Wednesday, August 1, 2007

What is the definition of racism?

I know I've touched on this topic before, but in a discussion on Alas regarding a cartoon about whites who are apparently racist but in denial about it, I had some questions, mostly regarding just how many white people are not actually racist.

Obviously, no one can give an exact number for such a thing, but one could make a ballpark guess. The only answers I got were basically that almost all white people were racists. This differs from my discussion at TG's, where the answer there was that all white people were racists, by definition.

But what I'd like to ask is, if not all, then who isn't a racist who is white and what makes a white person not a racist? Then I was thinking more about it last night, and, back to my original question, you really can't answer it without having a definition for racism.

I looked it up again, and again, the definitions for the english language for racism don't match how the word appears to be used in the discussion on Alas. So they have their own, new defintion. So - where did that definition come from? And what is it, exactly?

This is what Karpad there had to say about it (forgive my formatting):

The overwhelming majority of people are not consciously racist. but there
are multiple layers of racism. There’s the “Send the darkies back to
africa” layer, which has more than you would probably guess right off, but still
very very few.there’s the layer of deliberate acts, that are possibly, maybe
probably but not necessarily consciously racist. This is the source of illegal
traffic stops, clerks following people in stores, and educational double
standards. much more common. utterly mundane, even. It’s banal.Then there’s the
layer of simply operating without interaction. Suburban flight is racist, but
the overwhelming majority of participants would never think of it in terms of
race.Then there’s one last kind of racism, which is basically “not noticing that
the cops never pull you over for speeding, or the teacher gives you a better
grade than the black kids, etc etc.”
point is: Racists are people who
actively believe in a philosophy of racial supremacy. Racism, on the other hand,
is a systemic problem that can manifest in people who are perfectly nice people,
and who actually genuinely believe in racial equality.

* * *

being racist, and suffering from racism are not the same thing.a white
person who drives 10 miles over the speed limit and never gets pulled over who
has any awareness of racial profiling (like knowing the phrase is enough) who
doesn’t reflect on that privilege is benefiting from, and exhibiting racism.that
entire category is “ignoring your own privilege,” which is racism.
still treating racism like it’s inherently conscious and evil. it CAN be. it’s a
behavior pattern, to be sure, but if often develops unconsciously. accusations
of racism are NOT invective. They’re statements of perception of your behavior.
“You’re racist” for the most part, and certainly within the context I’m talking
about, is no more an ad hominem than “You’re mispronouncing (word X).” The
proper response is to consider why the accusation was made, and amend behavior
as necessary.

Now, I see a problem with this definition of racism. It uses the word to describe people who don't actually do anything racist other than passively benefit from other's active racism. In other words, one can be racist based not on what one does, but on what OTHER people do. Seems rather strange to me.

By that definition, if all the active racist acts stop, then suddenly other people are no longer racists (because there is no more overt racism - no one is getting pulled over for race, so there is no benefit for race with regards to getting pulled over). But then tomorrow, one person decides to act racist overtly, and suddenly, everyone else is racist again. All based on the actions of someone else. That is problematic for a definition of a word that seeks to describe someone. Particularly when that word has very strong negative connotations.

I won't rehash the general problem with redefining such a strongly insulting word - I've been over that before. Suffice it to say, I'm still utterly unconvinced that the unilateral redefinition is valid. But moving on.

Something else occurred to me last night. I hear it repeatedly said that only the group with power can be racist. Thus, goes the argument, African-Americans cannot be racist, by that definition, no matter what they say or do, because they allegedly have no power. This, of course, ignores that all power is relative, and if you are, for instance, looking to get hired for a specific job, and the interviewer is African-American, then they DO have the power in that situation, so even by that definition, they could be racist. But somehow that doesn't get addressed or is whisked away by some statement about how it is societal power as a whole that matters, not any individual power. Fine, let's leave it at that, for the sake of argument.

Here's where the problem comes in. Say I'm out in the street, screaming racial insults. Say I have a gun and I scream how I'm going to kill everyone of a particular race and send them back to their alleged country of origin. By this new definition of race, you can't conclude I'm a racist until you know what race I am. If you find out I'm white and I'm shouting the n-word, now you can call me a racist. But if I'm African-American and I'm shouting about white people, you cannot, because no matter what I do, I'm not a racist.

Now here's where it just gets strange. Say you find out that I'm Egyptian - with skin darker than any white person and dressed in a turban. And I'm shouting the n-word and telling all African-Americans to go back to Africa. Well, last I checked, Egyptians did not have power in this country. So by the same definition, an Egyptian could not be a racist either. No matter how many African-Americans discriminated against, no matter how many even outright killed, no matter how many times the n-word was uttered, nope, no racism there.

Obviously, the "new" definition of racism needs some work.


chickpea said...

Well said DBB. The logic in the "new" definitions are severely lacking. Anyone can be a racist, they don't have to be powerful or powerless. And unknowingly benefiting from the (perceived) racism of another does not necessarily make one a racist either.

For example, I'm brown (Arab/African American) and my boyfriend is Russian. While on a cruise last year, we stopped in Jamaica. When we returned to the port after an excursion, my boyfriend was stopped and thoroughly frisked and questioned. I was allowed to breeze through the security area, and was not even required to put my bags (I had 3 or 4) through the x-ray machines - I was told that I "was fine, no worries." Following the logic suggested, I am a racist because I benefited in this case.

Erin said...

There are some interesting activities you can complete at Project Implicit. While it's not really a "racist test," surveys attempt to measure a subject's associations with regards to age, race, gender, and other factors. I don't know that it resolves the "racism" question, but I think it demonstrates some of the implicit assumptions that underly racism.

DBB said...

I think I took a test at Project implicit a year or two ago, but I don't remember what it was for - I vaguely recall it was politically related. The site looks different now, so they obviously added to it since then.

Another thing I've often wondered about that seems to be taken as a sign of racism or sexism or any-ism is the general human propensity to feel more comfortable with the familiar and more comfortable with people who are like us. Like I feel way more comfortable in a roomful of atheists than I do in a Church. But then that sort of thing obviously changes the more time you spend with someone or something - things that become familiar (assuming there is not a negative association) become comforting. Even though I'll never live in my parent's house again, the room there that I lived in for years still feels like my room whenever I visit and stay there. One could label such impulses as an 'ism' but I think that would be rather silly. It is just part of being human, and is something that will always be part of being human and it really isn't a negative. But I wonder if some people take the feeling of comfort with the familiar and discomfort with the unfamiliar as evidence of some form of internal innate 'ism' of one kind or another when it is nothing more than neurons being neurons, enjoying familiar patterns.

DBB said...

Thanks Chickpea. I am somewhat disappointed I still haven't really seen a response to this from the champions of the "new" definition of racism. I'm really curious to see what any of them would say. Perhaps there's something I'm missing, but it just seems so unworkable and illogical. Not to mention the fact that it simply is not a definition used outside of a very narrow circle.

(Like if you saw someone accuse a politician of being a racist on TV based on that definition, well, I somehow don't think that is the definition any politician of any race would be able to use in a national dialogue).

Ashi said...

The only thing that guy had right was that racism has multiple layers.

Awesome refutation though.