I am often accused of being racist.
Occasionally, this accusation comes from a person of color. When it does, I take it very seriously. As a someone raised in a white supremacist society, I realize I have racial prejudices and habits of which I am unaware. I appreciate these corrections. Know better, do better.
However, most of these accusations of racism come from white people who, enraged by something I’ve posted or written about white history, culture, behavior, or language, accuse me of being anti-white. They remind me that racism is “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism toward others on the basis of race.” By this definition, my antagonism toward certain white people is racism. They argue my support of affirmative action, reparations and the like is racist since these discriminate against white people. They think my statements condemning white society as white supremacist are prejudicial, so I am a racist.
When I suggest their definition of racism is inadequate and obsolete, they become even more angry because…
- Their definition is the dictionary definition of racism and therefore the only acceptable definition of racism.
- To discuss racism, all others must accept and abide by their definition.
- All other definitions are perversions of this pristine definition.
- Their definition can never be changed.
Ironically, those defending the “dictionary” definition of racism know little about the history of the word they so vehemently defend. The words “racist” or “racism” are fairly recent inventions. They don’t show up in written English language documents until the 1930s and were originally used to criticize Nazi philosophy that categorized certain races as inferior to others. However, racism doesn’t show up in the Oxford English dictionary until 1989 where it was defined as “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race” and “the belief in the superiority of a particular race.”
If you’re shocked to discover “racism” wasn’t in a dictionary until 1989, I was, too. Indeed, I didn’t believe this Wikipedia notation initially, but have read widely enough to confirm this fact. In my research, I was also reminded that prior to advent of computers and the internet, revising dictionaries was a tedious effort that often took many years. Dictionary definitions always lagged behind usage. While the word “racism” began to be used more widely in the late 60s, it was largely an academic term. It is unlikely that you and I used the term “racism” in conversation until the 1980s. Why? Because a belief in the superiority of white people was still so normative in the United States that a word critical of this belief only grudgingly became common.
Even when a definition of racism appeared, it was not initially all that helpful. It used words like theory or belief and did not define behavior. The definition of racist and racism gradually broadened as it was applied. The Oxford English dictionary expanded their definition to read: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” This redefining attempted to move racism from the theory to practice. However, it was careful to connect practice with supremacist theory.
Notice racism – despite what my accusers claim – is not simply prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism toward another race, but those acts or attitudes based on a belief of one’s own superiority. When white people separate the first three characteristics from this underlying belief, they attempt to make racism any negative statement about another group of people rather than something philosophical and systemic. White people often misquote the definition. This allows them to claim “anyone can be racist” even when there is little evidence of black or brown people arguing for their own racial superiority. While prejudice, discrimination and antagonism are certainly possible in any person, racism requires a deeper philosophical commitment.
More recently, many critics have argued these broader definitions are still inadequate, that they imply racism is solely an individual opinion or act. In 2020, Merriam Webster added, “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another” as the second definition of racism. This revision acknowledged the power differentials that make racism in America a primarily white problem. By this definition, the power to enforce my prejudice, discrimination or antagonism is a necessary ingredient for racist behavior.
This is a very important distinction. People of color have long been antagonistic toward white people and rightly so. For their own safety, they’ve held prejudicial opinions about all white people. The caveat that “not all white people are evil” was dangerous assumption. Prejudice and antagonism were legitimate responses to how they have been treated by white people and the systems white people created. However, without any power to enforce such an opinion, calling this attitude racism seems rather silly.
It is equally silly to call a white person racist when they are critical of white supremacy and systemic racism. I have never claimed any group of people are biologically or culturally superior. Indeed, I reject all such arguments. My criticism is not based on a commitment to the superiority of any specific group. My criticism has been of systems – and their defenders – that oppress, discriminate, and abuse others based on such assumptions. In the United States, this has almost universally been a white problem. No reasonable definition – past or present – would define my criticism of other white people as racist.
Those white people who argue most vehemently for the broadest possible definition of racism reinforce the argument that racism is always rooted in beliefs in superiority. In insisting that their definition is the correct definition of racism, they imply definitions created by white people are inherently superior to those offered by people of color. They demonstrate how the mechanisms of defining words – as with many other systems in our society – have long been used to protect and empower white people. Those who have been the most often victimized by even their broad definition of racism are not allowed to offer their perspectives. These white people are incensed that society is finally listening to those voices and adjusting our definitions accordingly.
The adjustments being made by Oxford English and Merriam Webster dictionaries represent changes in understanding and usage around the terms “racist” and “racism.” They demonstrate a new commitment to listen to all voices in defining terms. They are designed to help us better identify and describe what they define. Those who oppose such revisions are suspect. Using an obsolete or incomplete definition of racism to sustain power – ironically – is racist. It is an attempt by white supremacy to deflect attention from its own ugliness by suggesting others are guilty of its crimes. I, for one, am done with such arguments.
Who gets to define racism?
Millions of us do.
The days when white supremacists get all the votes are over.
7 thoughts on “Who Gets To Define Racism?”
Once more, Jim Mulholland, I bow to your courage, clarity, wisdom. It is an honor to pass your posts on to my own friend-community on Facebook. We “privileged” people have few hiding places remaining; I thank you for shining a light in the shadows.
