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’.


  1. ashleyfmiller says

    Not sure if this is a useful data point, but I have that exact “Sally” conversation probably on a weekly basis because of my hair color.

  2. says

    It’s just generally a bad idea to assume that someone’s entire personality is reducible to a handful of physical characteristics (or in your case, a single one). While I recognize that stereotypes can be a useful heuristic, we’ve got to be more self-aware when we use them and recognize them as such.

    Thanks for commenting, ashleyfmiller.

  3. ashleyfmiller says

    I get that people are innately curious and people who look different are theoretically interesting. “You’re a ginger, what’s that like? Do people call you red? Does the carpet match? You must be Irish.” These are all variations, some more crotch kick worthy than others, on someone probably wanting to say, “I don’t know much about you, and I’m interested in this thing I’ve noticed that’s different.”

    So I guess it’s like a need to balance a tolerance for not quite appropriate questions in an attempt to educate and calling people on it.

    Separately, I’m totally with you on the Muslim thing. There are Muslims of every color of the rainbow, I don’t get how saying that Muslims are evil is at all racial. I was having this trouble on PZ’s page, hating Muslims, which I’m not saying is a good thing, is not racist. Hating Arabs is. Hating someone’s ideology is different than hating their immutable physical qualities.

  4. says

    Absolutely. I think an even better statement is to say “Islam is evil”, and not make it about the people at all. I don’t think Muslim people are any more or any less evil than Jewish people or atheist people; however, that religious tradition is being used successfully to justify horrific acts by suppressing the critical thinking abilities of the faithful. One can criticize the teachings without demonizing the followers themselves.

  5. Fred says

    No matter how much I wish it weren’t the case, I have to admit that I’m prone to racial biases in the same way that I’m susceptible to all kinds of other cognitive biases and errors. In both types of bias it can help to be aware of them, but even that doesn’t mean you won’t fall victim to them.

    Have you seen Project Implicit? It’s a series of online tests you can try out that judge your keyboard reaction times when categorizing lists of words into two groups. The timing differences between when you are grouping “similar” words/traits as opposed to “different” words/traits can reveal which words/races/gender roles, etc. you implicitly associate with each other.


    If anyone claims to be free from racial or other biases, you should make them try a few of those tests.

  6. says

    Obviously I think virtually nobody wants to be racist, but I think it’s a bit different from cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are genetically hard-wired into us, and I suppose an argument can be made that preferring one’s own race is genetic, but the sort of “reductive racism” we see wherein a person’s entire essence is boiled down to racial characteristics is likely a learned behaviour. If it can be learned, it can be unlearned.

    Thanks for commenting, Fred.

  7. says

    The feeling reading this is hauntingly familiar of past experiences when reading feminist blogs.

    I start out thinking/feeling: “I’m so not one of those sexist/racist assholes – I’m all enlightened and moral and shit. This is gonna be a very reinforcing article that will make me feel good about myself and superior to sexists and racists. Excellent.”

    The feeling holds for the first few paragraphs. Then suddenly the tone shifts – or I shift – and I start to realize that whatever the article is criticizing applies to me as well. It’s not a pleasant feeling – it’s like having the chair pulled out from under you.

    I’ve reacted badly to this in the past in the context of feminism: “How dare you accuse me of sexism! Stupid woman! You’re just saying that because I’m a man! I’m not sexist – you’re sexist!”

    In time I came around, though. I’ve never been a classical sexist in the sense that I think all women should forgo careers to stay home and raise babies. But there were – and still are – sexist tendencies. The biggest one, one I still struggle with, is general disdain for the intellectual capacity of women. I know that’s wrong and stupid and sexist, but the emotion is still there bubbling under the surface. I catch myself out every once and again. It doesn’t feel very uplifting – but acknowledging it is the first step towards doing something about it.

    This article had the same feel. When I hit the line “You’re racist” the first thing that popped into my head was: “What the fuck does he know? I’m not racist: I have brown friends! He’s just saying that because I’m white!”

    The second thought was: “Fuck, did I really just think that? Again? Damnit!

