The problem with “racism”

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.


  1. Islam is understood as a religion that comprises multiple ethnicities
    Not by people who insist Muslims want to destroy America/the West.

    1. You think that everyone who subscribes to this meme assumes that Muslims are Arabs? I’m not sure I agree. I think that even the relatively uninformed realize that Palestinians, Iranians, Pakistani, and Afghans are different ethnicities, even if they’re all grouped under the umbrella of “terrorist Muslims”.

  2. Right, and those who consider Muslims to hate America readily grant that there are blacks who find Islam appealing as an alternative to what they consider to be the white racist legacy of Christianity in America. The problem with the assumption is not the assumption about Islam that all it’s adherants have a particular skin color but that all its adherants hate America.

    Paradoxically right wing Christian conservatives may not be aware that the things Muslims consider bad about western society are the things that THEY consider bad about western society, too! I was acquainted with a Muslim student from Oman who said that his parents wanted him to get some western education but didn’t trust the immorality of the state schools so he ended up at the same private Christian school I was at. While we differed drastically on the Trinity (no surprise) we could still agree on other things. Christians who subscribe to reconstructionist/theonomistic thought get seen as being the western Christian equivalent of a theocratic impulse to eliminate undesirable elements in society because for people considered outside of either theonomistic impulse it looks pretty much the same. Yet speak to people WITHIN these respective movements and they’ll find the reasoning offensive. Conservative Christians in America who want to return America to the covenantal Christian moral roots they believe the country was founded on would be offended to be told that they’re just aspiring to accomplish what Islamic political recovery movements have accomplished in the last three decades. The thing is that there are good reasons for people to have these suspicions.

  3. I think I may know what spawned this reflection — the “blackface” comment thread over on my blog epitomizes this conceptual impasse. I tend to agree with you that it’s generally the responsibility of Alice to come Bob’s way a bit, the problem is, Bob has a lot more to lose by making his definition more broad, and Alice, superficially, has a lot more to gain if she were to narrow her definition — alleviating herself from the responsibility to acknowledge and address her own privilege. Bob, for good reason, deplores racism and does not want to be a racist, so for him to start seeing his participation in racism-broadly-defined will be an anxiety-ridden experience.

    My own shift from Bob toward Alice was aided by examining the real-life relationships between racism A and racism B. In a class on race and culture we studied the affect racism had on housing values and the perpetuation of poverty in black communities starting in the 50’s (I think). With the rise of single family homes and suburban communities came the establishment of new white and black “hoods.” As black families sprawled and spread towards white neighborhoods, the whites would all move out and leave because of their “Racism” (narrowly defined). The result was that the values of homes in those neighborhoods dropped drastically because nobody wanted to live there, and so the black families that had just made the biggest purchase of their life (a single family home), saw their investment lose a significant amount of its value — leading to poverty-laden hoods and families, which then perpetuates itself as classism etc – (racism broadly defined).

    Nearly all racism broadly defined can be traced back to racism narrowly defined, the key is to highlight the relationship for people like Bob. The challenge is finding places to have those conversations. Which is why a place like Bethel has failed by allowing people to avoid that dialogue.

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