Racism, noun

Have you ever come across one of these questions?

Can white people [in America] be victims of racism?

Can black people [living in America] be racist?

They’re not hard to understand. An answer probably automatically popped into your head that seems obvious. And yet, by being asked you know it’s a loaded question, and that someone else is going to answer differently.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that these are probably code for a different question:

What’s your definition of “racism”?

Race-based bias

I grew up with a fairly straightforward definition, something like “bias or disrespect based on perceived ethnicity or ‘macroethnicity’”. This is pretty easy to explain—

“Why did you do that?”
“Because they’re black.”
This is racism!

—and seems to be a good enough model to talk about real problems (e.g. unconscious bias). It’s also a context-independent definition, even with the acknowledgment that racist beliefs come from culture. In particular, it doesn’t mention any particular races (ethnic groups, cultural groups, whatever).

I don’t know if this definition came from going to a public-but-alternative elementary school, from growing up upper-middle class, from growing up in a well-off suburb of San Jose, from growing up white. It does match the dictionary definition (New Oxford American, via OS X):

prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior

This isn’t the only definition, however.

Prejudice, Discrimination, Racism

This image made its way onto my social media feeds recently:

Feeling of dislike for a racial or ethnic group + Belief in that dislike = PREJUDICE. Actions that harm those you have prejudice against = DISCRIMINATION. Institutionalization of this discrimination which is perpetuated in society = RACISM

I couldn’t find the source for this image (other than ifunny.co), but the content seems to come from a presentation by Jennifer of the site “Women of Color, in Solidarity”, which itself is likely based on a post by Kali Tal called “Why there’s no such thing as ‘Reverse Racism’” on the Daily Kos.1 This definition of “racism” matches up with what I’ve usually called “systemic racism”—bias that comes from and is deeply entrenched in our society. (Other names include “societal racism” or “institutional racism”.) Conversely, the “bias or disrespect” version would be called something like “race-based prejudice”.

Another angle identifies “racism” as race-based prejudice, plus the (non-circumstantial) power for that prejudice to have an effect. This isn’t really different because that power comes from society, but it’s still another way to break things down. This construction comes from professor Patricia Bidol-Padva (according to SJWiki).

Either way, it’s important to see that there is another definition commonly in use, even though it’s not in “the dictionary”.

Talking past each other

What prompted this blog post was the realization that everybody who works in social justice uses the latter definition—that is, when they say “racism”, they mean “systemic racism”. To someone using “my” definition, that makes a lot of these articles seem more reactionary and aggressive than they actually are, and it makes the original questions quite loaded. And indeed, if I read responses to these articles, most of them are using the “race-based prejudice” definition.2

Now, I’m not going to go as far as to say the dictionary definition is wrong3, but again, everybody involved social justice uses the “systemic racism” definition. That’s a pretty strong indicator that “race-based prejudice” isn’t a useful definition in this space—the space of trying to make things better—whether or not it’s valid.

In the grand scheme of prejudice, discrimination, racism, this may seem like a minor thing. It is a minor thing. And yet without this understanding, I’m afraid we’re talking past each other, because we won’t even agree on some very basic questions. Like the ones above.

As always, I am still a learner in this space, and I appreciate both feedback and discussion.

  1. I’m not sure I agree with Jennifer’s entire presentation, but I can certainly agree with the last slide and bonus slide. Even if I’m right at this moment being a white person talking about racism. (And I’m still learning, so my views on the rest of it may change.) ↩︎

  2. I know, “never read the comments”. ↩︎

  3. As a linguist—okay, a linguistics minor—I learned to be descriptivist instead of prescriptivist. In this case, that means the meaning of words depends on how people are actually using them, not what some authority decides they should mean. ↩︎