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Assertion: [People of Race A] Can Not Exhibit Racism (Prejudice Based On Race)
Conclusion: [(People Pre-judged as Belonging to Race A)] Can Not Exhibit (Pre-judging People Based On Race)
Explanation: In order to make the assertion that “People of Race A” can not exhibit prejudice based on race, one muse engage in prejudice based on race to determine who does and does not belong to Race A.
This argument is fundamentally flawed because it REQUIRES engaging in racial prejudice – in order to claim the inability to engage in racial prejudice.
This is akin to a chicken vs egg scenario – you need a chicken to produce an egg, but you need an egg to produce a chicken.
You need to engage in racism to claim that someone can’t engage in racism based on their race.
The problem with your argument is that it uses a very simplistic and incomplete definition for racism – prejudice based on race. This definition is not the definition of any dictionary. All definitions acknowledge some commitment to the superiority of one’s own race. In addition, your definition does not allow for the power disparities necessary for racism to occur. I think everyone acknowledges that every person – regardless of their race – can exhibit racially biased prejudice. However, equating prejudice based on race and racism is like equating single trees with the forest. So I think your conclusion only works if you use an inadequate definition of racism.
No-one has the ethical right, moral justification, or legal authority to make assertions about a group of people simply because they have a similar skin tone. Doing so is, in and of itself, an act of racism.
You lack the knowledge, experience and wisdom to speak on behalf of billions of people you’ve never met or interacted with – and that’s not a personal criticism, it’s simply an objective fact true for ALL people.
You state that “In 2020, Merriam Webster added, “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another” as the second definition of racism. This revision acknowledged the power differentials that make racism in America a primarily white problem.” – but there are a few problems with your assertion; Merriam Webster added to the definition of the term “racism” – they did NOT revise it as you erroneously claim, and therein lies a significant misinterpretation regarding how language operates.
“Gay” was customarily used to mean ‘happy’ or ‘lively’, but now is most commonly used to represent ‘homosexual’; due to this differing usage of the term, an additional definition was affixed to the word. The new definition doesn’t modify or replace the old entry, it expands upon it, to include an additional definition that reflects recent usage.
Another significant misconception your assertions support is that when a definition is added to a pre-existing term – (again, adding, not revising) – this does not change the intention or meaning of the word retroactively.
A repeated refrain from a popular song during the American Civil War includes the lyrics “We’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home”; by your logic, this phrase must refer to the soldiers becoming homosexual when Johnny returns.
This is clearly ludicrous.
Similarly, the intended meaning and usage of the word “racism” does not change because a new definition is added, and most people using the word intend the meaning to be the common definition.
People using the “old”, primary definition don’t have to acknowledge the “new” definition, because society hasn’t reached consensus regarding the “new” definition, which is not included in most dictionaries – but people intending to use the “new” definition must recognize the history and existence of the primary definition.
Pretending that the primary definition is somehow not valid because you prefer the new definition is absurd and a disingenuous argument with fatally flawed logic. This argument is often used by people who espouse overtly racist ideals and engage in blatantly racist actions, as a caveat to claim that they can’t be racist, due to this definition… but even making this assertion – that certain people can’t be racist based on nothing but the perceived color of their skin – is racist.
I strongly recommend examining the motives of people trying to change the definitions of words – and I advise that you refrain from further supporting foolish arguments; they ultimately benefit no-one and serve only to confuse and cause unnecessary conflict and discord, often being utilized disingenuously as a tool in service of immense hypocrisy… such as claiming that certain people can’t be racist – based on race – when the core definition of racism is prejudice based on race; it’s a cache-22, a paradoxical assertion that crumbles under the simplest examination and ultimately serves no positive purpose, wasting time and effort while causing futile conflict and division.
While I usually don’t post such long commentary, I wanted to point out of couple rather glaring problems with Capartwork’s arguments.
1. He writes, “No-one has the ethical right, moral justification, or legal authority to make assertions about a group of people simply because they have a similar skin tone. Doing so is, in and of itself, an act of racism.” This is a fascinating statement. By this argument, racism is both making assertions about people of your own skin color and those of other skin colors. This waters down the meaning of racism to something fairly worthless. Definitions are intended to help us identify something.
2. While we could argue about whether a definition is revised or added to, I find that a mostly semantic disagreement. The point is that definitions change and society acknowledges these changes. Capartwork offers the interesting example of the word “gay.” I would argue that word has two very different definitions even those the one connecting it to homosexuality has gained prominence. However, he doesn’t address how the definition of homosexuality has changed. In early dictionaries, it was defined as “a mental disorder.” Few would argue for this definition today, but by Capartwork’s argument, the original definition must be respected and given prominence. This is, of course, absurd.
3. I would suggest we examine the motives of those who want to control and limit the definitions of words more than those who want to expand them. The core definition of racism as “prejudice based on race” was NOT even the primary definition when Oxford and others first defined racism. That Capartwork fails to acknowledge how those early definitions were always connected to opinions of racial superiority is odd, if not suspicious.
All that being said, I am taking the final word in this exchange. Ironically, Capartwork is a good example of why this blog post was important.