Monday, April 28, 2008

Defining racism

What is "racism"? What constitutes racism? Under what circumstances should a civilized, caring person call racism, and how should such a person respond to accusations of racism? I don't think there's One Correct Answer; I think the vagueness of the term calls for proportionate response.

In one sense, anything that has to do with race other than pure physical description or medical science constitutes racism. On the other hand, not all "racism" is tantamount to actual oppression and slavery.

Open racism — even the mildest — isn't generally condoned in the US. Even if you really are racist in a substantive sense, even if you consider black people or brown people or Jewish people to be typically inferior, lazy, greedy or whatnot, you can't just come out and say it. But after centuries, if not millennia, of explicit racism, socially and legally established, it would be egregiously stupid to believe that racism no longer exists.

One can define racism too far "up": You can't be called a racist unless you're seen to be whipping a chained-up black man while chanting "nigger nigger nigger". Nixon's Southern Strategy? States' rights, not racism. Welfare queens and strapping young bucks? Entitlements, not racism. Willy Horton? Crime, not racism. The Confederate flag? Heritage and history, not racism. Immigration? Border security, not racism.

It's bullshit, of course. Defining racism up is a tactic employed by racists who don't want to be called racists (and the occasional clueless fucktard) but still want to exploit racism for political power and personal gain.

So we pretty much have to define racism "down" and make it more general. But to do so, we have to respond proportionately. How egregious is the racism? What's the context? What's the intent? Just as carelessly bumping into someone isn't battery, a unintentional, mild racist comment or action isn't an endorsement of slavery. But similarly, it's still wrong, and merits an apology... and forgiveness.

Much of this analysis applies equally well to sexism, sexual orientation, national origin and other forms of discrimination.

I'm a straight white well-educated middle-class male from a Christian family. Name your social privilege, I've got it. I do my best to be feminist, anti-racist, non-hetero-normative, multicultural, diverse and sensitive. Do I fail occasionally? Probably. If I do, feel free to point it out. Just saying that I said something racist or sexist or whatnot is not going to make me want to hang myself. But I'm not going to cry about it, feel guilty, or invest hours in self-flagellation. If I fuck up, I'll admit it, apologize, do what I can to correct the mistake, and then move on.


  1. The crier that you link to is a privileged white dude who spends all his time melodramatically looking for head pats and cookies from people who lack his privilege in one way or another. He is an annoying pain in the fucking ass.

  2. Interesting post, which I found by googling "defining racism". There's been a very long thread on racism in the specific case of the term "Plastic Paddy" on this website, which is a forum for people who play Irish traditional music, which is very closely linked to Irish culture in too many ways to go into here.

    Basically, the thread was started because of a rather unpleasant trend in the last couple of decades on the part of Irish people who call a certain demographic of people "Plastic Paddies", a derogatory term.

    I've known people who have been physically attacked, threatened, had career problems, a denial of education, etc., all because they were what a specific sort of Irish person (I call them "racists" or "bigots" myself) defined as a Plastic Paddy. On the other end of the spectrum, "all" that happened was the person was made to feel that they were in some way less than welcome in Ireland.

    I'm interested: do you think this usage of the phrase Plastic Paddy is racism? I'll be interested in your answer -- assuming that you have time to read such a monster thread, of course.

    And, just in case this of interest, here's something from the Wikipedia about the UN definition of racism, or rather, racial discrimination:

    The UN does not define "racism", however it does define "racial discrimination": according to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

    '...the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. '

    This definition does not make any difference between prosecutions based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the two remains debatable among anthropologists.

    According to British law, racial group means "any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin".

  3. K.B. It sounds racist. The definition in the thread...

    Plastic Paddy was first used as a term of insult to vilify the first and second generation immigrants who maintained a sense of cultural identification with the country of their parents or grandparents.

    ...might not be specifically racist (although I'd bet you dollars to donuts it's invoked a lot more often towards brown/black people), but it does sound objectionable even so.

  4. Thanks. I happen to agree, obviously.

    I think it's particularly interesting on that thread to read the responses of those who don't think it's racist, derogatory, or discriminatory to use the term just because it means nothing to them or because they think the offense is too small. Of even more interest is the people who say that they're not racist, yet "this is just the way it is", or who don't want to talk about it yet point out all their "points" for previous anti-discrimination work.

    Human beings can be very weird.

    I think an interesting way to test anything for racist overtones is the Substitution Test. Take the phrase or word under discussion, and substitute it with a word or phrase that the person performing the test definitely thinks is discriminatory, such as nigger, kafir, knothead or what have you.

    At any rate, thanks again for an interesting post.

  5. If we want change in America, it must not come with a price. In other words, acceptance, tolorance and understanding should be something we strive for without violence. Racism has been a disease labeled DOA

    This disease of racial hatred, intolerance and violence against others has continued undiagnosed and untreatable for too long. In fact over 400 years too long.

    Any normal patient would be dead already. As it stands, some of us are spiritually… to the determent of everyone.


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