The Definition of Racism Doesn’t Really Matter — My Latest for Splice Today

Before I begin, I just have a few housekeeping items. First, as you’ll notice in the byline, my name is now Tris Mamone. Second, don’t let the title throw you off; the article is about how the debate over the “true definition” of racism isn’t doing anything to help solve institutional racism.

Now here are the obligatory intro paragraphs:

Once again, people are debating about whether people of color can be racist towards white people. It depends on how one defines “racism.” One side uses the sociological definition of racism, prejudice plus institutional power, and the other uses the dictionary definition, hatred towards people based on skin color. Which side is right? Does it even matter?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism in three ways: believing one race is superior to all others, a system of oppression based on skin color, and hating someone for the color of their skin. The first and third definitions are the most familiar, and the ones David French of the National Review used in a recent article about Sarah Jeong. “A powerless person’s hate may not harm the powerful,” he writes, “but it is still hate… The essence of bigotry is to look at the color of a person’s skin and, on that basis alone, make malignant judgments about his character or worth.”

Read the rest here.


  1. says

    I read your piece. Thanks for writing it.

    For me, I think it matters in the same way as having separate words for gender and sex matter. If human beings really have no concept of psychology and socialization as separate from genomes or gonads or genitals, then important conversations become impossible because of the inevitable resulting confusion.

    It doesn’t matter whether we call racism racism or Zaphod Beeblebrox, but it does matter that people can have intelligent, thoughtful conversations in which racial prejudice is distinguished from racial oppression.

    One of the things that I didn’t see address in your piece (though it was a focussed, short piece and you can’t cover everything) is that I’ve never heard anyone assert the racism/racial prejudice distinction as an argument to convince others that racial prejudice is acceptable. Nonetheless, if an audience can’t understand that racialized oppression can be distinguished from racial prejudice, then it’s easy to hear someone using the word “racism” to mean “racial oppression” as saying that racial prejudice targeting white people either doesn’t exist or somehow isn’t “real” prejudice if it targets whites. They frequently interpret this to mean that white people don’t deserve protection from racial prejudice or even racial oppression (since we’re talking about people who don’t make any distinction between the two). When confusion over the definitions leads someone who asserts “racial prejudice is bad, but it’s not the same thing as racialized oppression and therefore we need to have different conversations about solutions about racial prejudice than we do about racialized oppression” to be heard as asserting “I would be fine with the enslavement of white people,” there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

    Prejudice isn’t acceptable, but it also isn’t oppression. The definitions of racism matter to the extent that understanding the different usages of the word allow us to actually understand the arguments being made. So I guess I find myself less cavalier about getting the definitions correct. Sure, there’s lots we can do by using work-around language to avoid confusion, but at some point people are going to look up, say, academic work written for an audience that uses the word racism in a particular way. If people think that understanding the different usages of racism doesn’t really doesn’t matter that much, then we’re going to continue to get outraged misunderstandings as soon as people read something where they aren’t the intended audience.

    So I guess I’m more pessimistic than you about the benefits of leaving education on definitions til some nebulous later point in time.

    All of which is my take on the problem, and none of which should be taken as an argument that your work isn’t valuable. I do thank you for writing it and encouraging people to think about the topic.

  2. says

    If groups don’t lose their bigotries as they join the mainstream it will cause problems. I could see this happening with us Mexican-Americans with the attitudes towards black people too many of us have.

  3. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    It matters, though, in that the overwhelming majority of people throughout history who have used or heard the term “racism” throughout the last century or so since it was coined (to refer to something else entirely) and then more widely adopted have understood it to mean something very close to “prejudice, hatred, or discrimination against an individual based on that individual’s perceived ethnic ancestry and/or “[socially defined] color,” or against a grouping of people with similar ethnic ancestry or “color.””

    There is a case to be made that reinterpreting the term to be a junior synonym of “institutional racism” is a more useful definition that should come to be adopted as the general understanding of the term – Miri makes it here: for instance – but this is a case that needs to be made, whereas, despite some progress (Miri’s article existing, for instance, and I suppose this one too), I STILL somehow see people who should know better trying to present the new definition as though it were the only definition the term ever had and as though anyone using it the way most people have understand it and have historically understood it are being dishonest. >.>

  4. says


    I STILL somehow see people who should know better trying to present the new definition as though it were the only definition the term ever had and as though anyone using it the way most people have understand it and have historically understood it are being dishonest.

    yep. This is wrong, though it seems we’re in clear agreement on the fact that the definition of racism *does* matter.

    The biggest confusion and worst communication swamps I’ve seen have had to do with people using racism to mean institutionalized oppression on the basis of race in a document where that usage is appropriate (say an article in a critical race theory-oriented academic journal) and where the intended audience will read it correctly, *but* someone not the intended audience ends up reading it, misunderstands the authors’ point, and maligns the author for saying something that they never said. With this set up, if someone from the particular field or journal writes something assigning a meaning to the word racism authoritatively, shit completely blows up. People outside the field will complain that people inside the field are trying to control popular usage instead of merely trying to explain that this means something specific within the field and you can do what you want outside of that, but if you want to know what people in the field are saying you really have to understand the insiders’ jargon. Things get ALL. THE. MESSY.

    And yeah, I’ve seen people assert, unqualified, that “racism means X” which feels like an attempt to control all usages everywhere. In fact, I think it’s usually just people trying to explain what they mean and, being human, failing to add appropriate qualifiers like, “in this article, racism means X”. It’s not helped by the fact that there really are a few people who do try to control all the usages. In my experience that’s more likely to be the ones that believe that racism must always mean intentional racial prejudice/animus, but you know what they say about anecdotes & data, so I won’t assert that that tells us anything true at the community or population level.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *