racism noun \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm\
: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
: the belief that some races of people are better than others
The dictionary definition above probably matches what most Americans would say if you asked them to define racism, myself included. We’re all probably wrong.
I’ve asked a few people recently to imagine a racist and then describe that person to me. It was always a white male, often middle-aged or older. Colonel Sanders would be a good symbol for what everyone imagined. If this doesn’t surprise you, you’re probably American or Americanized, and your mind will always go to white-on-black oppression when racism is involved. It’s natural, given American history and the culture that resulted from it. Yes, the natives and the Japanese-Americans have historical grudges, as do the Jews, and more recently Arabs, but the term racism in America will always conjure slavery and segregation before these other abuses.
I did the above experiment because I often have to translate between languages, and the cultural background to the meaning of words is fascinating. It’s often hard to describe the separation between a word’s denotation and connotation: if you ask anyone whether a Kenyan refusing to serve a white customer is racism, they’d say yes, of course it is. And yet I bet it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch if the identities were a white Texan and a Nigerian. I know it doesn’t for me: the latter is much more powerful than the former. I imagine there’s a spectrum here, where some people don’t see a difference, some see an enormous difference (see below), and most people think there is some difference.
The difference, I think, lies in the fact that certain courses of action are objectionable, and we consider racism to be one of these things. However, historically in America, white racism against outgroups has been easily the most pernicious, and, as a result, the word carries a much stronger judgment when applied to it. It’s impossible to separate this emotional feeling from the technical meaning of the word, so when you’d rather not judge harshly someone engaging in discrimination (like the Kenyan example above), you’re also reluctant to use the word that implies judgment. That’s a problem because the issues are conflated when they shouldn’t be: there is conduct that could be both racially discriminatory (“racist” per the dictionary) and NOT objectionable. Affirmative action is the major policy example, as are preferences given to asylum seekers who claim they would be persecuted for their race if sent home. These aren’t instances of morally reprehensible behavior, but they’re racist under the dictionary definition.
I’m not saying it’s surprising that the clinical definition doesn’t match the actual definition that our collective brains use; it’s obviously why this is the case. What’s interesting to me is that we don’t explicitly acknowledge that this is the case. I’ve complained before that vague definitions and culturally determined meanings make language unnecessarily complex and thus costly, and this is one of the better examples.
There’s a simple way to prove that racism as it is commonly used doesn’t actually fit the dictionary definition above: reverse racism. The fact that no one who reads this believes this is a nonsensical term only proves my point. Most people use “reverse racism” when they talk about discrimination against the dominant group – whites, in America. That, however, clearly implies that “racism” is done by whites against others. Technically, discrimination against white people falls under the “poor treatment of people because of their race” definition of racism at the top, but we still have a term for it that is distinct from just “racism” – in fact, it’s considered the opposite of racism. (Reverse racism, in a literal sense, should probably mean favoring a group based on their race.)
See more about reverse racism in the Belly Dancing section below.
If you’re still not on board with my premise, consider this:
The Trader Joe’s grocery-store chain has dropped a plan to open a new store in the heart of the city’s historically African-American neighborhood after activists said the development would price black residents out of the area.
The Portland Development Commission had offered a steep discount to the grocer on a parcel of nearly two acres that was appraised at up to $2.9 million: a purchase price of slightly more than $500,000. The lot is at Northeast Alberta Street and Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and has been vacant for years.
The Portland African American Leadership Forum said the development commission had in the past made promises about preventing projects from displacing community members but hadn’t fulfilled them. It sent the city a letter saying it would “remain opposed to any development in N/NE Portland that does not primarily benefit the Black community.” It said the grocery-store development would “increase the desirability of the neighborhood,” for “non-oppressed populations.”
Flip the races in that story and see if it’s still the same story. To me, it quote obviously wouldn’t be. I would find the activists’ conduct viscerally repellent, and I think most Americans would, too.
Weirdly, the article doesn’t spend nearly enough time addressing some of the more interesting questions. For example:
1) Portland has black neighborhoods?
2) Why is a lot allegedly worth $2.9 million sitting empty for years?
3) Why is the city selling a $2.9 million lot for $500K?
4) Why is it axiomatic that nicer things in a neighborhood mean the displacement of residents?
