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Racism: a definition

I recently got into a friendly debate with a friend of mine over my use of the word ‘racism’. She objected to my broad definition, and my labeling of rather innocuous and neutral events as ‘racist’, preferring to reserve that label for more overt, “classic” racism. I thought I’d use this platform to discuss my definition, and why I think mine is better and more applicable to a contemporary context (Jen, feel free to refute my position in the comments).

I use a definition that I refined from a social/psychological definition of group prejudice:

Racism: the attribution of personal traits to an individual, or group of individuals, based on ethnic background.

So when a police officer “randomly” pulls me over to check my driver’s license and to make sure I own the car I’m driving, or when by buddy Atif gets “randomly selected” for airport security checks, that’s racist. Similarly, when an old guy says to by buddy Howie An (who has Chinese parents) “you’re fit because you eat a lot of rice”, that’s also racist. Sure, the second one is a kind of “aw, shucks” racism that isn’t inherently negative, but it’s still racism.

There’s an article, somewhat dated now, but still correct, in Slate. The basic thrust of the piece is as follows:

Whites may have been horrified by the fire hoses and police dogs turned on children, but they could rest easy knowing that neither they nor anyone they’d ever met would do such a thing. But most racism—indeed, the worst racism—is quaint and banal. There’s nothing sensationalistic about redlining (segregating investment areas for banks and supermarkets based on the racial makeup of the region) or job discrimination.

My definition goes a bit further than Slate‘s, because under mine an act or phrase doesn’t necessarily have to be negative to be racist. Certainly nobody would make the claim that the old guy Howie encountered was saying anything bad about either Howie or people of Chinese descent. My point is that it doesn’t matter, it’s still racist. The guy was assuming, either accurately or incorrectly, that Howie eats a lot of rice because he’s Chinese. It’s a race-based individual judgment.

I will share a story of my own. Recently, I was out for drinks with a friend and some of his crew. One of the girls with the group, I’ll call her “Sally” for the purpose of this post, and I were talking at one point in the evening. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but Sally asked me what my background was (I think she said something like “where are you from?”) I told her I was from Canada, and then (predictably) the conversation went something like this:

Sally: No, but where are you from really?

Me: Vancouver

Sally: Fine, what’s like, your background

Me: I’m black

Sally: Okay, but where are your parents from?

Me: They can’t be from Canada?

Sally: Why are you making this so difficult? I’m not being racist or anything, I’m being complimentary! I love black people!

Me: You love all black people?

Sally: Yeah totally! You guys have good taste in music, and you’re so laid-back!

This is conversation I’ve had more times than I care to recall. First of all, there’s a lot of things that I do that don’t fall into the “black people” stereotype: I am an accomplished classical violist; I have two university degrees in science; I grew up in a small mountain town in rural BC. You’re not going to see a guy like me on BET or TBS, unless it’s as a completely tokenist character (“wow, this black guy is so different from the other ones on the show! We’re diverse!”) The only black people I’ve ever seen who even remotely resemble me are Alvin from The Cosby Show and Lem from Better off Ted, and even then they were socially awkward turbo-nerds. I’ve long made peace with the fact that I’m not archetypal, it doesn’t really bother me. What does bother me is the implication that my entire identity can be boiled down to the colour of my skin, or more specifically the colour of my father’s skin. While my racial identity does inform my outlook on life, so does my scientific training and my musical background. It doesn’t matter that Sally wasn’t saying anything negative about me, the fact is that she was attributing to me the characteristics of people who may or may not be like me in any way, simply because we have similar skin colour. I was at a different bar talking to a different girl who told me that I was probably good at scaring people because I’m black, and that “(us) guys” are good in a fight. Again, not necessarily negative, but definitely not true (most of the time I’m about as threatening in a fight as an asthmatic koala bear).

This perhaps wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t go any farther than conversations at bars with drunk girls. The reality is, however that we form impressions of other people based on race, whether we acknowledge it or not:

The roots of racial prejudice lie deep within the brain, research has suggested. A study found that when we watch someone from our own race do something our brain simulates the action mentally as a form of empathy, known as ‘mirroring’.