    The third thought was: “I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and I’ve enjoyed the intellect in the writing – and now I realize that I was surprised to learn the author was black. Fuck. He’s right.”

    The fourth thought was: “Damn, that was subtle – I didn’t even notice it.”

    So yeah – I didn’t enjoy the article, but for what it’s worth, it worked, and I completely agree with you: The very fact that ‘racist’ is such a emotional atom-bomb, the very fact that it is such a powerfully negative conversation killer – the fact that the mere utterance of the term can end whole careers – that makes people resist the label when they should really be acknowledging the problem so that they can work to fix or ameliorate it.

    Ending the conversation helps no-one.

  8. says

    Well Daniel, I’m sorry that I took you for a bit of a ride there, but I’m glad the article got you thinking. It’s never my intention to offend simply for offense’s sake. It’s really interesting to read your reaction.

    Thanks for the comment.

  9. TheBi says

    You got disagreed with (not yelled at) because you failed to understand that people realised that ‘racism’ was not the technically correct word to use, but chose to use it anyway because they felt it more useful and descriptive than ‘bigotry’ which is less used.
    You may disagree with that, but merely telling people the thing they already know (that racism technically only refers to racial bigotry) wasn’t useful at all so you got the expected result.

  10. says

    The point is that misusing an already poorly-defined word in service of an (erroneous) argument does the word and the underlying concept a disservice. Calling something ‘racism’ when it isn’t muddies the water of discourse, and when it isn’t even bigotry it makes matters much worse.

    Thanks for your comment

  11. says

    I found myself about to make a post about how much people indicate things as racist incorrectly and came here to look at your definition. My only concern with such a broad definition is that it may lead people to devalue the factors that determine ethnicity (language, customs, attitudes, etc.) and a mindset is created where people are no longer privy to cultural differences in the name of “color-blindness”.

  12. says

    I’m not sure how that would work. The issue is not whether or not we notice racial differences, it’s whether we begin to attribute more importance to those ethnic differences than is warranted. When we reduce a person to their racial identity, such that we form our opinions based on that rather than based on our interactions with them (which may include their language, customs, attitudes) that we begin to see racism.

    I have a post on colour-blindness you may be interested in checking out.

  13. says

    Let me give an example. I live in New York City, so I’ve interacted with dozens of different nationalities through my daily routines. You could say I have some what of an idea (at least for the most common nationalities represented in the city) of some of their religious and cultural customs; usually I can guess what neighborhood they live in and I can imagine what type of environment they grew up in.

    I think of this knowledge can be useful in understanding someone I come in contact with. I also think it is more important to be flexible and recognizing my assumptions will not always be true and to constant test and alter them, rather than to discard this knowledge because of the risk of possibly stereotyping them unfairly.

  14. says

    But when you make the leap and assume, based on group characteristics, that someone you come into contact with had a certain upbringing, what happens when they don’t? My upbringing was certainly nothing like what people think they know about the Caribbean community in Canada, and I don’t appreciate it when people make the contrary assumption. It’s another thing entirely to ask questions “So you’re ________; did you grow up with ________?”, but to immediately leap to the conclusion that ethnic membership means a monolithic experience is racist.

  15. collinmerenoff says

    I don’t think it’s possible to make a statement about the behavior of a group of people without implicitly referring to those people. As you said, Islam is being used. Nobody knows what Mohammed’s intentions were for the future of Islam. We only know what people did with his teachings, and Jihadism is a more recent phenomenon. I think you could say Jihadism is evil, because it’s defined behaviors include people performing or assisting in acts of mass murder. The official classification of Jihadism as a sect of Islam is irrelevant. Islam is simply being used — or more specifically, perverted — to justify the terrorist mission.

    I’ve heard it said that most people have nothing positive to say about Islam. And I don’t. So what? There are many things I can’t speak positively of: bocce ball, stamp collecting, carrot juice, etc. But that’s just because I don’t understand them the same way their adherents do.

    It’s currently fashionable for terrorists to call themselves Muslims. We don’t understand Islam well enough to call their bull. However, the terrorists’ acts speak for themselves as a reason to suspect them as abysmal deceivers.

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