, because most companies are biased in my favor and against black people. An act of hiring discrimination has very different effects on a white person and a black person; you can’t look at the act itself without looking at the context within which it takes place. Which is why I call discrimination against white people “prejudice” and discrimination against people of color “racism.”