This post was originally as a cut-and-paste Storify of a Twitter rant, but it’s continuing to get traffic so I’ve rewritten it a bit. Thanks to @suey_park for the inspiration for the original piece.
In any discussion of racism these days, it’s almost inevitable that someone will accuse a person of color of being racist and someone else will say that people of color can’t be racist, by definition. Dictionaries get dragged out, tempers flare, and as often as not the whole conversation gets completely derailed.
If you’re someone who thinks that anyone can be racist, and you’re in an argument with someone who’s claiming that racism is a white-people thing, there’s stuff you should know before you sound off.
Let’s start by getting something out of the way. Yes, racism has often been defined, and often still is defined today, the way you define it. In this definition, racism is, as whoever Google uses for their dictionaries puts it, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
You’re not imagining things, and you’re not making things up. That definition exists. It’s in dictionaries and everything. It’s real.
But it’s not the only definition. There’s another definition, one that many other activists and scholars use. It’s been around for a long time, and in many circles it’s the standard definition. (It’s not at all uncommon for words to have different meanings in different contexts.)
Under the activist definition, the crucial component of racism — what distinguishes “racism” from other kinds of ethnically-based bigotry — is its relationship to institutional power, to structures of authority.
This distinction is grounded in the fact that folks who are oppressed hating their oppressors isn’t the same phenomenon as the reverse. You can call the two phenomena by one name if you want, and many people do, but they’re two different phenomena all the same.
Because they’re different phenomena, and because they operate differently in a societal context, a lot of folks now use the term “racism” exclusively in the context of the oppressor’s bigotry, as a way to highlight the underlying structural issues.
That’s what’s going on here. That’s the root of the disagreement.
Now, you don’t have to accept this definition of racism. If you want to insist that all race prejudice must be called “racism,” that’s fine. But if you’re going to do that, you have to do two things:
First, you have to acknowledge the existence of a different definition, with a strong pedigree. Maybe you didn’t know about it before, but you do now. To say your definition of racism is real and the other one is made up is just false. Both definitions are real.
Second, you have to come up with some other way of distinguishing between the race prejudice that’s expressed by those who share a race with the most economically, politically, and culturally powerful people in a society and that which isn’t. Because even if you call them both “racism” (which, again, fine, whatever, go ahead), they’re not the same phenomenon. They don’t spring from the same roots, they don’t operate the same way, they don’t have the same effects. They don’t.
Lemon out. Questions? Comments?