5) Why is continued admixture of communities a bad thing?
There are lot of issues here, political, cultural, and economic, but most articles seem to focus on the racial one, and get it wrong. The simple fact is this: there is discriminatory behavior based on race. That’s racism. Whether you, separately, believe it’s objectionable is up to you. I will merely revel in the irony that a community that was damaged by redlining in the past is now, effectively, redlining itself.
The above isn’t an isolated instance. Salon’s Randa Jarrar, an otherwise solid writer, wrote a silly article about her hatred of white belly dancers, noting:
Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.
(This is why “appropriation” replaced “micro-aggression” as my least-favorite word.) Jarrar was called out by many for an, essentially, racist argument. Eugene Volokh wondered whether the same article about Asians playing Beethoven would be published, and Conor Friedersdorf celebrated the beauty of cultural admixture. These are all valid arguments, but they miss the point: Jarrar doesn’t think of racism as something that can be done against white people, consistent with what I’ve written above. She wrote a rebuttal piece “addressing” criticisms leveled against her:
I’ve read the following arguments, all of which ignore the systematic racism by the dominant culture:
“So black women can’t be ballerinas?” If black women were part of a dominant culture that had colonized Europe starting at the Italian renaissance, and later colonized France and Russia, and if, after all that, black ballerinas danced in bikini tops, then yes, this argument would work. But it doesn’t.
“But Korean tacos! Mixing cultures is delicious!” Again, if the person making and serving those tacos is from a dominant culture that, for centuries, colonized Korea and Mexico, and then served those tacos to you in a conical Asian hat and a mariachi outfit, with a bikini top underneath, then, yeah, this argument would work. Again, it doesn’t.
”You’re a racist!” Please, save us both time, watch this, and learn how that’s not possible.
“You’re appropriating white culture by using a computer right now!” I can’t even honor this level of idiocy and entitlement with a response.
Underlining added. Throughout, Jarrar believes that racism is only something that a dominant culture can do. The underlined “argument” links to a standup routine that tells us that reverse racism could only happen if we traveled back in time and another race did to whites what they did to others, historically. Jarrar spells it out for us: it’s just not possible for her to be racist. (I assume she means against white people only; I’d bet she believes it’s possible for her to be racist against blacks or Asians.) This sort of thinking only makes sense if racism is definitionally objectionable and judgmental, in which case, the dictionary definition doesn’t make sense. Of course, the dictionary definition isn’t the one we use day-to-day, as I’ve tried to establish.
Why have I been talking about this for 1500 words now? Because words matter. On any controversial issue, especially those that are between racial, ethnic, or religious groups, someone will call for “dialogue.” I agree that it’s far better that this is a far better solution than the alternatives, but it’s a worthless exercise if we’re talking past each other. If someone like Jarrar, who simply doesn’t believe she can be a racist against whites, tries to talk to someone like Volokh or Friedersdorf, who clearly believe she can, they aren’t going to get anywhere. You can’t have a productive conversation when one party is accused of a behavior that she doesn’t believe exists. (For a long time, forced sex with your wife wasn’t rape, and when these laws changed, many men were said to be incredulous that they could have done something that, in their minds, didn’t exist.) Separating the judgment from the word would resolve it: Jarrar could then argue that her behavior was technically racist but not objectionable. I suspect this is her real argument, but the conflation of “racism” with “morally wrong” makes it unclear.
The separation of the judgment from the word would be important in other settings, too. I mentioned affirmative action above. It treats people differently based on their race; in fact, that’s the whole point. Under the dictionary definition, it is clearly racist. I don’t find myself particularly worked up about it, though, because of all the kinds of racist conduct, affirmative action is one of the least objectionable ones. (In intent. In practice, probably not. http://www.creators.com/opinion/walter-williams/academic-mismatch-i.html) To say that it isn’t racist because it means well completely muddles the meaning of the word, and we have to come up with some other terms to fill the gap. Meanwhile, any sort of chance at a productive discussion with opponents of affirmative action goes away when you get bogged down in fighting over what racism means. And repeat this exercise when it comes to “terrorism,” “human rights,” “equality,” “democracy,” and see where you get.
Words matter, and we should use them wisely to make the world a better place. Loading charged words with connotations that aren’t there makes this task more difficult.