The study has a lot of flaws, the biggest being that it only observed white participants, but the principle is likely sound – we are primed to view people who look the same as we do differently than those who are dissimilar. Sally chose to share her positive impressions of black people. I wondered immediately what other impressions she might have based on my race, considering how black people are portrayed in media.

Race, whether we like it or not, is still a part of our decision-making apparatus. Racism, for the most part, has taken on a much more subtle and innocuous form (unless of course you live in Nova Scotia). The way that we identify it and deal with it needs to change to reflect this. The Slate article talks about Dogg the Bounty Hunter and Michael Richards’ use of the word “nigger”, and how the reaction from both of these men was “I’m not racist.” Of course you’re racist. You live in a racist system. You can’t just decide to be non-racist by sheer force of will.

I’ll drop a bombshell on all you readers right now: you’re racist.

Here’s another one: I’m racist too.

We are products of the system that raised us, and the system has deep racist roots. Pretending as though it doesn’t exist, or that racism is only when you’re actively campaigning for the supremacy of a single racial group (that’s how it’s defined in the dictionary, albeit with my definition tacked on as #2) is ignoring the real and present influence that racism has in our day-today lives.

My friend (the one with whom I had the semantics debate) wanted the word ‘racism’ to shock and appall people, such that if your actions were labeled ‘racist’, you’d immediately stop doing them because of the emotional impact of the word. The fact is that the kind of “classic”, white-hooded lynch-mob ‘racism’ has all but completely faded from day-to-day reality in Canada (and for the most part in the US, although there are still a few holdouts). In my mind, restricting the word to only those kinds of actions would only serve to make the problem worse, since people would be incredibly unwilling to admit to having any race-based prejudice for fear of being associated with violent hate groups. The status quo would be maintained in perpetuity, and no progress could be made. The way to remove racism completely is to expose and discuss it dispassionately, not condemn people for the attitudes instilled in them by society while the rest of us smugly say “well at least we’re not racist.”

Another common colloquial use of the word is to refer to any group bigotry. I recently got yelled at on an online forum for suggesting that Richard Dawkins wasn’t being ‘racist’ when he made disparaging comments about Muslim people. The comments were targeted at people of the Muslim faith, suggesting that this particular religious tradition was more repressive of women than others. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true, but it’s certainly the case today. However, my point was that Dawkins was referring to Muslim people, not Arab or Persian people. The fact that those nationalities are disproportionately represented among British Muslims is irrelevant; the comments were about Islam. People on the forum were not having it. Apparently, in their minds, ‘racism’ simply means bigotry against any group. Sexism is racism, homophobia is racism, nationalism is racism. This argument is patently ridiculous, under any definition. Race bigotry is a specific phenomenon with specific hallmarks. Race bigotry might often parallel nationalistic bigotry, but they are not the same thing. I can decry the stupidity of Christianity and the way it infiltrates politics without hating white Americans, I can bemoan the corruption in African countries without hating black Africans, and I can detest the actions of the Chinese government without having any particular animosity towards Chinese people. The fact that there are large overlaps is completely separate from the label of ‘racism’, the defining characteristic is the method of grouping people. If it’s by race, it’s racism; if it’s not, then it’s something else.

This has been a mammoth of a post, and I thank you for sticking through all of it. The take-home message of this piece is simply this: our definition of racism cannot be simply relegated to vicious acts of brutal, overt repression; nor can it be thinly spread over all types of prejudice. Racism is a real phenomenon with real effects. Claiming “I’m not being racist” is a fallacy; we are all products of a system in which racism is endemic. Nobody, not even yours truly, is immune from its effects. I offer my definition – attributing race-group stereotypes to an individual – as a useful and value-neutral meaning for the word. It encapsulates “classic” racism, but allows us to intelligently discuss issues of race prejudice happening in society without risking censure or being labeled as ‘a racist’.