In popular discourse, the word “racist” has a well-defined, narrow meaning. It means, approximately, “Someone who harbors negative beliefs about others that are explicitly based on race.” This form of racism is subject to near-universal condemnation. You have to go very far to the right and even farther to the left to find someone who’s willing to label themselves a racist–popular right-wing figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck deploy the word “racist” as a term of abuse against liberals, which demonstrates how universally it’s accepted that racism is bad. Furthermore, this sort of obvious racism is punished with social ostracism or worse. Using the word “nigger” can get you fired from a lot of places–and most people think that it should be that way.
So statements like the following are recognized by almost everyone as racist:
- All black people are lazy. (Black people are a race, and laziness is a negative characteristic: racism.)
- The Jews want to destroy America. (The Jews are understood an ethnic group: racism.)
Conversely, the following two statements are not recognized by everyone as racist:
- All poor people are lazy. (Poor people are not a race: not racism.)
- The Muslims want to destroy America. (Islam is understood as a religion that comprises multiple ethnicities: not racism.)
In social justice and anti-racist communities, the word “racism” (together with related words like “classism”) is used with a much broader meaning which indicts not only statements like my second two above, but also a broad umbrella of attitudes, preferences, and habits that encode racial privilege. This “racism broadly defined” is a useful construct as well, and it helps bring attention to aspects of the social milieu that are omitted from racism-narrowly-defined. But problems arise when you try to have a dialogue between people holding the narrow definition and people holding the broad definition.
Typically things start going south when Alice the Activist calls something racist-broadly-defined. Bob leaps to its defense, saying that it’s not racism-narrowly-defined. Alice insists that Bob needs to be educated about racism, and Bob claims that Alice is committing slander. Soon they have a shouting match, with Bob being called a bigot and Alice being called a race-baiter, and neither of them learng a damn thing.
Here’s the thing: both Alice and Bob are correct by their respective definitions of racism. Furthermore, since they both believe that their definition is clearly right, they each think of the other as willfully perverse. Bob is angry at Alice for imputing to him loathsome beliefs that he truly does not hold, and Alice is livid over Bob’s refusal to recognize his privilege, which acts for Alice as further proof of the fact that he’s a racist bastard. They have reached a linguistic impasse, which can only be broken if one of them is willing to learn the other’s language.
Ultimately, I think that the initiative to break the impasse has to come from Alice, as much as she may not like it. People interested in social justice are a minority, and if we actually want to persuade (as opposed to merely basking in our own rightness) we have to communicate without our jargon. The dialect of social justice is useful for those already committed to the cause–I’m not suggesting that we abandon it–but when deployed in conversation with others it becomes a stumbling block to understanding, or, worse, an badge separating Us from Them.
There’s no guarantee that this change of language will actually convince Bob, of course. But avoiding the simple kinds of misunderstanding is a decent place to start.