On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you've found this post through a racist hate forum, don't bother commenting. Your comment's going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here's the link in case you can't see this]


Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.